Women make up almost half of the workforce in the United States, but they lag far behind men in leadership positions. Unsurprisingly, the percentage of women drops even more the higher in corporate ranks one climbs. In 2021, they held just over 20% of C-suite positions on the S&P/TSX composite index. Only 15% of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs. The pandemic forced more women than men out of the workforce, so we may see these trends continue into the foreseeable future.
Of course, the problem isn’t confined to the workplace — it starts much earlier in life. To see more female leaders in tech, you need more females in tech, period. Young girls often feel discouraged from pursuing their interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in middle and high school, but fortunately we are starting to see some changes. In India, where I serve in a leadership role at Exterro’s Coimbatore office, 43% of STEM graduates are women.
Unfortunately, closing the education gap hasn’t yet leveled the playing field in the professional world. In India, only 14% of STEM workers are women. In the US, the situation is improving, but it isn’t that much better, with women making up 27% of STEM workers. Many women experience persistent challenges dealing with “bro culture,” which no doubt discourages them from persisting in positions.
Fortunately, not all companies have this issue. Exterro, a legal technology industry leader operating in e-discovery, privacy compliance, and digital forensics, has a long-standing commitment to female leadership. I joined as chief data scientist in 2014, and have recently added the title of chief research and development officer. Michelle Spencer, our CFO, has been with the company since 2018. When we decided our company needed a general counsel, we added Jenny Hamilton, and most recently, when we had to replace our chief customer officer (another woman), we did so by hiring Debora Jones as our new chief operating officer.
The benefits of diverse leadership are clear not only to Exterro, but in the tech sector at large. “LegalTech combines two historically male-dominated fields, the law and technology, so it is even more important to be deliberate in hiring women at all levels of the company,” Jones said. “But it is critical to hire diverse leaders of all kinds. There are many studies that show companies with diverse perspectives perform better than companies without.” In fact, tech companies with women leaders reap tangible benefits. Firms where 30% of leaders are women have a 15% increase in profitability
compared with similar firms with no female leaders, according to research from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. And firms with female leadership reap downstream benefits as well, serving as a more attractive employer for women and taking active steps to mentor women at all stages of their careers.
In many places, Jones explained, “It can be more challenging for women to break in because there aren’t as many champions. Companies, especially fast-growing ones, tend to hire people they know — and people tend to know others who look like them. That makes breaking into these fast-growing companies difficult.” When all the leaders of a company are men, even men that value diversity, it can often translate into an unconscious bias that disadvantages women.
Having women in leadership roles — and participating at all levels of an organization — transforms its culture. Hamilton, who joined Exterro from John Deere, a former client, talked about the appeal of an inclusive culture in her decision to join Exterro: “It’s a culture of respect, where different points of view aren’t just tolerated — they’re encouraged.”
In many ways, opportunities for women in tech are increasing. Companies better understand the value of diversity, and are feeling pressure from customers, employees, and shareholders alike to offer opportunities to all. Exterro is a good example of an organization that offers women the ability to grow and lead — and fortunately more and more tech companies are joining in a push toward equity. Jones encourages women to seize opportunities with vigor.
“Presume you belong, presume you’re qualified, and presume you’ll succeed,” Jones said. “I have never been fully prepared for any job I have taken. I have never been 100% qualified for any opportunity I have been offered. You can’t let your self-doubt and self-questioning get in the way. There are times where I have really stretched my skills, but in those moments, asking for help is ok. Don’t take yourself out of the opportunity before it arises.”