As Quickly as Technology Company’s Move, Some Things Still Take a Long Time

Women in technology face a scarcity of resources from lack of role models and mentors, to missing out on promotions, in an industry where they are already less than one quarter of the workforce. Although companies recognize the disparity, there’s no consensus as to how the problems can be corrected, making the business even more isolating for female employees.

What’s Holding Back Women in Tech?

by Lindsay Gellman and Georgia Wells.

Women are underrepresented at all levels of technology firms, a report by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org finds.

Technology companies have disrupted other industries with apps that dispatch cars, housekeepers or pizzas in a matter of minutes. But tech firms lag behind those old-line businesses when it comes to advancing women.

That is the main finding of a McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org report on the status of women in tech. Not only are women underrepresented at all levels of technology firms, particularly in key engineering, product and finance roles, researchers found, but plenty of those women also believe that their gender is holding them back at work.

Big companies including Cisco Systems Inc.and Microsoft Corp. are tackling the talent pipeline, investing in programs to encourage and mentor girls and young women studying science, technology, engineering and math fields that typically launch tech careers. Researchers found that women make up 36.8% of entry-level workers in tech; in other industries, women account for nearly half of entry-level workers.

Yet the data, gathered from 26 tech companies and a survey of about 9,000 male and female employees, suggests that women currently in tech feel pessimistic about the climate in their companies. Some 29.9% of female tech employees polled said they felt gender played a role in their missing a promotion or raise, and 37.1% of female tech employees said they felt their gender would disadvantage them in the future. In nontech fields, a smaller share of women—21.6% and 22.8% respectively—felt that way.

Some female executives say that stems from a paucity of women leading tech companies. “If you can’t see an example of what you could be, you really aren’t going to have that extra incentive to break through any types of barriers,” said Julia Hartz, co-founder and president of online ticketing platform Eventbrite Inc.t

At a Wall Street Journal event in San Francisco Monday, several prominent tech executives said the most effective way to create a more diverse workforce is for the heads of technology firms to lead by example.

Padmasree Warrior, U.S. chief executive of electric auto startup NextEV Inc., said she asks her recruiting team daily for a list of diverse candidates. Now her team tells her who the candidates are without her needing to ask, she said.

Facebook Inc. and Pinterest Inc. have tried out an approach known as the Rooney Rule, which requires that at least one woman or underrepresented minority be interviewed for open jobs. The Rooney rule was born in the National Football League as a way to ensure that teams interviewed minority candidates for head-coaching jobs.

Cisco is ensuring that job candidates encounter at least one interviewer of their same gender or ethnicity, a practice that has resulted in a roughly 50% increase in the odds a woman will be hired for a given position, said Ruba Borno, a Cisco vice president and chief of staff to Chief Executive Chuck Robbins.

About 36% of female tech employees hold product-development or engineering roles, according to the data, versus about 57% of men. Hearsay Social Inc., a maker of predictive-analytics software for companies, wants to equip more staff, including women, to take on such roles, said Clara Shih, its co-founder and CEO. Hearsay has begun holding an in-house coding academy for employees; two customer-support representatives, both women, have switched to software-engineering roles as a result, Ms. Shih said.

The data builds on Women in the Workplace, a 2015 McKinsey and LeanIn study that tracked the progress of women in 118 firms across industries and polled tens of thousands of men and women about the issues surrounding women in corporate life.

Both men and women in the tech industry face challenges balancing work and family. Among tech employees, roughly 40% of men and women said their jobs make it harder for them to do things for their families. Netflix Inc. and Inc., among others, have introduced new parental-leave benefits, in part to allay those worries.

Still, despite the generous new benefits, many women believe they will face setbacks at work for taking time off. Elisa Steele, Jive Software Inc.’s CEO, said she makes a point to meet with women who are pregnant at her company to emphasize that their jobs will be waiting for them when they return.

Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk Inc., the maker of 3-D design software, agreed. “As a leader, it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you do, and employees sense it immediately. If you say it is fine to take maternity leave, but then don’t promote the person who took maternity leave, employees get the message,” he said.

The predominantly male cultures at many tech companies can make them lonely places for women, said Caroline Simard, senior director of research at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, which works with companies to identify and root out gender bias.

“When you’re the only woman in the room, such as in a top leadership position in a tech company, that feeling of isolation on a day-to-day basis can be difficult,” Ms. Simard said.

The problem is compounded when women don’t find mentors among their company’s predominantly male leadership. Autodesk’s Mr. Bass said men need to play a bigger role in mentoring women. “In too many companies, the role of mentoring women is left to other women,” he said.

Some men worry that company efforts to help women get ahead will hurt men. “I have heard men say, ‘What about the boys? Are we putting them at a disadvantage?’” said Cisco’s Ms. Borno, who acknowledges these concerns, but doesn’t feel they should carry the day. “Look, change is hard. We’re going to be facing that as an industry.”