Women in Tech: challenging negative attitudes

Last week the conversation about women in technology took a nasty trip into surfacing some of the unspoken (mostly) negative beliefs about the downside of employing young women in technology because they will take maternity leave to have babies.

We heard these attitudes in the 80’s and 90’s. But based on some of the reactions to Toronto web developer and designer Lyndsay Kirkham’s twitter storm, about an overheard conversation, it seems it’s still a minefield.  Whether or not you agree with her decision to tweet these tech managers’ negative comments in a private conversation, it does raise an important topic.  And an important opportunity to engage in the conversation for greater understanding and moving forward to create more positive work cultures which will support more women in technology.

First, in case the “overheard at lunch tech group” hasn’t, the legislative ship has sailed.  There is government-legislated anti discrimination, maternity and parental leave, and companies operating in Canada must work within the frameworks that govern employee standards.

One might also presume the negative attitude and beliefs ship might also have sailed by now.  Apparently there are still straggling boats in the flotilla.  What’s concerning about these attitudes, toward young women in particular, is the presumption that they are a “cost” or “negative” to the employer, and ignores their contribution to the employer.  These attitudes ignore that all employees can leave a company, have an illness, injury or exceptional personal circumstance which could take them out of the workforce for a period of time.  These are the risks employers bear.

These negative attitudes further ignore that the current generation of young parents have views that both fathers and mothers are very engaged in their children’s lives, as well as their careers.  The new parenting and childcare models they create in their families aren’t one size fits all.  To the benefit of families, children and even employers, some young men choose to take parental leave while their wives continue in the workforce.

Navigating parental leave ideally invites employers to have specific conversations to take into account each particular employee.  Women in key roles or leadership positions may need or want to find the balance of being home on maternity leave with their baby and staying in touch with their work.   For example, one company created a “maternity stay” program where their key or senior women were offered a top up to their salary to 90 per cent in exchange for specific engagements and participation during their maternity leave.  These women also had the option to choose a full maternity leave, with a lower income supplement by the company.  What worked here was that this company and their employees created, a specific solution that worked for these key women, with external guidance and facilitation of the process.  Likewise conversations with young fathers can support their parental leave with babies and young children.

Beyond individuals and their roles, companies must continue to engage their employees, especially their managers and leaders, in broader conversations about values and attitudes which underly workplace culture.  As we’ve seen last week, even in officially diverse, women and family friendly workplaces,  it can take attitudes a while to catch up as evidenced by the group in the “overheard” conversation.

I know there are leaders in tech companies who value diversity and want to see more women in technology. It’s imperative for you to hold the broader conversations, to open up your team or company to greater understanding, positivity and productivity — what kind of workplace culture is your business creating?


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Cheryl Sylvester
Cheryl Sylvesterhttp://beyondsuccessleadership.com/
Cheryl Sylvester is a Leadership Coach, Brand Communications consultant and W100 Business Owner. A perpetual idea generator, entrepreneurship cheerleader, and wanna-be geek, her clients include Novell, PlateSpin, Mozilla, HP, Tenscores & Polar. She writes about Leadership, Communications, Entrepreneurship and Women in technology. Cheryl can be reached via email at [email protected]

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