HR Management & Compliance

Closing the Gap: Achieving Gender Equality in Tech Leadership

Our founder and CEO, J Schwan, approached me a few years ago to discuss a big opportunity: Solstice needed its first chief operating officer.

Our ranks had swelled from 46 to over 250 since I joined, and I was incredibly honored to be considered. The offer was an affirmation of my career accomplishments to date, and there was no doubt of the necessity of the new role for the business. But in that moment, I said no. I turned the offer down.

I was taken aback by being considered for something I had only dreamed of almost a decade before. Would I be good enough? What if I made mistakes or failed? I had always treasured the sense of security, and this leap seemed like a big risk in my head.

From an early age, many women are taught that it’s necessary to be perfect. This creates a never-ending process of introspection, challenges with self-confidence, and risk avoidance for fear of coming up short. Ultimately, we, as women, are taught that unless we are perfect, we are not good enough. This was a big opportunity for me but an even bigger risk.

Luckily for me, J was and continues to be an incredible executive sponsor to so many of the leaders at Solstice and throughout our parent organization, Kin + Carta, where he currently serves as CEO. He saw the promise in me that I had trouble seeing in myself at times.

I did ultimately throw my hat in the ring, and I was promoted to COO in March 2016—the second woman to join our leadership team. Kelly Manthey, the current CEO of Solstice, had been promoted as the first chief strategy officer a few months earlier. Last year, Sharon Ray joined Solstice as our first chief people officer.

Today, we’re extremely proud at Solstice to say that 60% of our C-suite is female. But that’s not the end of the story—it’s just the beginning.

We, like many firms in Chicago and around the United States, have plenty of work ahead of us when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, specifically in leadership roles in tech.

I believe deeply that we need to move with greater urgency to address this issue.

ITA Benchmark Report: Gender Gaps Still Exist

Illinois Technology Association (ITA) recently released a study of gender equality within the leadership of 300 companies in Chicago. The report states:

“Our research seems to suggest a bias against women on executive teams. Just 26% of women hold one of the 1,100 Vice President (VP) or Senior Vice President (SVP) positions at the companies evaluated. Female representation dwindles even further as we look at higher rungs on the corporate ladder. Of the 922 current C-suite positions, women held only 13.6% of them. Only 6% of CEO positions at the 300 companies are held by women. In comparison to the McKinsey study, Chicago tech companies are lagging behind national levels, where women hold twenty-three percent of C-suite positions.”

This is not to imply that there aren’t incredibly capable female executives ready to assume leadership roles—quite the opposite, in fact. “McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2018 study highlights that women have been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men for over 30 years.” But since the annual study began in 2015, progress in boosting women’s representation in corporate America has stalled.

Despite the fact that time and time again, studies show that companies with adequate female representation within their leadership outperform their peers, the lack of progress still exists.

In an expanded analysis of another international McKinsey study, the research found that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity in executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.”

Research firm MSCI studied more than 600 large and midsize companies and found that “those with three or more women on the board had a median productivity 1.2 percentage points above those in their respective industries.”

Making Progress

There are some bright spots.

According to executive-search firm Heidrick & Struggles, “in 2017 women accounted for 38% of all newly named directors at Fortune 500 companies, the highest percentage since they started tracking in 2009.”

Powerful women are the face of technology leadership in our nation, such as YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. These are a few inspirations who have taken the leap and who continue to defy gravity and are resilient and successful.

Many of our most vocal and visible outlets in Chicago are working hard to do their part. ITA officially launched the Women Influence Chicago initiative, which completed the aforementioned benchmark report. And Crain’s is launching an increasing number of initiatives to raise the visibility of successful female leaders. We were honored to have Manthey nominated to last year’s all-female Tech50.

We need to keep this momentum going.

Addressing the Issue: Hire. Sponsor. Encourage.

As a result of the ITA study, we at Solstice further examined our percentages across the firm. Of our senior leaders in the firm (principals, directors, and VPs), currently, 30% are female. While we were unable to find a comparable industry benchmark, we do not believe by our own standards that this is good enough.

The next steps I recommend for every organization are those that we as an organization are actively working to implement: Hire, sponsor, and encourage.

Hire: This challenge starts with the hiring process, and many studies have shown that subconscious biases influence hiring decisions even today. Talk about these biases with your HR/Employee Experiences teams and with others throughout your organization. Look at your stats. If your total applicant pool is diversified but your actual hires are not, you should take another look at your process.

Sponsor: Champion change by sponsoring and mentoring a female executive. I personally know many executives who have not had the benefit of strong mentors like J in their careers. Even one 15-minute meeting a week or monthly check-ins can make an enormous difference.

Encourage: Quite possibly the most important thing of all is this: Encourage and support the female professionals in your life. Paying a sincere compliment can take as little as 30 seconds, but it can help build confidence that lasts a lifetime.

When it comes to gender equality within the workplace, we can all be the change we want to see in this world. Generations of future leaders and the success of our organizations are depending on it.

Marisa Mann is the COO of Solstice | Kin + Carta.

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