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Want more women in tech at your company? Make it a focus

Commentary: The design thinking process behind tech development should be applied to diversity efforts, says one of Intuit's top technologists.

When I was 5 years old, I emigrated from Haiti with my family to the United States. Speaking only Creole and French, I was ridiculed mercilessly at school and felt like an outsider. Thankfully, I found a common language that I could communicate through despite having an accent: math.

My passion for math led me to a career in computer science, starting as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems and various other roles in Silicon Valley before working my way up as the vice president of Product and Technology Operations at Intuit. Along the way, many people helped me by investing in my progress. I've been fortunate to have had a great experience working in the tech industry and as a result, supporting women in tech has become an important issue to me.

The importance of diversity

Supporting women needs to be a top focus for organizations as well. Innovation thrives where there is diversity of thought. At technology companies, the people who invent technology should be as diverse as the people who use it. For any company that wants to compete and win, this is not up for debate.  

At Intuit, women make up a significant portion of both our workforce and our customers. Today, 42 percent of Intuit's US employees are women. They're in 31 percent of technical jobs, and they make up 40 percent of our CEO's staff, which represents the most senior leaders in the company. As we look to the future, one trend we see is that the majority of our customers will be women. Our technical teams don't yet reflect this, but we're working to get there as fast as possible.

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While HR leads recruiting and professional development, there needs to be ongoing support once tech women join a company, says Merline Saintil, who heads product and tech operations at Intuit.

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In an effort to help recruit, retain and advance women in technology roles at every level, several years ago we created an initiative called Tech Women at Intuit, which is committed to providing development and growth opportunities for women in technical roles. While we are still evolving our program, we've learned a few things since its start:

Take it beyond HR. Though the human resources department leads recruiting and professional development, there needs to be ongoing support once tech women join a company. We have a full-time staff position dedicated to women in tech initiatives -- funded by the technology organization -- to develop programs that go both broad and narrow. We focus on assessing what women need to get to the next level and working with them so they're set up to be successful.

For example, one area for improvement we found was to encourage more executive sponsorship for women in our technology organization. In fact, the Harvard Business Review discovered that professionals undervalue a network of executive sponsors. Women are 54 percent less likely than men to have a sponsor. This can have a dramatic impact on a woman's career.

As a result, at the leadership level, our chief technical officer has asked each of his direct reports to sponsor a tech woman to help her achieve her career goals. Such a program can act as a pilot for launching mentorship and sponsorship efforts at scale across your organization.

Innovate for diversity like you do for tech. The design thinking process can be applied to your diversity efforts. Empathize by listening to your employees to uncover roadblocks. Define the problem you're going to solve. This means choosing the critical few and leaving others untouched, at least for the time being. Ideate with a big enough group so you can gather diverse potential solutions. What works for midcareer tech women, for instance, may not be ideal for those in early career. Prototype rapidly at a small scale to try out your ideas. Finally, test by including a feedback loop so you know what's working and what you need to adjust.

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Women are 54 percent less likely than men to have a sponsor. This can have a dramatic impact on a woman's career.

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We used this process to improve the retention of tech women, which can mean different things at different points in a career. We've seen that early career women want to form small networking circles, but they don't necessarily have the experience to establish momentum. For them, we developed a series of workshops on topics like executive presence, building a personal brand and conflict management. At our India campus, one listening effort resulted in an innovative program called Intuit Again, aimed at bringing midcareer technical women back into the workforce after a break in service. For senior women, we partner with organizations like Athena Alliance, which can help them prepare for their first board membership opportunity.

Demystify what it takes to advance. In one of our listening tours, we learned that many female engineers shy away from architect roles because they don't know what they are. Shedding light on the different career paths and responsibilities can encourage more women to explore more senior technical roles. At Intuit, we've combined this with a sponsorship effort in which architects work with high-performing senior technical women to facilitate the transition to an architect role.

Organizations like Watermark in the Bay Area also offer resources, networking events and workshops and panels to support more women in leadership positions.

Build a community. Tech Women @ Intuit (TWI) is also a grassroots community we've built. We often hear that the most valuable part of the events we hold is the opportunity to network with other technical women. If you're a good-size company with multiple locations, people will crave a sense of community that connects them with each other.

If you are starting off on building a community of technical women, the National Center for Women & Information Technology is a great organization to leverage. They have a variety of different resources, statistics, workshops and programs to help you build a community within your organization.

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Make sure women see themselves represented in leadership. Senior leaders at Intuit are actively involved in promoting tech women in the workplace, including serving on the Intuit TWI board. We also have men on our TWI board, leaning in to fix the problem. In addition to making up 40 percent of our CEO's staff, women constitute 40 percent of Intuit's board of directors. It's such an important issue for our CTO that he won't make a senior hiring decision without seeing candidates of both genders.

Support at the start. To build a workforce of tech women tomorrow, companies need to fill the pipeline now. We partner with organizations for middle schoolers and high school students, such as Technovation, a global entrepreneurship program, and Girls Who Code, which introduces girls to computer science at a young age. Universities like Harvey Mudd and my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, are beginning to have a positive impact on the number of women in computer science, with both nearing gender parity in their computer science programs. Our recruiting efforts tap into those universities and others that have strong programs for women.

Though we can't yet claim that Intuit has achieved gender parity, through a persistent focus on attracting, retaining and advancing women in technology, we can help move the needle to get us there faster. It is up to each of us at all levels of an organization to support this effort and to continue to pay it forward to the next generation of women technologists.

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