Gender diversity in STEM starts from the ground up

As the gender divide in STEM pervades, DATAx speaks with Sash Sunkara, female co-founder of Rackware, about how the industry can address the issue at its root

23Jan

While the gender divide in STEM careers is now widely acknowledged and significant measures are being taken to address the astonishing gulf, it's far from being a problem that we can leave behind in 2018. Only 11% of executive positions in Silicon Valley are awarded to female employees, while just 5% of all tech startups are owned by women, according to the Observer. Although attitudes toward women in STEM are changing, these intimidating stats inescapably deter women from pursuing careers within the tech industry.

Yet women's reluctance to enter the field and reluctance from some companies to have them onboard does not reflect how effective they can be in STEM roles. A 2016 study published by the University of California revealed that big California companies with at least a handful of women at the top performed considerably better than businesses with mostly male boards and executives. Among the 25 firms with the highest percentage of women execs and board members, researchers found that median returns on assets and equity in 2015 were at least 74% higher than among the overall group of companies surveyed.

It is clear that tackling the gender divide is key to unlocking potentially world-changing innovations within the STEM field.

To talk about the best methods of addressing this tech chasm, DATAx spoke with Sash Sunkara, co-founder of Rackware, an enterprise software company taking the growing hybrid cloud market by storm, who will be speaking at the DATAx Leadership Summit, part of DATAx San Francisco.

"The biggest challenge I've faced as a female founder is trying to raise capital," Sunkara tells us. She has been in tech for a long time, rising through the ranks, first at HP, then as an executive at Brocade.

"Most of the time I was the only woman in the room, but I never really faced issues until I became a founder," she notes. "Because most VCs have partners who are white males, it took a couple of years to raise the initial round of founding and I actually ended up having to go outside of Sand Hill to Salt Lake City to get funding."

The reluctance to invest that Sunkara faced turned out to be completely unfounded, as Rackware ended up raising three rounds of funding and has subsequently been profitable since 2016.

Unfortunately, Sunkara's story is not an unusual one. According to Fortune, only 4.4% of VC funding went into female led startups in 2017. And this was a record-breaking year.

"I've tried to promote diversity throughout my career, but now I'm in a position to have an impact I really encourage our management team to look for diversity," says Sunkara. "And I don't do that just to be a good citizen, it's because it actually gives you a competitive edge. Having a team with different backgrounds and different experiences that can provide different opinions allows you to be creative in solving problems.

"If you look at my competition most of their management team look all the same," she continues. "They probably came from the same schools with all the same backgrounds and they are probably going to solve problems all the same way. Yet to be a startup, to really compete against the bigger players, you need to be creative and think outside the box and solve problems in a different way. A diverse workforce allows you to do that."

One very popular way that has been put forward to tackle the gender divide issue is to implement positive discrimination in STEM company's recruitment process. Does Sunkara rate this as a method of encouraging gender diversity in the workplace?

"Quotas are quotas," Sunkara remarks.

"Maybe it is, or maybe it isn't, but I think that – quotas aside – providing programs that bring women up so you have more of a pool to hire from is the right thing to do," she argues. It is Sunkara's belief that rather than focusing on hiring in the current generation we look to the next generation and start working on initiatives now.

"That way, it's not just about recruiters hiring X amount of diverse folk, it's about saying: Lets invest in lower education in programs like STEM to make sure different folks get access to science and math; let's encourage them to go into science and math; let's ensure that there's after school programs allowing different ethnic groups as well as women to participate in STEM subjects.

"Another thing that helps is people like myself reaching out and making sure that the next generation has opportunities available to them so in five-to-10 years we have a pool of people that we're hiring from," she adds. "Then hiring the right mix of men and women will be so much easier to do and will not just be a case of meeting a quota."

For Sunkara, empowering the next generation of women starts at home.

"I have two daughters and I'm always encouraging them to participate in math and science," she tells us. "I've also worked with several organizations to provide more science courses so women were able to participate and encouraged to see STEM as a direction their career can take.

"We've had an internship program at our company for several years and we've had 50% female interns every year – one year it was actually 100% female – so we're really trying to encourage high levels of diversity from the off."

Sunkara says that the key to encouraging women in STEM is for women in leadership positions to simply spend time with them, showing them that it is a career they can aspire to.

As we conclude our conversation, Sunkara is insistent that diversity initiatives are not just a case of playing lip-service but are crucial to success.

"We're actively trying to recruit from all over to find female staff because, to be perfectly honest, the women who work for us are top performers, both on the development and the test side.

"It's a focus for us. It might be incredibly challenging, but it continues to be a focus."

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