Women and Diversity in Tech: Disruption and Inclusion

Despite years of investment in diversity training and initiatives, the level of diversity in tech has barely moved from what it was a decade ago. To understand the reasons why and explore possible solutions, VMware held a Spotlight Session at VMworld 2017 U.S.:  “Women and Diversity in Tech: Disruption and Inclusion.”

The discussion was led by Betsy Sutter, VMware’s chief people officer, and featured Dirk Hohndel, VMware’s vice president and chief open source officer; Kathy Chou, VMware’s vice president, Research & Development Operations; Nithya Ruff, senior director, Comcast; Julie Ray, senior vice president and enterprise CIO, Fannie Mae; and Robin Hauser, documentary film director, producer, and entrepreneur.

Sutter set the tone for the evening, saying that for technology—an industry that prides itself on disruption and shaping the future—the time for disrupting itself and for improving the lack of diversity has arrived. “VMware is committed to disrupting not just VMware,” Sutter said, “but the entire industry.”

Instilling Accountability

Panelists agreed that solutions to the diversity issue in an industry that is more than 90 percent male and often characterized by a “bro culture” would need to start from the top, with corporate commitment and leadership, and from the bottom, with fellow engineers becoming allies and champions of women on their project teams.

Ruff spoke about diversity as being fundamental to open source and to Silicon Valley maintaining its leadership in technology. Diversity is key, Ruff said, to understanding “how to work across different communities and companies.” The business case for inclusion is clear, Ruff said, as companies across the technology industry confront a growing talent shortage in attracting, retaining, and developing top-flight engineers. Addressing the isolation of women in engineering roles is key to changing both the lack of diversity and the talent shortage. “Most women find themselves the only woman on their engineering teams,” she said. Ruff also stressed that diversity is not the same as inclusion.

Diversity is inviting someone to a dance. Inclusion is asking that person to dance.

Nithya Ruff, Senior Director, Comcast

Understanding Unconscious Bias

Hauser, director and producer of the award-winning documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap and upcoming new documentary called Bias, of which VMware is a proud sponsor, spoke to the unconscious bias that all humans have and the devastating role bias can play in excluding women and people of color from the technology workplace. “We can’t understand our own bias,” Hauser said, “but bias becomes self-perpetuating.” Hauser said that research shows that companies with diverse workforces realize 25 percent higher financial performance. The reality is that by the year 2020, more than 1,000,000 more jobs will be needed in tech. “This is a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ moment,” Hauser said. “The jobs are going to be there.”

Creating an Inclusive Environment

Chou spoke to the need for everyone to engage in the effort to make technology more inclusive. “Men need to be the allies for women and minorities,” she said. Hohndel added that it is incumbent upon everyone “to create an environment in which everyone can be comfortable” in order to realize true inclusion. Ray argued for changing the technology workplace culture to create a work/life balance that would benefit everyone.

Are We There Yet?

“Are we there yet?” Chou asked. While the answer is clearly not yet, conversations like this one, in a high-profile forum such as VMworld, promote and highlight the challenges and potential solutions to help close the gap. They help push the technology industry one step closer to understanding how to achieve true diversity and inclusion. Chou answered her own question: “No, but we are an ally and an advocate.” And that is a start.

Watch the video for highlights from this dynamic discussion.

VMworld 2017 Recap: Click here to get the VMworld 2017 top-line keynotes, session highlights, and key innovation insights.