Synchrony CIO: U.S. companies need more walk, less talk on gender parity

Carol Juel, CIO of Synchrony Financial, discusses steps needed to attract more women to STEM.
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Diversity is on the minds of many STEM leaders, particularly in Silicon Valley. But many tech leaders say that the industry needs to include more voices – particularly female voices – in the conversation about talent and diversity. 

Also, there's plenty of talk, but how do you accomplish the walk? Female CIOs bring a special perpective to that question.

[What are some creative ways to foster diversity in IT? Read our related article, How to build more diverse IT teams: 3 strategies. ]

In this interview, Carol Juel, CIO of Synchrony Financial, talks about the tech talent gap, Girls Who Code, and actionable steps companies can take to create diversity in IT.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Why has diversity been a continuous challenge in Silicon Valley?

Juel: I think it goes back to the beginning of personal computing. The mass marketing to support the early PC market was targeted almost exclusively to boys. That is a shame as women had an important role in the evolution of computing – pioneers like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Adele Goldstine, and the female ENIAC programmers to name a few. That imbalance put girls and women at a serious disadvantage in the emerging field of computing.

Sadly, 1984 marked the peak of women who were graduated from U.S. colleges with a degree in computer science, with women representing 37 percent of all computer science graduates in the U.S. Now the number is less than half that, at 18 percent. That drop is not an anomaly, it is indicative of a disturbing trend that has been building for decades.

The media stereotypes that took hold in the 1980s from movies like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Weird Science” also factored into women opting out of computer science as a field of study. This has led to the rise of the “brogrammer” culture, with women now drastically underrepresented in this important field.

TEP: A common reply from tech employers is that jobs are available, but they lack qualified candidates. How much of this gap is real and, if so, what is the main cause of it?

Juel: It’s real. All companies are becoming more technology-centric and there is a war for qualified technology talent. Areas like information security are seeing negative unemployment.

By 2020, it’s estimated that there will be more than 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields. But U.S. graduates are on track to fill just 29 percent of those jobs, with women on track to fill just three percent. We clearly need to do a better job of filling the pipeline of technology talent to pull from.

One answer is to get more women interested and involved in technology roles. Women make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force and receive more college degrees and advanced degrees than men do, but they fill less than 25 percent of technology jobs.

TEP: So how do we reverse the trend of women opting out of computing careers?

Juel: First, we need to challenge the stereotypes that have existed for far too long, by celebrating pioneering female technologists and nurturing girls’ interest in computing. Second, we need to be aware of the unconscious biases that led to this situation. Professor Myra H. Strober of Stanford University and others have noted that executives tend to choose successors who are like themselves. With women accounting for less than 20 percent of the CIOs at top U.S. firms – and only 11 percent in the technology sector – unconscious biases can perpetuate gender inequality in technology management if not addressed.

To get girls and women more involved at all levels of computing requires access, education, and mentoring. It also demands a concerted effort to include girls and women in the design of technology products – as well as marketing technology products, technology classes, and technology careers to them.

TEP: What impact do programs like Girls Who Code have on the market?

Juel: Girls Who Code is already having an impact breaking down stereotypes and gender barriers in STEM fields. In its first five years of existence, Girls Who Code has already reached more than 30,000 girls (more than three times the number of girls who graduated with a degree in Computer Science last year) and there are now Girls Who Code programs in all 50 states.

TEP: What’s the upside for companies to participate in these programs? 

Juel: There are multiple benefits to hosting these programs, but one key perk is that it gives us a chance to identify tomorrow’s leaders, an important competitive advantage for any business. Catalyst research has shown that women, particularly women in leadership roles, are good for the bottom line.

It’s more than just altruism. As women drive 70-80 percent of all consumer purchases, it also makes good business sense for companies to involve this important demographic. As technology permeates every aspect of society, we need a more diverse workforce developing the technology of the future. 

TEP: How can tech companies further encourage STEM paths for women?

Juel: Corporate America needs to get involved with the training, educating, and mentoring of young women who are in, or thinking about entering, the computer science field. With organizations like Girls Who Code, Girls in Tech, Ignite, WITI, Catalyst and other female mentoring programs available to help, there are no excuses.

Programs like this are an important counterbalance to the decades-long male bias that has contributed to a lack of women in technology. We cannot sit back and wait for gender parity to happen. We must create it now with an all-out effort on technology training and careers that target girls and women. The culture of tech companies cannot change if women aren’t in the room.

Damon Brown is a consultant and advisor for potential entrepreneurs, budding startups and established media companies. Damon’s latest book, "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur: 21 Ways to Ignite Your Passion & Pursue Your Side Hustle," shares the tactics he used to lead his last startup, Cuddlr, to acquisition within a year.


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