THE BLOG

Breaking Through

10/03/2015 12:49 GMT | Updated 09/05/2015 10:59 BST

We are living and doing business in exciting times; new technologies are creating new opportunities for women to break through

I don't look like the typical Silicon Valley CEO, and today, as one of only a handful of female African American CEOs in the Valley, I often find myself in a unique position. Silicon Valley is home to some of the smartest, most innovative, and most successful individuals and companies on the planet. But many would be surprised to learn that Silicon Valley is also one of the most high profile examples of gender inequality. In fact, over the last year or so, several leading tech companies have come forward with numbers that reveal just how bad the problem really is; Facebook, Apple and Google have workforces that are less than 35 percent female. Microsoft's workforce is as low as 16 percent female. Statistics aside, I commend these companies for sharing their employee demographic data, as it has become the basis for conversation and change.

On a positive note, in the last decade, we've seen the start-up playing field transform; new funding platforms provide new channels and greater access to capital. Cloud infrastructure, software and services enable companies to form with lower capital requirements. As a result, we are seeing more women in Silicon Valley start their own businesses. However, we are still missing the mark when it comes to the number of women working in technology, especially women in executive management positions in technology. There are a few reasons for this.

First, many employers use the same tried and true recruitment tactics that have always worked. However, we have a talent shortage in Silicon Valley. We have to get more creative about the kinds of candidates we are looking for, and the places we will find them. I don't think that this approach of mandated quotas is the answer, as quotas have the potential to become more like a "check-list" than a true strategic approach to fixing a problem. Instead, I believe in setting hiring targets and then tracking performance against those targets. This can also help bring focus and transparency to the hiring process.

Second, once hired, many women leave before they reach the most senior levels. Research findings indicate that on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders, 41% of highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists are women. But the dropout rates are huge: Over time 52% of these talented women quit their jobs. Most strikingly, this female exodus is not a steady trickle. Rather, there seems to be a key moment in women's lives -- in their mid to late thirties -- when most head for the door.

Third, when you look at the pipeline of candidates, it becomes clear that there is a lack of female students pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects. A recent report revealed that while 70 percent of females age 14 to 16 show interest in studying STEM subjects, teachers are more likely to encourage males to take these subjects. According to UCAS admissions in 2014, 20,000 more male students were accepted to study engineering compared to female students and, in computing science, there were 17,000 more male students accepted. This is highly problematic, as STEM skills are the ones needed to build and lead the most exciting technology companies of tomorrow.

So what is the solution? There are a few.

Encourage mentorship and sponsorship. Mentoring is something I'm deeply passionate about. Having someone who you can bounce ideas off of, and someone who can give you feedback and insight from experience is important. Both men and women have a role to play as mentors and sponsors.

Broaden your network. I encourage organizations to look beyond their existing talent pools and networks. I also urge women everywhere - from those sitting in C-suite positions, to aspiring young female entrepreneurs - to be more proactive in building out their own networks and communities that can help identify new career opportunities and provide support.

Continue the dialogue. From the employee demographic data revealed by several leading technology companies, we know there is a diversity problem. Research and studies also show that homogenous teams are not as effective as diverse ones. Business leaders are coming forward now to engage in this important diversity discussion - they are asking the right questions and taking action. We're headed in the right direction.

Change doesn't happen overnight. However, I believe that we are at a critical turning point, on the cusp of the most exciting wave of technological innovation. There has never been a more exciting time to work in technology, and with new technologies come all new opportunities to break through.