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Female MBAs Give Tech Industry A Diversity Reboot

MBA degrees are propelling women into tech-focused industries, as large technology groups gear up for a diversity reboot.

Thu Dec 11 2014

Anise Mastin, a senior marketing director at stalwart US technology company IBM, and an MBA graduate, is a black woman with a long and prosperous career in the tech industry.

The single mother and diversity activist wants tech groups to hire more women and has taken steps to address the diversity crisis facing leading companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon. She started a Multicultural Women Leadership group at IBM to foster a support network for women working in technology.

“It’s typically male dominated [but] that should not bother you because you know what you are and what you stand for,” says Anise, speaking at an event organized by Forté Foundation, a women’s advocacy group.

“I believe if you have a passion to be in information technology, you will find your way,” she says, forthright and assertive.

She illustrates both the way women do not have to make a choice between a career and a family, and that the technology industry is going to lengths to dispel its white, male dominated image.

Tech companies remain wholly disproportionate in gender make up. Most revealed this summer that about 30% of their employees are female, with roughly 15% in the often prestige technical roles that bring higher salaries.

This has become more important because a large portion of business school students are migrating to the tech sector and away from traditional careers at banks.

At Wharton, for instance, nearly 14% of 2014’s MBA class were hired by tech companies, up from less than 6% in 2010.

“Women remain in the minority throughout the pipeline in STEM organizations today and overwhelmingly report feeling like outsiders,” says Anna Beninger, director of research at Catalyst, which recently released a report that found less female MBAs than males are opting for business roles in tech-intensive industries.

Natasha Walji, head of industry for consumer packaged goods at Google, believes the root cause needs to be addressed – the lack of young women studying STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math.

A computer scientist by education, when she was in her fourth year at the University of Victoria only 10% of her class was female.

“There aren’t a lot of women in tech [and] we have a long way to go,” says Natasha, who earned an MBA at Yale School of Management.

But she sees this as an opportunity. “It’s refreshing to see and have a female perspective on business, and if you frame it that way it can help you in your career,” she says.

Natasha demonstrates the way an MBA degree can propel women into tech-focused industries and the way technical graduates can use a business education to branch out into management.

She applied to McKinsey, the consultancy, straight out of undergraduate studies. She was sent a rejection letter. “I didn’t have the background,” she says.

An MBA was her way of exploring new career paths. Since graduating from Yale in 2005 Natasha has enjoyed stints at professional services group Deloitte, McKinsey and later Google, where she is now based in Toronto. “It really helped me career switch – and my salary doubled as well,” she says.

Others say a technical background is not necessary. Technology companies have been opening up their recruitment processes and are looking for managers who come from business stock.

Julia McDonald is head of talent acquisition for EMEA at Infosys. By casting her cyber net further afield, she is able to recruit from a larger pool of business schools.

“Traditionally we may have focused on a background in tech but we’re really opening it up now,” she says.

The technology outsourcing group targeted about 200 new MBA hires globally in 2014, in addition to 40 to 60 within the EMEA region.

“We can give you the right skills and training; we want people who are passionate,” says Julia.

A technical background was essential for Anise. She says it has helped her navigate her way through a myriad of tech jargon at IBM, which is known as the king of acronyms, she adds.

A graduate of Vanderbilt University’s business school, she says the MBA was crucial to landing a job at IBM.

“It gave me the confidence I needed,” she says. “Technology is a field [that], when you attain an MBA, it places such power behind your brand that you have the wheel to be able to craft whatever career path you want,” she adds.

Anise admits that there are a greater proportion of men in her field, but there are signs that tech companies feel the winds of change.

Many are funding initiatives to encourage ethnic minorities and women to learn to code, such as Hack the Hood and Girls Who Code.

Like many of its rivals, Facebook encourages people from under-represented groups to visit its campus – headquarters – and sends employees out to work with them in programming sessions known as “hackathons”.

Twitter, which employs women for about 30% of its positions, is placing less emphasis on hiring people recommended by existing staff, in a bid to try and diversify its workforce and leadership ranks.

Business schools too are trying to encourage more women to enrol in their programs and are targeting them with initiates such as women’s-only MBA clubs and pre-enrolment camps.

However the majority of MBA programs remain male-dominated. According to figures compiled by The Economist, about 32% of MBA classes are made up of women.

“Traditionally, MBAs have been seen as more relevant for males than females,” says Dr Julie Hodges, director of MBA programs at Durham University Business School. But she adds: “We aim to provide a program which is attractive to a wide range of students.”

Swetha Arbuckle is proof that these initiates are beginning to bear fruit. She used to be a professional classical Indian dancer. Now she is a senior HR business partner at Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing division of the leading e-commerce company.

After four years working at an educational services company with kids who struggled to achieve at school, she enrolled in the joint MBA and MPA program at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.

As a human resources manager, she doesn’t think you need an engineering degree to succeed in technology – but a passion for tech is essential.

Swetha, who met her husband while at business school, values her MBA network the most. “At Amazon we have such a huge network of people [from business school] and having those connections… Has been very helpful,” she says.

She adds the MBA ensured she wasn’t treated like a “newbie” when first joining the online retail group. “A lot of companies give you ownership. You have this MBA and it automatically gives you an additional element of credibility.”

Natasha is attracted to the tech sector by the whiff of innovation across Google’s business areas. Every dollar she brings into the group, she says, is used to fund innovation – such as the development of driverless cars and mobile wallets.

But the diversity problem does not stop when women have walked through the door. The tech industry struggles to retain its female employees.

A study by the Center for Talent Innovation in New York shows that more than half of women in science, engineering and tech end up leaving the industry, “driven out by hostile work environments, isolation [and] extreme work pressures”, the report says, among other reasons.

“STEM companies face a serious talent drain as women take their skills elsewhere,” says Deborah Gillis, CEO of Catalyst.

But she adds: “These organizations also have a remarkable opportunity to turn things around, by focusing on how they can make all their talent – men and women alike – feel equally valued.”

For Anise, she is motivated to stay by among other things the opportunity to work alongside the best in the IT industry at IBM.

“[It’s] exciting to see your work and you’re efforts out there in the marketplace,” she says, “and knowing that some of the largest clients are running because of the hardware or software they’re running on was made by IBM.”