Time to Play the Woman Card in Financial Technology

By Carol Juel

The Huffington Post

June 27, 2016

I am delighted that Harriet Tubman will be the new face of the $20 bill. It’s long overdue. But I can’t help but wonder – is a woman making it onto the U.S. currency just as disruptive technologies are making cash obsolete? We had to wait almost 90 years for Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson. We can’t wait that long for women to become the leaders and disruptors that financial services – and every other industry – needs.

 

Through technology and innovation, people entering the workforce today have more opportunities than ever before to disrupt entire industries and transform commerce and society. By 2022, there will be more than 1.3 million job openings in computer and math occupations in the U.S., but by any measure, girls and women are not in a position to benefit from those opportunities. While young women are more likely than young men to graduate from college and to continue their education after college, they continue to lag far behind in the STEM industries of science, technology, engineering and math. Back in 1984, women represented 37 percent of all computer science graduates. Now, the number is almost half that, at 18 percent. That drop is not an anomaly. Instead, it is indicative of a disturbing trend, one that starts early.

 

In middle school, 74 percent of girls express interest in STEM, but when choosing a college major, just 0.4 percent of high school girls select computer science. Women currently make up 57% of the U.S. labor force and almost 51% of the U.S. population, but they fill less than 25% of technology jobs on average.

 

The question is, how do we topple these statistics and put women where we need them – at the forefront of technology-driven disruption?

 

I recently had a wonderful opportunity to see how it might be done. Synchrony Financial was one of the sponsors of MARVEL’S CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – GIRLS REFORMING THE FUTURE Challenge. Over 1,000 young women from across the nation accepted the challenge to use science and technology to develop a project that would create positive change. As a contest judge I was inspired by the girls’ talent, creativity and innovation to use STEM to make the world a better place.

 

But how do we find and nurture the millions of other aspiring female leaders and encourage them to apply their skills, curiosity and passion to a tech career?

First, we need to make a business case for increasing the number of women in male-dominated industries. That’s easy. Research has shown that women, particularly women in leadership roles, are good for the bottom line. Groups with greater diversity solve complex problems better and faster than do homogenous groups. The presence of women in a group is more likely to increase the collective intelligence of the group. And a study by McKinsey & Company shows that companies with a better gender balance are 15 percent more likely to outperform their peer average.

 

Second, we need to give girls a chance to learn the skills they need and give them positive role models they can relate to. One organization that has excelled on this front is Girls Who Code (GWC). From a tiny startup with 20 students, Reshma Saujani, the founder of GWC, aims to teach one million girls how to code by 2020. This summer, Synchrony Financial will host 20 students for the GWC Summer Immersion Program. We hope to not only give the girls a positive experience with real-world applications, but to also build a recruiting pipeline and be part of a nationwide effort to boost the number of women in tech jobs.

 

Third, as leaders, we need to make our organizations – across all industries – welcoming and supportive to women. Whether that means making a special effort to provide mentors, offering professional development opportunities, building support networks or offering family-friendly options to women (and men), change must come from the top. This is an imperative if we want to attract and retain the best and brightest talent.

 

Finally, we must have a sense of urgency. Despite the clear benefits, the number of women running companies is dismal. Only four percent of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women. While the proportion of senior roles held by women in the U.S. rose from 21% in 2015 to 23% this year, the U.S. has also seen the proportion of businesses with no women in senior management rise to its highest level at 31%. Sadly, according to The New York Times Glass Ceiling Index, more large-sized companies are run by men named John than by women.

 

We are way overdue for change. The World Economic Forum estimates it will take about 80 years to achieve gender parity in the workplace worldwide. That is nearly as long as it took to put a woman on the $20 bill. Women need to be more than the face on our paper currency. They need to be the face of corporate America. We need to radically disrupt industries and help other women do the same. All of us need to step up to lead, teach, mentor, challenge and promote women at all levels. Harriet Tubman had to wait a long time but she epitomizes the kind of fearless leader we need now. 

 

Carol Juel is an Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Synchrony Financial. She leads the company’s overall Information Technology strategy and vision, with a continuous focus on payments innovation.

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