Nicole Neumarker, CTO at US company Workforce Software, is a tech industry rarity in more than one way. Firstly, she is amongst a minority of women tech leaders. According to the US National Centre for Women & Information Technology, women only make up a quarter of the tech industry’s workforce. The gender gap is even wider at the leadership level, where only 11% of leadership positions are held by women in the US. As far as being the only women CTO in the room, Neumarker admits that “there aren’t a ton of us.”

Secondly, Neumarker is a Silicon Valley native who started her career in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place renowned for attracting the best and brightest from across the world and largely made up of transplants to the area. Growing up in the Bay Area and spending the first part of her career in the homogeneous world of tech, Neumarker is in a good position to assess the level of diversity within the industry today.

While many technology companies are working to attract more women to the industry, leadership roles are, more often than not, filled by women in disciplines other than engineering, such as marketing or human resources. Neumarker has found more collaboration with women in technical roles since moving away from California to Utah. In the last couple of years, much has been written about the flight of tech workers and companies from California’s Silicon Valley to growing tech hubs across the country in Texas, Colorado and New York.

Neumarker’s own decision to leave seems to have brought her closer to a networking circle of women in tech leadership – ironically something which should have happened in the so-called liberal enclave of California’s Bay Area. “I didn’t have nearly the kind of close connection I have to women tech leaders here than I did in California,” she says. Utah’s networking organisation, Women in Tech, has been the main point of contact for Neumarker’s new peer group of women tech leaders.

How to attract more women to tech roles

Neumarker talks about ‘enablement roles’ that tend to surround engineers as being a good starting point in attracting more women to technology. These include roles in technical product ownership, program management, portfolio management and project management, to name a few.

Neumarker has noticed a tendency for technical leaders to view these roles as less important than core engineering. “There is a view amongst a lot of male leaders that it is better to hire a whole bunch of engineers,” she says. But in reality, what Neumarker has found is that engineers are unproductive unless they are accompanied by enablement roles, supporting them in prioritising the right work and being clear about what success looks like, notes Neumarker. “And women excel in that,” she adds.

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Better communication about the roles available within the technology industry from the time girls enter elementary school through to college, is the way to attract more women to the industry. Neumarker refers to a culture of educational ‘gatekeeping’ when it comes to the study of mathematics. “If you’re not on a path to calculus, you’re not on the path to a STEM career. And I don’t think that should be true,” she says.

As in many industries, there are multiple pathways to STEM careers that Neumarker says are enabled by mathematics or what she refers to as ‘math-adjacent’. Disciplines such as data science or other mathematical educational tracks will allow more girls in both high school and college, to feel more comfortable in pursuing STEM careers because maths is not the central focus, she adds.

Neumarker, herself, was an economics major. A math-enabled science, as she describes it. “I wouldn’t have called it necessarily a typical computer science or STEM major but it definitely had maths elements in terms of algorithms and logic,” says Neumarker.

New opportunities in an economic downturn

As the era of tech exceptionalism comes to an end and is replaced by a new era of efficiency – Silicon Valley’s euphemism for cost-cutting after a decade of plenty – Neumarker believes women have a window of opportunity to improve their representation within the tech industry.

“As a tech leader, you still have to get the same work done but in more cost-effective, outcome-based ways,” says Neumarker, which she explains often means contractors are hired for specific jobs. This is where Neumarker thinks women with specific skill sets like data science and analysis or design, for example, have a real opportunity to jump in.

“I think that’s a huge opportunity for women to position themselves by bringing value without necessarily having to be permanently hired. Contracts can be very lucrative, and you do the work when you need to do the work. When you can do the work. It’s opportunistic,” she adds.

Big Tech layoffs over the last few months have proved a difficult time for Neumarker and her colleagues within the industry. The situation is prompting many to revaluate their roles within the tech industry. But there are so many tech jobs that aren’t in high-profile tech companies, says Neumarker.

As tech layoffs are prompting employees to gain a better grasp of what they want from the tech industry or where their skills lie, there are so many opportunities to upskill and to access further training.

“There’s an opportunity now to open an aperture to what’s possible in terms of anything that’s related to tech,” says Neumarker who urges employees to look at jobs within the broader tech industry and not just within the name-brand companies like Google or Microsoft. Smaller, less high-profile companies are not going through the same types of layoffs that have been publicised, of late, and present an opportunity for women to enter the tech workforce, says Neumarker.

Indeed, in Utah, Neumarker says she’s also seeing a shift in tech investment. “I do think there’s a massive shift towards small start-ups and founders. And I think there is a lot of opportunity there,” she says. Some of today’s biggest success stories in tech were companies founded during the last economic downturn, after the 2008 global financial crisis.

“There’s a lot of seed funding out there for companies that are women-focused,” says Neumarker, who adds that the time is right for seeking out and building those relationships because there are always opportunities in times of economic stress. And this might just mean that the time is right for women to achieve better representation within the tech industry.