"A Social Good That Benefits Us All." A Tech Funder Looks to Close the Workplace Gender Gap

photo: Look Studio/shutterstock

photo: Look Studio/shutterstock

Many donors agree that more needs to be done to close the gender divide in the workplace. The more vexing challenge is what comes next. What tactical and operational strategies can businesses deploy to close the gap for good, especially in the male-dominated field of technology?

To explore this question, we turn to Palo Alto, where tech company VMware made a $15 million gift to launch Stanford University’s VM Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab.

"This initiative enables Stanford researchers and students to better understand why women's advancement in the workplace has been interrupted and to design solutions that, working closely with companies and other organizations, will bring about meaningful change," said Persis Drell, provost of Stanford.

I’ll take a closer look at the gift and the pivotal role of former Stanford president John Hennessy in supporting women in the workplace momentarily. But I’d first like to survey the larger philanthropic landscape that finds funders increasingly concerned about closing the gender gap.

To truly understand the scope of the issue, further semantic precision is required. "The gender gap," as a broad term, encompasses various and discrete challenges. Women typically earn less than men. They’re represented to a far lesser degree in fields like STEM. They also lack a comparative "seat at the table" on corporate boards and leadership teams.

As a result, donors have been tackling "the gender gap" from different angles. For example, programs like Google’s #40Forward and 1871, Chicago’s tech incubator, which partnered with Google, the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, and the Motorola Mobility Foundation are working to address the stubborn fact that as of last year, only 17 percent of startups had a female founder.

Or consider donors' efforts in a field where women only comprise 30 percent of the tech workforce at large tech companies.

Funders like the Vodafone Americas Foundation have focused on expanding the pipeline of women coming into the tech field by helping them build skills. The foundation has supported Girls Who Code, an initiative whose supporters also include Google, the Knight Foundation, Adobe, Craig Newmark Philanthropies and AT&T. In 2016 and 2017, Girls Who Code pulled in nearly $25 million in contributions. It's also worth noting that in 2015, Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein announced they would invest $40 million to advance diversity in tech entrepreneurship.

"Diversity and inclusiveness are essential in every industry, and they are critical in tech," said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Square and Twitter, and a Girls Who Code supporter. "Building companies that are as diverse as the people who rely on our products is not only the right thing to do, it is good business."

Which brings me back to the tech company behind the $15 million gift to Stanford, VMware.

The company provides cloud computing and platform virtualization software and services, and is a subsidiary of Dell Technologies, which was formed as a result of the merger of Dell and EMC Corporation. VMWare's parent companies also have an interest in advancing women's workforce issues.

Dell previously commissioned the Women Entrepreneur Cities Index to "assess and compare cities around the world in terms of their ability to attract and foster high-impact women entrepreneurs." Its "Power of One Mentor Challenge" aims to involve women and girls in the STEM field. And last year, it partnered with The Atlantic to host a forum called "Cracking the Code: The Next Generation of Women in STEM."

VMware also has a track record in this space. It previously provided a three-year, $1.5 million gift to Seeds of Change, an initiative that partners Stanford undergraduates in technology disciplines with female high school students interested in STEM careers. Its investment in Stanford's VM Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, meanwhile, aims to identify and share practical solutions and build, to quote the lab's director Shelley Correll, a "cycle of continuous improvement."

"We are calling this new endeavor a 'lab' to underscore our goal of creating broad research collaborations that break down barriers across organizational contexts," Correll said. "It's critical that we close the gap between what is known in academia and what organizations have been doing in practice."

It won't be easy. Seeds of Change's website notes that women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields is rooted in "persistent stereotypes and unconscious gender bias." Changing these perceptions, Correll argues, can only be realized once organizations begin systematically measuring results and fostering ongoing optimization.

The lab builds on work begun five years ago with seed funding from former Stanford president John Hennessy, who championed further research and programs aimed at advancing women during his tenure.

Frequently cited as the "greatest college fundraiser of all time," Hennessy, who stepped down in 2016, more than doubled the university's endowment during his 15-year tenure based on the belief that large donors are interested in funding ideas that create social change and fit within campus capacity.

Hennessy is currently the Shriram Family Director of Stanford's Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, an international graduate-level scholarship program funded in part by philanthropist and Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Earlier this year, Alphabet, the parent company of Google, appointed Hennessy as its executive chairman.

It's also worth noting that Stanford's work around closing the workforce gender gap isn't relegated to the tech field.

For instance, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the Stanford-operated lab of the U.S. Department of Energy, collaborated with Correll and her team to design a process that has resulted in marked improvements in the annual hiring percentage of female scientists.

Again, the good news here is that funders agree on the need to close the workforce gender gap, particularly across two traditionally male-dominated sectors that also happen to be swimming in cash—Wall Street and Silicon Valley. And since "money follows money," Stanford's findings may eventually trigger additional and more impactful funding. 

After all, to quote Correll, "Gender equality, like clean air, is a social good that benefits us all."