Value of gender diversity discussed at first NWA Women in Tech Conference

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 849 views 

Tracy Kerrins (left), banking technology executive and global head of wholesale credit at Bank of America, discusses gender diversity in tech and automation and artificial intelligence in banking with Meredith Lowry, patent attorney at Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, at the Northwest Arkansas Women in Technology Conference in Rogers.

Gender diversity in tech was a key topic of the Northwest Arkansas Women in Technology Conference on Monday (Oct. 16) at the John Q. Hammons Convention Center in Rogers.

The first-ever event had close to 500 attendees, according to Debbie Griffin, an organizer of the event and vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. It is an offshoot of the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit, scheduled for Tuesday (Oct. 17) at the John Q. Hammons Center. Meredith Lowry, patent attorney at Wright, Lindsey & Jennings in Rogers, also organized the Women in Tech event, in addition to the Tech Summit.

Women leave tech companies twice as quickly as men and 56% of women technologists exit companies while in mid-level positions, said afternoon keynote speaker Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology.

Whitney said the gap was not because of an absence of ambition in women, but rather a lack of potential for impact within the companies — as women in the industry are sometimes affected by gender-based biases and stereotypes.

“[Women] want to make a difference,” Whitney said. “They leave because they don’t see a way to advance.”

Recommendations from the Anita Borg Institute for businesses to help fix the issue are threefold and outlined in a white paper released earlier this year. Whitney said the steps are to “create an inclusive culture, hold leaders accountable,” and to “develop and promote women.” On the topic of the first step, Whitney said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

She said the key is to focus on fostering gender partnership, look for opportunities to publicly recognize women’s accomplishments alongside their male colleagues and focus on “intersectionality.”

“Intersectionality is a new word, but you’re going to hear a lot about it,” Whitney said.

It speaks to the idea that “women are not all the same,” and brings into the inclusion discussion the fact that other factors, including race and class, play into it.

Companies need to “cultivate knowledge” about the issue. It should be discussed openly, and businesses should “make gender diversity a true organizational priority and not just something that’s given lip service,” Whitney said. She pointed to tech companies like Intel that she says have turned the issue around.

“The CEO regularly speaks about how important diversity is, and they have a chief diversity officer.

“It’s very systematic,” a factor Whitney says is important.

Company leaders should “set gender diversity goals, communicate the goals, dedicate resources, measure progress and hold leaders accountable.” “What you measure you will change,” Whitney said.

Gender diversity has advantages, although they are not always obvious to male and female individuals, notes the white paper, titled, “Advancing Women Technologists into Positions of Leaderships.” More women in technical roles brings improved operational and financial performance, increased innovation, better problem-solving and group performance and enhanced company reputation, according to the paper.

“Though data overwhelmingly supports the business case for gender diversity, men and women don’t equally believe the findings. Data from Anita Borg Institute’s Top Companies for Women Technologists 2016 reveal that women technologists are more likely than male technologists to believe that mixed-gender teams are more productive, innovative and creative than single-gender teams,” according to the paper.

Another keynote speaker, Tracy Kerrins, banking technology executive and global head of wholesale credit at Bank of America, spoke to the pervasiveness of the issue of diversity in tech. She said as technology becomes increasingly imbedded in all facets of society, most companies are now in the tech business.

The tech industry has taken notice of the issue, and “a lot of studies” have been conducted, but significant change has not been induced. At Bank of America, the issue is looked at closely, she said. “Our numbers are good. Still, we look at those numbers and think, “That is not good enough.”

“We’re a financial services business but we’re really in the business of tech,” Kerrins said. “Bank of America has more online web users than Pandora and more mobile users than Uber.

“And it’s not unique to banking,” she added. “The world is evolving. Everything is tech-based.”

And anyone who is a tech user is a tech advocate, she said.  Tech advances in the finance industry are based on customers’ expectations.

“However you’re interacting in your day-to-day, that becomes the new standard,” she said, speaking specifically to a focus on mobile.

For example, “consumers wanted to be able to deposit checks with their phone and conduct banking transactions on the mobile app, and now that’s the new norm.” Kerrins said corporate and investment clients now have the same expectation. “They’re asking, ‘Why can’t I approve my company’s payroll on my mobile app instead of having to use my desktop?’”

Mobile deposits were introduced in 2012 and now comprise 75% of deposits, she said. Consumers expect to be able to do things on the go.

“If I have to go into a banking center, that’s a fail when it comes to mobile and tech.”

Artificial intelligence is a game-changer for the financial services industry, in terms of issues like fraud prevention, Kerrins said. Also, repeatable work can be automated and those employees’ efforts can be transferred “to more value-added activity,” she said. Better technology that recognizes the difference, for example, between a $20 bill and a $50 bill has enabled expanded options for consumers at the ATM machine, she said.

Options are key, she added. Individuals have different comfort levels with, for example, how their personal data is used.

“It’s a fine line,” Kerrins said, and it can be dependent on age and other factors. For that reason, the tech is often “user specific.” “We like people to opt in.”

For example, the bank has explored the option of allowing consumers to enable geo tracking on their phones through the Bank of America mobile app and, then, if their debit card is used and it shows the phone and presumably the consumer are in a different place, the customer will be alerted.  Technology can put that information together, and it results in “fraud detection and an enhanced customer experience,” she said.

The Women in Tech conference also featured a menu of breakout sessions on topics that ranged from general and specific tech issues with industry-wide implications, to talks speaking directly to female technologists on how they can navigate the tech arena, and those giving insight to companies on ways to address the issue of underrepresentation of women.

Topics included “Artificial Intelligence, Leading the Go To Market Transformation,” “Navigating Sticky Situations with Dignity and Respect,” “Tribe Talk – The Why and How Women Supporting Women is the Innovation We Need” and “The Future of Native Apps.” Speakers included IBM Distinguished Engineer Lisa Seacat Deluca; former Wal-Mart Stores tech executive Rita Carney; and Ellen Dowd, senior vice president of social innovation business at Hitachi.