More than 35 years ago, a programmer at SAS had a hard time managing both her career and her new baby. Rather than risk losing this employee, the company hired a nanny—and has offered childcare on-site ever since.
Today, SAS is a rare technology organization where the workforce is nearly 50% women, and it was recently named one of the 2017 Best Workplaces for Diversity.
“In an industry that struggles to hire skilled employees—and women in particular—SAS and the other Best Workplaces enjoy better representation, longer tenure and lower attrition,” says Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work. “It’s not just a question of programs for mothers. Organizations that are serious about equity seek out overlooked challenges facing women of all backgrounds, genuinely listen to them and take the initiative to improve the workplace.”
Fighting low retention in high-tech
In an interview, SAS Chief Human Resources Officer Jenn Mann pointed to a Harvard Business Review study outlining just how deep the tech industry’s problems with women run. It found more than half of women who begin careers as highly qualified scientists, engineers and technologists will drop out of their jobs. Attrition spikes at the 10-year mark—just as many are positioned to advance into leadership. At the same time, a full 40% of women working in these fields feel their careers have stalled, with many citing macho corporate cultures and a sense of isolation at work.
SAS proves this is fully avoidable. As just one example, Mann recalls that an R&D executive saw few women were taking leadership roles in product development. The company invited anyone interested in the topic, particularly technical women, to a focus group that drew 300 attendees.
“Really, the purpose was to say, ‘What are the challenges we face? What does SAS do well to promote the development of our technical talent? What can we do better?’ And it was really just kind of starting the conversation,” said Mann.
Follow-up gatherings eventually led to a six-month training program for high-potential team members that offered insight from women executives and exposure to leadership roles participants might not have considered.
That willingness to explore exactly why women had a different experience than men in their careers is evident in all areas of the company’s approach to the workplace. Employees review their managers annually. As is fitting for an analytics software business, executives then pore over that data to identify any gaps in training, feedback or other areas that might leave women behind.
On the work-life balance front, the SAS campus has responded to employee needs over the years with the addition of an expansive athletic complex, a hair salon, a pharmacy, a full-service health clinic with lactation specialists and a work-life center that helps co-workers find eldercare and plan for their kids’ college education.
The pipeline problem
Of course, no slate of perks and programs can boost the ranks of women in technology if they’re not entering the field. Soon, the dearth of women in tech will have consequences that reach well beyond matters of fairness.
“We will have hundreds of thousands of jobs that we just won’t have the people to fill,” Mann said of the industry’s long-term outlook.
One of the most influential things technology companies can do for women is advocate for better education. SAS matches its team’s charitable donations that frequently support STEM projects and youth coding programs, often led by employees. At the leadership level, SAS CEO Jim Goodnight and other members of the Business Roundtable push for better skills development as early as grade school. In February, the group presented the governor of North Carolina, where SAS is based, with an initiative to improve early childhood literacy critical to building the foundation for more complex coursework later on. At the same time, SAS frequently hosts students at events meant to spark interest in technical fields.
This end-to-end approach to career development shows just how complex solutions to women’s low representation in tech can be. At the same time, SAS and other leading workplaces demonstrate that any company can improve the experience of working women by listening to all employees and helping them realize the breadth of their potential.
Said Mann: “You’ve got to start from the beginning programs and build that pipeline and support one another.”
Kim Peters is Executive Vice President at Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for FORTUNE’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other Best Workplaces lists, including the Best Workplaces for Diversity.