Women in adtech: Keeping gender diversity on the table in a challenging economic climate

In many ways, the tech industry has taken significant strides in improving gender diversity, with many companies making progress in ensuring their hiring procedures, workplace cultures, benefits packages, and opportunities for progression are inclusive. However, when you look at the numbers, the reality is our industry is not only lagging behind in reaching gender parity, it is actually heading in the wrong direction. If we add into that the impact of recent tech layoffs, which have disproportionately affected women, as well as the many challenges women still report, it’s clear we have a long way to go in our pursuit of true gender parity, particularly at leadership level. Inspiring inclusion – the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day – and gender diversity are topics that should always be on the table, so we’re taking a look at the current situation for women in today’s tech industry, particularly those aspiring to reach leadership positions, and sharing five strategies companies can adopt today to help reach their diversity goals.

The truth about gender parity in tech

In 2020, the gender imbalance in tech was greater than it was in 1984. Women made up 35% of the tech workforce in 1984. But by 2020, that figure had declined to 32%. When it comes to tech leadership, in 1984, 35% of tech leaders were women, and by 2023, that figure had fallen to 28%. There is encouraging news from the wider market, however, with the number of women CEOs in US Fortune 500 companies surpassing 10% for the first time in 2023. A small proportion, but still a vast improvement on the 1.4% reported twenty years earlier.

Unfortunately, further compounding the issue in recent years is the wave of tech layoffs that started in 2022, which have had a disproportionate impact on women. Although figures (from October 2022 to June 2023) show that an estimated 45% of those who lost their jobs were women — close to 50:50 with men — if women already make up a smaller proportion of the workforce, it means the gender gap is growing even wider. We found further analysis that indicated women are 1.6 times more likely to face layoffs than men, often due to less seniority.

Another reason for the disproportionate impact of recent layoffs on women is that many roles are being cut in fields such as HR, recruitment, marketing, or customer service. Ironically, the efforts of recent years to increase gender diversity in the tech industry often involved creating roles in these fields, which — sometimes due to conscious or unconscious bias in hiring practices — tend to have higher proportions of female staff. But as businesses tighten their belts, these roles are being categorised as ‘non-essential’, meaning they are unsustainable and among the first to be cut. 

The ‘broken rung’ to leadership

With layoffs likely to result in fewer women in the leadership pipeline, the need to fix the ‘broken rung’, where women face barriers in taking the critical first step up to a managerial role, becomes even more pressing. A lot of work is being done to break systemic gender stereotypes around science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and to encourage young women to join the tech industry. But in tech, only 52 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men (compared to 86 women for every 100 men across every industry), so many women are falling behind.

A lack of prospects for career progression is just one of the challenges women face. Other impactful factors include gender bias (conscious or unconscious); stereotyping; microaggressions, such as ‘hepeating’ and ‘mansplaining’; being expected to take on extra, often unrecognised, work on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; isolation (nearly half of women technologists say they are outnumbered by men in their workplace by a four-to-one ratio); and overwork and burnout. Many tech companies are still failing to offer an inclusive work culture (72% of women in tech have worked at a company where ‘bro culture’ was still pervasive), and women still experience a lack of flexibility or support around family responsibilities.

Women are leaving tech roles at a 45% higher rate than men. And if talented women take their skills elsewhere, whether that’s due to layoffs, lack of opportunity, or ongoing dissatisfaction, or if we try to tackle gender diversity by creating roles that are unsustainable in an economic downturn, we risk undoing all the work we have done to encourage women into tech in the first place. Fewer women will rise through the ranks as leaders, and if young women don’t see people like themselves in leadership roles, it will discourage them from joining the industry.

Actionable strategies to further gender diversity in adtech

Supporting, nurturing, and retaining women in adtech is vitally important, even — and especially — amid a challenging economic climate. So what can adtech companies do to ensure women have every opportunity to thrive in their careers? Here are five actionable strategies:

1. Strengthen the leadership pipeline

Recruit women into leadership roles and promote from within — if women have the opportunity to fulfil their career ambitions, they are less likely to take their talents, expertise, and skills elsewhere. A diverse leadership team brings many business benefits, plus equity at the top also encourages women in the early stages of their career to join the company as they can see real-world examples of what their future could look like. 

At smartclip, 40% of our leadership team (team heads and above) are women, and 89% of those female leaders have come through the smartclip leadership pipeline, initially joining the company in non-leadership roles. In addition, these promotions predominantly involve tech roles, highlighting our commitment to furthering the careers of women across all adtech functions. For example, Gloria Eichler, who has just been promoted to our C-level team, started at smartclip as an intern, and just over 12 years later, she is now our Chief Product Officer, responsible for driving the strategic direction of our products. 

2. Nurture in-house talent

Retain women throughout the leadership pipeline not only by offering them equitable opportunities to progress but also by making sure they have equitable access to training, projects, and other resources. Then they will have the skills and expertise required to take that step up when the opportunity arises. 

We make a concerted effort to support the professional development of all our employees — for example, we offer equal access to a wide variety of development programmes focusing on data, tech, and professional skills (via esteemed learning providers such as Bertelsmann University, Coursera, and Udacity), leadership development programmes, personal coaching sessions, and knowledge-exchange workshops and events. 

3. Work on your company’s culture

Boost employee retention and satisfaction by creating an inclusive and transparent culture where open dialogue is always encouraged, and everyone, at every level, is heard, feels valued, and feels like they belong — on a day-to-day basis and through a framework of regular events and initiatives. Our strategy days, offsite events, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange events, and workshops have seen a positive impact on collaboration and innovation, improving overall performance and employee satisfaction. 

Leadership staff should also be approachable and open to questions and feedback, and working principles should be developed and reflected on in a collaborative way, rather than just being imposed from the top down. Giving employees the ability to raise concerns anonymously if preferred ensures everyone’s voices are heard. We issue anonymous feedback surveys after company events, plus employee satisfaction is regularly monitored in a completely anonymous Bertelsmann-wide survey. Even the smallest steps make a difference — for example, creating agendas before meetings gives everyone a chance to prepare their ideas, helping them to feel more comfortable in speaking up, which ensures that diverse ways of thinking are shared. 

We believe that the work we do on enhancing our company culture plays an important role in helping to retain our talented female staff — the average tenure for women at smartclip is just over 4.2 years, only slightly shorter than men (at 4.3 years) and longer than the industry average of 2.5 years.

4. Enhance flexible working solutions

Parental duties and care work still often fall on to women’s shoulders, so offer flexible, hybrid working opportunities to ensure women can continue to progress in their careers without risking burnout. Flexible solutions also give men more avenues to share parental duties. Hybrid working — where employees combine working remotely with working in the office — has risen to new heights of popularity following the pandemic, but some companies have started to roll back on that opportunity, forcing staff to come into the office. Hybrid working is now inherent to our way of working at smartclip, and our employees can also be flexible with their working hours, scheduling them (within the window of 7 am to 8 pm) in a way that suits their own requirements and responsibilities. We also understand the challenges working mothers face, so we aim to find individual solutions that make it easier for them to balance work and family responsibilities. In addition, we have implemented company-wide initiatives, such as our policy to support employees with sick children by allowing one parent to take paid leave for up to five days (per illness), which ensures parents can focus on caring for their child without worrying about their income.

5. Address unconscious biases

Take an honest approach to unconscious bias — at every level of the workforce. Even the strongest leadership pipeline or flexible working culture will be eroded if outdated attitudes or prejudices are still seeping into the workplace. Addressing unconscious bias effectively begins with workforce education. Our employees are able to participate in Bertelsmann University’s collection of courses focusing on unconscious bias, which are designed to help identify and eliminate stereotypes, clichés, and discrimination in behaviours and thought patterns. 

Another way to help tackle gender bias in our industry is to repeatedly bring the topic of women in adtech into the conversation and amplify women’s voices, not just in-house but externally too, with clients, partners, journalists, conference organisers, and more. For example, at a recent event we hosted with some of the biggest players in adtech,  we introduced our first ‘Women in Adtech’ panel discussion, which saw leading female executives from across Europe sharing their experiences as women working in adtech. They showcased vivid examples to draw attention to unconscious bias and explored various ways to create equal opportunities for women in the industry, particularly in leadership positions.

Tackling unconscious bias is a continual process, and there is so much that can be done, such as reviewing hiring, development, and promotion procedures to eliminate any possibility that snap judgements could influence decision-making, and regularly examining pay and promotion rates to identify any inequalities. 

Addressing gender discrimination is a complex process — and although these strategies serve as a starting point, they are not exhaustive or ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions. In our journey to achieve gender parity, we are always looking for new opportunities to advance this cause. And while ‘Big Tech’ may be laying off employees, we are always on the lookout for exceptional new talent to join our team.

An opportunity to take the lead

With diverse teams bringing multiple business benefits to adtech companies, including better financial performance, more creativity and innovation, and better problem-solving and decision-making, isn’t an economic downturn actually the time to encourage gender diversity rather than push it to the side? In adtech, people are our greatest asset, and in this ever-evolving industry that thrives on innovation, the many strategic advantages of empowering female leaders, improving gender parity, and inspiring inclusion should motivate everyone — not just those at the top — to do what this industry does best: take the lead.

Christian Osterhues

Christian is the VP  People & Culture for smartclip Europe with over 18 years of experience in Human Resources. He started at smartclip in 2012 and was the first to establish a professional Human Resources Management team. Christian oversees the  People & Culture Department, including Recruiting and Training and Development.

Christian Osterhues
VP People & Culture

Shira Leffel

Shira Leffel is the VP of Marketing & Product Education and is responsible for leading the central European marketing and product education department at smartclip. She has lived and worked in the United States, Canada, Israel, Mozambique, Brazil, and now Germany. Shira comes with extensive experience in marketing for B2B technology startups. She has built out marketing teams and strategies—her core expertise lies in content strategy, most notably inbound content marketing. Shira graduated Summa Cum Laude and First in Class with an M.A. from Tel Aviv University, and First Class Honours with a B.A. from the University of British Columbia.

Shira Leffel
VP Marketing & Product Education