Los Angeles Creates a Workforce that Represents the City

The percentage of women working in IT positions keeps declining, but Los Angeles is working to change that.

by Tam Harbert / July/August 2017
Joyce Edson, deputy CIO, Los Angeles

Gender equity in IT has been heading in the wrong direction. Despite all the discussion of increasing the numbers of women in tech, the percentage of women in computing occupations declined over the last 25 years, from 36 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 2015, according to a 2016 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology. And even if they start their careers in IT, most women don’t stay — some 56 percent leave the profession after 10 to 20 years.

The situation limits the opportunities not only for women, but also for their employers. Diversity leads to better organizational performance, according to the 2015 report Diversity Matters by McKinsey and Co. The study found that gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to financially outperform their peers, and ethnically diverse organizations were 35 percent more likely to outperform. More recently, a 2016 survey of data from 22,000 companies around the world by the Peterson Institute for International Economics found that having more women in corporate leadership correlates with increased profitability.

Gender equity was already top of mind for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, as well as Ted Ross, general manager and CIO of the city’s Information Technology Agency (ITA). Meanwhile, Ross faced a looming personnel shortage: Nearly half of his IT staff would become eligible for retirement within the next few years.

Diversifying Your Department

L.A. CIO Ted Ross suggests taking these steps to increase gender equity and bring more diversity into the workplace:

  • Educate yourself on the issues. Don’t assume you know everything about gender bias. Talk with women in technology, both inside and outside of your organization.
  • Assess your organization based on data. Identify the numbers of women you have in various job categories. Are they proportionate? The numbers can help you home in on specific problem areas. For example, you might have many women in mid-management, but none who have risen any higher in the organization. In that case, you need to investigate why.
  • Review your recruiting operations to make sure you are targeting women and other under-represented groups.
  • Review your hiring processes to make sure they reflect a diversity of outlooks. How many women are on your typical interview panel, for example?
  • Offer leadership and management training for women.
  • When hiring outside contractors, make an effort to include women freelancers and women-owned small businesses in your search.
Ross saw a way to address both problems. “We had an opportunity to create a workforce that is representative of L.A. itself, which is a very diverse city,” he said.

He started some informal efforts in early 2014 by discussing the topic with female IT employees, from senior managers to entry-level staff members. He also spoke with local and national leaders promoting women in technology. Partly inspired by Tracy Chou, an engineer who challenged companies to post their percent of women in particular tech positions on GitHub, Ross analyzed his department’s employment data. The numbers told him that as of late 2014, zero percent of ITA’s executives, 40 percent of its managers and 38 percent of its programmers were female.

Then, Garcetti issued an official directive in August 2015 that created a Gender Equity Coalition to ensure equity across all city departments. That spurred Ross to set a target of 50 percent females in IT management by the end of 2016.

He took several steps to achieve this target. Informally, Ross began a concerted outreach effort to recruit women. He spoke about supporting women in technology at public forums, such as the mayor’s diversity day. Formally, he launched leadership training seminars specifically for women and pushed for greater female representation on panels that interviewed job candidates. He concentrated on recruiting more women interns using social media, the department’s website and even TV.

“We’ve found that specialized recruitment, specialized and diverse representation on interview panels, and building leadership skills in our organization is very powerful,” said Ross. “It yields an iterative benefit over time.”

One benefit was identifying and promoting talent from within the department. Joyce Edson had worked in technology for years, most of it in support of the city’s public safety division. Although public safety agencies such as police and fire departments tend to be dominated by men, Edson didn’t let any bias intimidate her. “I’m usually pretty vocal and will call people on it,” she said. “And when you call people on it, that usually takes it off the table.” Nevertheless, she had made little headway in promoting her idea for an open data project.

“I had been watching the open data movement for a couple of years and knew that L.A. should be doing this,” Edson said. “It was an alignment of the planets when the mayor [then Councilman Garcetti] expressed an interest in it, Ted came in as assistant general manager and I pitched [again] the open data project to him. He said, ‘Go for it,’ and we got it done.” Edson was promoted in 2015 to assistant general manager and deputy CIO.  

Ross’ efforts to improve gender equity also attracted new talent to the city. After a 32-year career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), with a couple of detours into national and international projects including helping launch President Obama’s Open Data Initiative, Jeanne Holm was ready to do something in L.A., her hometown. Her departure from JPL was “partly as a result of my frustration about equity for women in technology,” she said.

In 2016, only 4 percent of JPL’s IT managers were women, and of the two top female managers, one reported to the other, she said. In contrast, “when I looked at Ted’s organization chart, the faces were as diverse as the faces I see every day in my city,” Holm said. “People of all different ages, just as many women as men, people of all different ethnicities.” It was a deciding factor in her choice to work at ITA. She is now senior technology adviser to the mayor and assistant general manager and deputy CIO for ITA.

Ross is proud of the progress ITA has made so far. As of mid-2016, 60 percent of IT executives, 54 percent of managers and 42 percent of programmers in the agency were female. In March 2017, ITA received an award for its efforts at Garcetti’s Inaugural Los Angeles State of Women and Girls Address and Young Women’s Assembly.

The increased diversity of backgrounds and genders at ITA translates to a greater diversity of thought, which in turn stimulates creative thinking and innovation, said Ross. Without such diversity, “we may not have the next breakthrough, because we would be limited to viewing problems and potential solutions in only a certain way,” he said.

Holm couldn’t agree more. “It’s ridiculous to think that organizations are working on these amazing, tough, innovative, leading-edge technologies, and yet some are using only half of the brain power available to them.”