TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Nancy Wang, founder and CEO of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP), about the organization and its study about women’s careers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Nancy Wang: My name is Nancy Wang. I’m the founder and CEO of a 501(c)(3) global nonprofit that’s called Advancing Women in Product or AWIP for short. Our mission is to advance women and minorities into tech leadership roles, folks who have a technical background. We focus on folks who are in their mid careers, between 10 to 15 years of experience is our sweet spot.

Between those two, I’m really passionate about leveraging content, which I’m going to be talking with you today, Karen, about our Future of Women Study in which we had over 1,000 unique respondents, primarily women who were in their mid careers from topics of promotion or mentorship or feeling heard in the room. This is especially pertinent right now because we’ve now been in COVID for almost a year, having started in Q1. And it’s had a lot of long-lasting impacts on women’s career mobility.

Karen Roby: What we’re seeing is some negative consequences from this pandemic. Talk a little bit about the study in terms of some of the highlights, some of the things that really stood out to you. And then we’ll talk about how we can change those things.

Nancy Wang: I would say three major findings came out from this report. Again, that Advancing Women in Product, as well as a coaching company, Bravely, conducted this year. The first finding that we had was that gender diversity really impacts the perception of career mobility. For example, in organizations where it was more male-dominated, women felt like they had a lack of confidence in their promotion. This was measured on a sliding scale. Clearly, the more diverse your organization is, the more diverse leadership and representation you are going to have, which then instills more confidence in women and other minorities in your workplace that yes, they have that advancement path or a path upward. Two, our second finding was that product will benefit from broader ethnic diversity. For example, of the over 1,000 respondents that we had, it’s important for folks to have other colleagues that they can associate with, in their groups.

SEE: Big data’s role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

So when it comes to leadership positions, especially seeing someone who you identify with from an ethnic background or from a gender background, can help you really see yourself in that leadership position. And that’s why folks were drawn to and provided some anecdotes to our study. One of our respondents, who was a 15-year plus veteran in the tech workforce who was already a people manager, still said if you don’t see someone like you in your workplace and in the role in which you aspire to be, it can be very lonely, right? And some of that loneliness or feeling like you don’t belong can certainly impact someone’s upward mobility. And of course, lastly, which is super important, is that topic of mentorship and having internal sponsorship. For our respondents who, for example, we split them up into two groups: One group who did not have a mentor, and one group who self-responded that they did have a mentor.

Nancy Wang: Overwhelmingly those who had a mentor said that they felt like their career paths were great and decent. And, of course, those who did not have the mentor stated that they were either struggling or feeling terrible within the organizations. That’s super important. In fact, two of our very stellar executive advisors and sponsors of the nonprofit, one of whom Sandy Carter, who’s the vice president of Enterprise Workloads at Amazon Web Services, she said that sponsorship is one of the most important elements for success of all aspiring leaders. One of our other executive advisors, Tatyana Mamut, who’s the chief product officer at a company that I believe has really taken off with COVID, Nextdoor, says that there’s still uncertainty about how to navigate a career with family for women, and mentorship is an important part of that equation.

All of that comes together to say during times of COVID, which is actually right around the time that we started this study, that really magnifies the level of feeling lonely or the level of disconnect, right? And so, given that we’re now all remote and working from our individual houses, a lot of questions that come up is, “How do I stay connected?” Or, “How can I find a mentor during this situation?”

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team’s mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Previously you run into someone in the hallway and you go, “Hey, I really enjoyed that talk or that presentation you did, let’s go grab some coffee.” Now it’s—even for our conversation—”Hey, Karen, are you free during these times?” Or you would ask me, “Hey, Nancy, are you free during these times?” It’s a couple of back-and-forths, then we find a time to meet. It no longer has that organic feel, right? And that’s what a lot of these mentorship relationships come down to. Again, for women who are interested in continuing to advance their careers during this very strange time for all of us, it’s important to continue reaching out and to seek people who can be your mentors and sponsors in a way where it may not feel natural to you, but it’s important to push through and keep on going.

Karen Roby: It’s hard I think, Nancy, for a lot of women with families, kids at home, and they’re doing their virtual learning that, all of a sudden the dining room table has become a classroom and your workspace. I’ve unfortunately talked to many women who have said, “I feel so pulled in so many directions trying to take care of my job, but my other job as a mom, and having them there and in our space and trying to help them navigate their classroom work, it’s really, really hard to do that.” And it’d be one thing if it was just for a month, but it’s been going on and on. In some states kids haven’t gone back to school at all.

Nancy Wang: Absolutely. In fact, that’s actually why a lot of the conversation now, even among senior women in leadership … for example, yesterday I was a part of the Andreessen and Horowitz getting women and more minorities board-ready conversation. Naturally during the breakout groups, our conversation turned into, “Well, family obligations are real.” You want your children to continue succeeding in their educational career, just like you want to succeed in your work career. And that takes time. At the end of the day, it’s really about where are you investing your precious time and precious hours? And traditionally, that has been a role that women have played in society. And, of course, as women have advanced to senior executive roles, there’s more help or more resources that can help alleviate some of that burden. But of course, with COVID and some of those healthcare challenges that you and I and our friends have all experienced, that means that women are no longer getting the support that they have in the past.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There’s a couple strategies that I’ve heard work. For example, my organization or other leaders that I work with at Amazon and other companies, is really coming down to a common understanding with your partner, whoever it might be, of sharing those responsibilities. From a managerial perspective or a corporate dynamic perspective, understanding, “Hey, just because you’re a female employee, or a male employee for that matter because we have a lot of great dads out there, are gone from the hours of maybe 2 to 5 p.m. but they come online later at night after the kids have gone to bed, that does not mean that they are any less of a productive employee, provided the output is the same. Understanding those paradigms and becoming more comfortable with flexible work schedules is an important step and one that I try to espouse for my team.

Karen Roby: If you could say to those in leadership positions in tech, especially, what do they need to do? If you could kind of boil it down to a couple of really important things to keep in mind, to help keep women involved and happy in their roles as they’re trying to work through this difficult time. How would you kind of boil that down to a couple main points?

Nancy Wang: Going back to outcomes or learnings that we had from our study, the Future of Women study, definitely take a look, because I’m sure reading through, as a woman in tech or a male ally of women in tech, you might identify or recognize a lot of the same concerns or feedback that you might have yourself or from your female colleagues. A couple of things definitely stand out. I’ve put in practice, even here at Amazon, which is helping women establish affinity groups, which are so important during the times of COVID. Of creating a safe space where they can meet virtually at a time that’s convenient to them, especially those who have children and other family care duties.

SEE: Managing the multicloud: Challenges, opportunities, and best practices (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Affinity groups, where they can share certain topics, from a more systematic perspective. Number two is actually building some of that flexibility into your promotion schedule or into the way that you assess talent. Because that’s so key. You can’t just focus on hiring new people. You have to make sure that you retain your top performers. And some of those top performers are going to be women in your workforce who need more of a flexible schedule. So making sure that, despite the fact that they may not be at their desks all 12 hours or eight hours a day because they have other obligations, making sure that at the end of the day what they get assessed on is their output and not their ability to have a flexible schedule.

And I think lastly is making sure that women … I feel like especially in the workforce, have a lot of challenges to overcome such as making their voices heard, finding sponsors. Tied to number one, which is making sure that they have affinity groups, making sure that they also have a path or the ability to connect with senior leaders. And senior leaders also need to make it a priority in their lives. For example, my leadership holds a diversity town hall or diversity fireside chats.

Making sure that it’s not just lip service, but also, “Hey, this is really important to us. We’ll take time out of our vice presidents’ schedules or C-level schedules to make sure that we talk about these topics. And we put programming in place so that women can have peer mentoring groups or have access to leadership sponsorship. All of those together, from a visibility perspective to a pure safe-space perspective to actually baking it into how you think about retaining or promoting your talent, I think all of that is really the trifecta. And that you need to not just talk the talk, but also to walk the walk during this very challenging time.

Karen Roby: I like that. Not just don’t talk about it, but you got to do it and put these things in place to help. We’ll get through it, but it’s not going to be easy. I really appreciate you being here with me today. I think the work you guys are doing on behalf of women and minorities, it’s really important work.

Nancy Wang: Well, thank you so much. In fact one other thing I’d love to share with you, Karen, when it’s out is, COVID has actually changed the way that we deliver content to our members. Where we had physical workshops previously, we’ve now doubled down on our partnership with Coursera and with AWS to create some of those career training programs and put it fully online. The one that we launched in September around the fundamentals and real-world product management has now had over 4,000 learners and enrollments since we launched in September, which is a huge, I would say, response. And we’re already underway in terms of our second specialization that’s focused on how to get women and minorities in particular cloud-ready, because the number of cloud jobs have exploded. And so being competitive in this new tech world almost requires that you be savvy around cloud principles. So, more to come on that, and I’d love to update you.