The technology industry is made up of just 26% women, compared to a nearly equal split at 49% across the total workforce. Most notably, that number hasn’t done much besides decrease over the past 30 years, hovering around the same percentage and dipping slightly in recent years.

But the lack of women in tech is a deeper issue that stems all the way back to childhood — with gender stereotypes that have historically, and inaccurately, suggested that women and girls are less skilled at math, science, and technology. Unfortunately, that persistent bias has grown into a self-fulfilling prophecy over the years, creating a systemic issue where girls and women aren’t well represented in STEM, and therefore don’t feel empowered or encouraged to pursue it as a career path.

“For a certain period of time in your life when you’re in middle school, your interest in STEM as a girl or as a non-binary learner can be impacted by the lack of representation that you see. You can have a spark, or you can have an interest, but if you don’t see yourself represented, you will not necessarily start taking those courses for high school, which will in fact impact your ability to participate in post-secondary, which will impact your ability to get a career in STEM later in your life,” says Rebecca Hazell, interim executive director of Hackergal.

To close the gender gap for women in STEM careers, girls need to be encouraged to maintain an interest in STEM during elementary, middle, and high school. And that’s the core of Hackergal’s mission — to create opportunities for young girls to engage with STEM education and to consider STEM careers as a potential option.

Fostering the talent pipeline in middle school

Hackergal works with middle school and high school aged girls, as well as nonbinary students, directly through educators and school districts. Learners connect with Hackergal through classrooms, community centers, homeschooling programs, summer school, hackathon events, and coding clubs across Canada. And each year, Hackergal hosts a hackathon event at the end of the school year for kids participating in coding clubs.

The hackathons and coding clubs are targeted at grades six to nine, while the Hackergal Ambassador program is a highly competitive program for high schoolers who have aged out of Hackergal’s middle school coding and hackathon programs.

Hackergal uses a “teach the teacher” model, in which Hackergal connects with teachers, school boards, and school districts across Canada to directly train educators and provide them with information on the Hackergal Hub, Hazell says. The Hub enables teachers to bring a full coding curriculum to students that they can easily integrate into their lesson plans.

“Whether [kids learn] during classroom time, or it’s an extracurricular, they create that safe space where the girls can learn, make mistakes, and raise their hand with confidence and feel comfortable with that,” says Hazell, who adds that a lot of educators express nervousness about implementing a coding club, especially when they have no experience with coding themselves. But Hackergal’s approach aims to empower any educator to expanding their students’ access to coding education, regardless of the teacher’s own programming experience.

Utilizing a platform called Lynx, which originated in Canada and is developed in English and French, Hackergal provides educational programming across the country for students and teachers. The team at Hackergal has been intentional about making its curriculum available to students and teachers in any situation — whether they’re homeschooled or reside in rural areas of Canada, and regardless of language.

“We know that there are certain populations who need our programming a lot and they need the support. They need the community, they need the connection, and the competence-building for their youth. And we’re more than happy to keep growing our program in the interest of serving them better,” says Hazell.

Empowering a future generation of workers

Hackergal’s current generation of learners is highly motivated to have a social impact in their work, says Hazell, adding that this is reflected in each year’s hackathon theme. Last year’s participants, for example, worked around the theme “coding together for our planet,” with a focus on sustainability and environmental issues, such as addressing pollution or developing innovative energy solutions.

“We are very connected to social impact as an organization. It guides everything that we do,” Hazell says. “Research shows that girls specifically are more connected to tech and STEM learning if there is a social impact that’s aligned with that.”

Encouraging students’ passions about social progress is part of Hackergal’s commitment, given that as a generation Hackergal learners will face “some of the biggest problems that this world has ever encountered” and will be among those responsible for finding solutions, Hazell says.

“The people who are using these skills that we’re training them on now are going to have careers that are directly involved in coming up with solutions, and trying to innovate, to make sure our planet is okay,” she adds.

The program also helps its learners establish impressive resumes right out of high school, with some Hackergal students starting up companies by grade 11. That motivation and commitment will help them to become top talent for organizations in the future.

“They’re very motivated in that respect, the teenagers who are in our program, and they have a lot to offer and see the bigger picture. They’re thinking about what they can do and how it will impact the world going forward and what they can do to positively impact the world,” says Hazell.

Getting involved

For companies that want to work with Hackergal, it’s something of a “boutique” experience, says Laurel Maule, development manager at Hackergal. Because the organizations doesn’t have a home-base for students or a main operation center where companies can donate time or resources, corporate sponsors and donors typically work directly with Hackergal to support the organization’s specific needs.

As more organizations focus on DEI, they’re turning to organizations like Hackergal to help solve the talent pipeline as early as possible. For these organizations, it’s can also be an early branding opportunity, as they can put their company name in front of the future workforce.

Maule says that organizations often reach out to ask how they can help expand the talent pipeline. Beyond financial donations, some volunteer an IT executive to speak at a hackathon or coding event, or to write a blog or record a video that might inspire the young learners. Or they might invite ambassador students to do a specialized coding camp at their offices or offer mentorship and advice to older students who are thinking about their careers.

For the learners, it’s an opportunity to start fostering a network early on. They’ll have experiences with a variety of organizations, professional connections throughout the industry, and unique guidance from technology leaders, all before they graduate high school.

“The sky’s kind of the limit on how CIOs want to be engaged and how companies and employees want to be engaged. Each partnership, organization, or company that we work with, brings its own special set of skills. We work closely with them to figure out how we can utilize and build that long-term partnership to support these girls throughout their learning process,” says Maule.

A sustainable support model

By keeping resources low, and by working with government funding and directly with school districts and boards, Hackergal has been able to maintain a free program that enables students to learn, no matter their circumstances.

“We work in a way that doesn’t draw down too much on our resources and allows us to have that creativity and that programming. And we are interested in growing and learning from what we do and trying to challenge ourselves to be as innovative as the kids need us to be, because that’s what we’re trying to share with them. We want to make sure that we’re providing the kind of programming that challenges, that keeps them excited,” says Hazell.

And those efforts are working, as girls are gaining confidence through the program. According to a survey of the latest hackathon’s participants, 97% said they felt more confident in their coding and digital skills after the hackathon, 96% said they were more interested in writing code, and 100% say they felt more knowledgeable.

“You really can’t get better statistics in that sense, especially from a survey that you put out to kids that age group. It was fantastic to see that feedback, and I think we’re going to keep trying to meet that high satisfaction rate amongst our learners,” says Hazell.

Future of Hackergal

For the future, Hackergal is working on developing a full mentorship program for investors that will involve “more interactive, longer-term mentorship programs,” to further support students, says Hazell.

The organization also seeks to continue offering the program for free, as many of the students who need this programming the most are the ones who can’t afford it, or who don’t have access to it, making equitable access a key to Hackergal’s mission.

“I don’t think that we could say with conviction that we were serving those who need us most if we were charging for the resources that we are delivering,” says Hazell.

Hackergal is also working to increase sponsorship opportunities. Last year, for the first time, Hackergal launched a scholarship program, awarding two ambassadors who had graduated from the adult program a $5,000 scholarship for tuition or other expenses, generously provided by Royal Bank of Canada.

Organizations seeking to build their own talent pipeline through coding and STEM camps are also looking to Hackergal for advice on how to start, and how to continue that support beyond just one or two events.

“I hear from some of our speakers, and they always say without fail, ‘I wish this program had been around when I was younger,’” says Hazell. Even if girls don’t end up in tech careers, the key is “feeling encouraged to try something that’s maybe a little bit scary or challenging,” and finding that motivation to “push through barriers and to keep going, feeling supported by a community,” says Hazell.

“Being able to partner with Hackergal — it’s kind of like you’re doing it for your younger self, especially if you’re a woman in leadership in tech,” Hazell says. “Partnering with Hackergal allows them to fulfill that wish or that deep-seated feeling of wanting to connect with that kid. And seeing that excitement, and some of the photos we have from our experiences, really makes me emotional because you see these kids, and they’re so excited to be a part of that community and that energy is special and it can have a bigger impact.”

Diversity and Inclusion

Amanda Merola had zero technical background when she came to The Hartford in 2015, despite a natural interest in computers and a proclivity for problem-solving. After stints as a call center representative and claims adjuster, Merola got wind of the HartCode Academy, an internal program designed to help nontechnical employees make the leap into software development.

Merola was accepted into the HartCode Academy’s inaugural class, spending months in bootcamps and self-directed training before landing a position as a junior coder. Fast-forward five years and Merola is now a senior software engineer, writing code, promoting agile practices, and working with business partners to advance The Hartford’s digital agenda. 

“The HartCode Academy changed my life and my career path completely,” says Merola. “I never thought I could actually have a career in something that I was interested in outside of what my day-to-day job was at the time.”

Amanda Merola, senior software engineer, The Hartford

The Hartford

The HartCode Academy is just one of several initiatives The Hartford has put in place to recharge its IT talent pipeline. Across industries, companies are experimenting with more creative talent retention and acquisition strategies, including developing a pipeline of IT professionals that have unconventional backgrounds or are sourced from nontraditional applicant pools.

Despite a raft of recent high-tech industry layoffs and some squeamishness about the economy, the IT talent shortage remains an ongoing problem with no real end in sight. The frenetic pace of technology change, coupled with an ongoing shortage of STEM graduates, means there is a persistent dearth of qualified and skilled candidates to fill available jobs. Gartner expects demand for tech talent to continue to outstrip supply through 2026 based on its IT spending forecasts. Moreover, in a recent Gartner survey, 86% of CIOs said they faced stiffer competition for qualified tech candidates while 73% confirmed they were worried about IT talent attrition.

In the 2023 State of the CIO report, IT leaders said they were most concerned about finding qualified experts in advanced areas such as cybersecurity, blockchain, and data science and analytics. Bread-and-butter competencies like technology integration/implementation, IT cloud architecture, and risk/security management were most often called by CIO respondents as most in demand.

“The fundamental difference in this talent war is that previously, it’s been cyclical and this one is structural,” says Tom Connolly, CHRO at worldwide executive search firm Kingsley Gate Partners. “You used to be able to buy people or rely on the education system to pull people through so there was a ready supply of trained technical people. Today, those two strategies are no longer enough. Now, it’s about managing people for who they can be tomorrow, not for who they are today.”

Curating a continuous pipeline

With the digital mandate still front and center, companies are under pressure not only to expand hiring pools, but to step up initiatives to curate existing talent through novel reskilling and upskilling strategies. That’s exactly what The Hartford is doing, having made a conscious choice three years ago to invest in development programs to enrich its own people as well as to position the insurance company as a destination employer to appeal to potential candidates drawn to modern IT environments, according to Deepa Soni, The Hartford’s CIO.

In addition to the HartCode program, The Hartford instituted a 19-week bootcamp to take recently graduated hires through training to become full-stack developers and another 12-week program to build a pipeline for its highly-coveted data engineering role. There is a persona-based training curriculum to upskill staffers in modern engineering-oriented IT practices and a mandate for all managers become cloud certified.

Deepa Soni, CIO, The Hartford

The Hartford

“Fruitful Fridays” carve out time for staffers to participate in training and agile sprint exercises while regular hackathons (winners highlighted in town hall meetings) create an emphasis on innovation and creativity. The goal is for staffers to complete 40 hours of training annually, and about 70% to 80% of IT staffers have complied, Soni says. Since 2020, tech employees have logged over 326,000 hours of training and earned more than 2,200 certifications.

The company also established a hierarchy that enables individual contributors to climb to the highest levels of the IT organization without having to opt for a managerial route — something that wasn’t possible previously, Soni says.

“We’ve worked really hard to create a culture of innovation and collaboration … and to reimagine every part of our talent acquisition strategy, from retention to early career stage to executive-level succession,” Soni says. “Internal talent is gold, and we’re making sure our current employees find places to grow and modernize their skill sets.”

With the tech unemployment rate still remarkably low — it dropped to 1.5% in January according to analysis of US Bureau of Labor statistics by CompTIA — finding seasoned tech veterans to fill posts such as full-stack developers is next to impossible, according to John Hill, senior vice president and chief digital information officer for MSC Industrial Supply Co. Under Hill’s direction, MSC is moving away from a “buy mentality” for recruiting experienced tech talent and is instead committing time and resources to cultivating a steady stream of fledgling workers that will mature into key positions over time.

John Hill, SVP and CDIO, MSC Industrial Supply Co.

MSC Industrial Supply Co.

As part of this strategy, MSC has expanded the number of interns it brings in each summer while allowing interns to work remotely during the school year to foster engagement. Most interns are offered a full-time position upon graduation, working as part of a co-hort, where groups of 15 collaborate and learn the same skills and business processes over the ensuing two to three years. “This provides us with a future funnel as we grow and as people retire or move on,” Hill explains. “I think of it as an inverted pyramid where we’re developing folks that will be ready five years from now.”

MSC is also looking at the veteran community as an under-tapped resource. The company has partnered with Hiring Our Heroes to offer qualified veterans 12-week corporate internships where they develop hands-on experience and get networking and professional training. Many have been offered jobs upon completing the fellowship, Hill says. “Vets have exceptional technical skills from their time in the military, which lends itself to cybersecurity or various infrastructure jobs,” he says.

For Novant Health, students have become an active, yet nontraditional resource for handling certain IT responsibilities. The company’s Student Team Member program enables any part-time or full-time student above the age of 16 to put their hat in the ring for gig-based assignments based on their skillsets and interest areas. Candidates could be in high school, college, or even midlife, taking classes to set course on a different career path. Currently, student team members have worked about 19,000 hours for the healthcare provider, across a range of competencies, and the program has served as a feeder pool for full-time hires, according to Angela Yochem, Novant Health’s former executive vice president and chief transformation and digital officer.

Angela Yochem, former EVP and chief transformation and digital officer, Novant Health

Novant Health

Consider the network engineering team, which might need to physically go around and check configuration of gear at various remote clinics. “This is something that doesn’t require a lot of training — mostly driving around and laying eyes on an equipment closet,” explains Yochem. “You might have someone in STEM classes who has interest in network engineering and wants some visibility into network operations. It doesn’t make sense to pay a network engineer to do that work.”

Outside-the-box hiring strategies

IT organizations are primarily courting the same talent, therefore it’s important to veer from the standard playbook of higher salaries, more frequent bonuses, or dependence on high-profile recruiters.

Longtime CIO Neal Sample advises peers to abandon zero-sum hiring strategies in favor of novel approaches designed to unearth fresh talent sources. “The uniformity of the approach is its own problem,” explains Sample, now a board member of several companies and a veteran CxO. “The old way of thinking is that tech folks are disposable, like lightbulbs — if they burn out, you just replace them. But that behavior leads to a lot of problems, especially with institutional knowledge held in people’s heads.”

Neal Sample

Back in 2016, Sample, then CIO at Express Scripts, faced a major challenge: He had legacy systems that required COBOL programmers, but much of his team was on the cusp of retirement with no foreseeable backup bench as newcomers were not keen on working on what they viewed as outdated technology. Sample’s IT organization forged a partnership with LaunchCode to create an apprenticeship pathway for second-career technologists to learn COBOL programming skills.

The program was such a success, and it caught the eye of the Obama administration, which cited it as a novel example of high-tech workforce development and retraining. Sample says the initiative taught him the importance of “will over skill” when it comes to tech hiring. “If you simply win a bigger piece of the pie or poach people from competitors, you are ultimately going to run out of talent,” he says.

Positioning the company as a great place to work and staying connected to the larger community are central themes in Novant Health’s IT hiring strategy, according to Yochem. She encourages her management team to get actively involved in the tech community and universities in the Charlotte, NC, area, has established a robust labs innovation program to stay connected to neighboring startups, and participates in local alliances to position the region as attractive to both employees and potential new employers.

“Where we live and work is a blessing and a curse,” she says. “It’s flush with talent, but there’s more competition.”

Making sure the candidate experience and recruitment process is positive goes a long way in attracting strong IT candidates and keeping the pipeline flush, notes Rashmi Kumar, senior vice president and global CIO at Medtronic. The medical device maker has put a lot of energy into streamlining the application process, providing regular communications and using data and automation to identify top candidates and track the effectiveness of hiring strategies.

Rashmi Kumar, SVP and global CIO, Medtronic


“Competitive candidates want faster responses, and the old ways of working with them needs to be revamped to deliver a better hiring experience,” she says.

The single takeaway for CIOs, according to Kingsley Gate Partners’ Connolly: “Stop thinking about finding the round peg to fill the round hole and instead consider the possibility of a new profile that complements everyone on the team.”

Hiring, Staff Management