By Robin Madell

You might expect that a traditional tech company would win the distinction of receiving the Top Company for Technical Women Award from the Anita Borg Institute (ABI). But you’d be wrong. This year’s recipient was none other than multinational financial services corporation American Express. The company was honored at the Women of Vision Awards Banquet earlier this month, attended by 800 industry and academic professionals, and more than 100 students.

Yvonne Schneider, senior vice president of global commercial services technologies at American Express, accepted the award for her company. In doing so, she explained how a financial services company was able to earn such high accolades in the tech arena.

“We need to be accessible to our customers and prospects when they need us, whatever location they are in, using whatever communication channel they choose — whether it be on the telephone speaking with a customer care professional, via the web on a laptop computer, or on any number of mobile devices,” said Schneider. “What these things have in common is technology. Technology, in fact, powers our business.”

What Makes a Winner

But it takes more than a strong commitment to technology to win ABI’s coveted corporate award. It takes an industry-leading dedication to diversity and inclusion. To that end, AmEx boasts a number of best-practice initiatives to help women in the workplace, as well as several programs specifically to support technical women. The company’s general diversity programs include:

  • Diversity networks that allow employees with common backgrounds to belong to a corporate community that provides mutual support
  • A formalized talent-management process that ensures recruitment and retention of top female talent all the way up to the C-suite
  • A gender intelligence initiative to train employees in understanding the distinct ways that women think, communicate, problem solve, and resolve conflicts, and how these differ from men’s approaches
  • Specific options and benefits that help employees manage work-life balance, from flexible scheduling and telecommuting arrangements to mentoring/sponsorship programs, adoption and education assistance, emergency childcare, and assistance with family management such as locating reliable elder care

In speaking about these programs with Evolved Employer, Schneider said she believes that the flexibility the company affords has helped move more women up the ladder in technology, as well as other parts of the organization. She also attributed part of the company’s success in these areas to senior management’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion.

“It’s not just about diversity; it’s about a culture of inclusion, whatever the diverse nature is,” said Schneider. “It’s about how do we feel comfortable working with each other, and actually honor the differences that we have?”

Tech Take-homes

When it comes to women in tech, AmEx puts its money where its mouth is. Women represent more than 30 percent of technical employees at all levels of the company, including the executive level. AmEx’s diversity and inclusion best-practice programs help to fuel that number — as do more focused programs designed to improve the experience of women in tech at the company.

Schneider described how programs like alternate work arrangements affect tech employees and other female workers in real time:

“We have senior leaders that are part-time workers, and that was unheard of three or four years ago,” said Schneider. “So I have directors in a couple markets of the world where instead of them quitting to have their babies, they came back two or three days a week. In fact, one woman I talked to last week is coming back full-time, so we didn’t lose the talent.”

Schneider explained that because of AmEx’s flexible scheduling program, the employee she spoke of was able to keep up with the industry by initially working three days a week before resuming her full-time schedule after the birth of her baby. “Technology is a very hard industry to leave because it changes so fast,” said Schneider. “By keeping her in the program three days a week, she kept up to speed with what was going on. She didn’t have that hard ‘on-ramp’ type of deal when you put your career on hold, and she’s still a top performer for us.”

In terms of tech-specific programs, earlier this year, AmEx instituted a global “Women in Technology network” to allow female employees to connect with their peers in different offices and divisions. Within the first two months, the group had nearly a thousand participants. “To get that kind of a draw in technology, we knew that we hit the mark and that there was a need,” said Schneider.

Additionally, the company has implemented technical recruitment and development programs to help ensure that job vacancies at all levels incorporate strong female candidates, as well as standardized job roles and defined career paths to provide growth opportunities specifically for technical women.

Culture of Inclusion

American Express also has a chief diversity officer whose specific role is to oversee the diversity and inclusion function and provide counsel to executives and employees. That position is held by Jennifer Christie, who oversees the company’s global strategy on these issues for more than 65,000 employees in 130 markets.

In an exclusive interview, Christie told Evolved Employer that one of the advantages for the technology group is that AmEx’s corporate culture is conducive to women across the entire organization. “The technology organization can’t opt out, if you will, because they are part of the broader culture,” said Christie. “So they can leverage what’s going on across the organization to drive what they need to drive.”

Another advantage Christie mentioned is that even though American Express is considered a financial services company, at its core, it has always been a marketing organization with a rich talent pool of women. In fact, over 60 percent of the company’s total workforce are women.

“I’m not saying we didn’t put a lot of effort into recruiting women, but we had a big talent pool to source from,” says Christie. “So we were able across the organization to really build strength in our numbers. And it goes a long way to having an inclusive culture when you have that strength of numbers. You really have a voice and can influence the right behaviors and leadership styles. From that, our technology organization also benefits, because it’s a part of our DNA. Women are a force, so it helps drive a lot of the right things.”

Christie said that in terms of strategy, it’s no longer about finding technical women just for the technology organization. Instead, as the company begins to digitize across the board, the focus is now on bringing technical women to all of the lines of business. As such, she said that AmEx fancies itself something of an emerging tech company.

“At the South by Southwest Conference, they talked about us being an exciting new start-up. Like AmEx, 160 years old — we’re a start-up!” laughed Christie. “But we like that, because we’re innovating, and we want to be seen as cutting edge like that. So for us to be out in Silicon Valley winning an award, when the audience is Cisco and Intel and these other companies, it makes us feel good. We feel like these are our new people! It’s exciting.”

Schneider agreed that the company’s global diversity and inclusion organization has played a key role in cultivating leadership thinking, as well as changing how people feel in general as employees of AmEx.

“The more difference you bring to the table, the more we’re addressing every consumer in the world that we’re working for, and every customer that we deal with,” said Schneider. “So it really gives us the opportunity to promote business, whether we’re promoting women’s business, or gay and lesbian business — you bring everybody to the table.”