Women in Technology – Let’s Talk About It

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As more female professionals emerge in the technology industry, the conversation about women’s issues in this male-dominated workplace has increased.

Thanks to UMT’s organizational sponsorship of Columbia University Women in Business, several of us were able to attend the university’s Women in Business week and to partake in a stimulating discussion with high-profile panelists on the subject of Women in Technology (WIT). The main ideas threading the dialogue between the panelists and audience members together were that women are looking to build themselves as leaders, to seize professional opportunities and to grow from their starting position as a relative minority within the tech industry. How? The answers are not always clear, but the conversation is interesting. We tried to capture the major discussion themes from the WIT panel below.

How can women be more empowered in a workplace where they may be subject to gender stereotypes?

The notion of women not merely accepting but rather embracing their stereotypes, the very thing that the second wave of feminism sought to diminish, may seem at first glance counterintuitive. Perhaps, though, embracing what makes women different from men can play to their advantage. It’s a concept that was echoed by several speakers at the WIT panel and, I must admit, seemed quite provocative at first.

Surely many women are aware of the abounding literature on female empowerment in the workplace. A few prominent examples include Lean InNice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, and The Female Brain. But the idea that women can succeed in the workplace by playing to their strengths and to some stereotypes takes female empowerment a step further. Both Tanya Baker of Goldman Sachs and Suzanne Flynn Speece of Jibe.com took the position that a woman should not apologize for setting different standards for her work environment, especially given that a woman’s needs, both in and out of the workplace, are different than a man’s needs. Contrary to popular belief that gender-based differences should be blurred in the workplace, the panelists’ argument was centered on the idea that playing up the differences can be beneficial. For example, Suzanne described a scenario in which she voiced her needs to senior management during her pregnancy to help illuminate the true workplace differences faced by women. Her takeaway message was that these sometimes challenging and revealing conversations with her male boss ultimately lead to stronger company policies, such as extended maternity leave, and improved gender-equality.

Panelist Taksina Eammano, an executive at Salesforce.com, characterizes the issue in terms of work flexibility. “That doesn’t mean that women don’t work just as hard as men, sometimes they work harder,” said Taksina. Flexibility in a woman’s work schedule allows her to work on her own time and still get the job done well. Ultimately, we have to remember that there is no “one size fits all” scenario for the workplace.

What does it mean to embrace diversity?

“Diversity” has become such a buzz word, and as the conversation about attracting more women to the tech space is elevated, it becomes an inarguable concept that we must embrace. But what does that truly mean? Tanya Baker of Goldman Sachs shared an emblematic anecdote. “I was in a meeting last week, and suddenly my male colleague, who happened to be the most senior person in the room, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘What do you notice?’ I wasn’t sure, to which he replied, ‘I am the only man in this meeting.’ When I asked how he felt, he said it didn’t really bother him and he hadn’t noticed until that very moment. I agreed that my experience as a woman had become similarly unnoticeable.” But then Tanya took an interesting turn, proceeding to discuss that it is gender-blindness that is actually an issue. Embracing diversity should not be about concealing differences, but instead about illuminating them.

Eammano echoed this perspective by drawing on the implications of its alternative. “If you have a homogenous group of leaders creating your marketing strategy,” she said, “you are going to create a product for one segment of the population.” Building a diverse corporate culture for success is not simply about aggregating the diverse components, but also about calling attention to each of them. At UMT Consulting Group, I’ve observed and participated in what we can think of as “diversity in the open.” For example, UMT CG has an internal art initiative that colors the walls of our NYC Corporate Headquarters with photographs representing the diverse ethnic and geographic roots of our international team members. On the topic of gender in the workplace, a UMT Women’s Initiative has been formed to develop and grow the female segment of our team.

In our follow-up post we’ll continue the discussion, focusing on how to overcome feeling marginalized by gender and whether success in the workplace rests on male peer support. Stay tuned!

- Daphne and Farah