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Splunk.conf 2019: Mentorship, advocacy and confidence for women in tech

At Splunk.conf 2019 in Vegas, senior women in technology from firms such as Splunk, Boeing, and Sandia National Laboratories gave advice for navigating a male-dominated industry

Despite years of work to shift the dial, there is still a lack of women in the technology industry.

At Splunk.conf 2019, chief diversity officer and head of talent for Splunk, Suzanne McGovern, pointed out that while women make up around 47% of the US labour market, only 25% of technology roles in the region are held by women.

While things are slowly changing, it can still be tough to navigate a white, male-dominated environment when you are the only person in the room who looks like you. To tackle this problem, a panel of senior women in the tech industry opened up a discussion and gave advice for women in the sector.

Be fully present

There are many reasons women avoid roles in the technology sector, such as misconceptions around what is involved in tech roles, and a lack of visible role models.

Even once they have made it to the industry, it can be difficult for women to be themselves at work when they feel so different from their colleagues.

However, having diverse teams and an inclusive environment where everyone is comfortable enough to be themselves at work allows people to be more creative and makes firms more innovative.

The panel said there are ways to feel comfortable in your current role and team, such as finding out about others in the team to better connect with them.

Jane Hite-Syed, NGS CIO of National Government Services, who often teaches career coaching, said one of her common pieces of advice is to “bring your whole self to work, don’t leave it behind”.

She added that being herself in the workplace, even in meetings where she is the only women, is “part of my success”.

Since Splunk is a data company, it recently ran an internal diversity and inclusion campaign centred around the phrase “I am a million data points” to encourage people to share facts about themselves that make them unique.

Each of the women on the panel shared some of their “data points” on what makes them an individual, including points such as being a breast cancer survivor, having a Muslim partner, coming from New Mexico, and being a grandmother.

Patty Morrison, Splunk board member, said there will be non-visible elements of diversity among teams, and knowing these can help teammates to grow closer, increase inclusion and help people in the minority feel more like they can be themselves at work.

“You might be surprised that, within that team where you feel like you stand out, they have something in their million data points that bring a level of diversity to their world,” said Morrison.

She added that people from diverse backgrounds can find confidence and strength in remembering that while their teams might not be diverse, their customers are, and that is who you do your work for. Even when you’re the sole woman in the room, she said, “you’re not a minority in that situation because your customer base is not only men”.

Allies and advocates

But when you are the only woman in the room, it can sometimes be difficult to be confident in your abilities, or have the confidence to bring your whole self to work.

Carol Jones, CIO at Sandia National Laboratories, said those struggling might feel more confident if they found an ally.

“The challenge is we often don’t believe in ourselves, so find someone who will help you see the growth in yourself and take on those challenges, because you have endless possibilities,” she said. “Believe in yourself and have someone who will grow with you.”

Many believe having role models in and outside of a workplace helps to improve workplace diversity, as a lack of visible role models is often cited as a reason women choose not to go into the sector.  

Monika Panpaliya, senior director of digital common services at Boeing, who grew up in a traditional Indian culture “where education and careers are not really seen as a future for women”, said one of the challenges she has witnessed most for women across her career is a lack of role models.

She said there are “not enough people who look like us and talk about how cool it is”, and advised finding role models, mentors and sponsors to act as “partners in career development”.

But allies and advocates are equally as important in a career – people who will not only give you support, but who will actively put you forward, stand up for you and advance your career.

In many cases for women in tech, this will be a father figure, and Splunk’s Morrison said of her time working with university students: “Their fathers encouraged them to go into it because it gave them the confidence they could do it.”

Women commonly feel like they don’t have the appropriate level of skill needed to go into technology, and require someone to challenge their own misconceptions about what they can achieve.

Both Morrison and McGovern called on all those in the industry to advocate for each other and to be the voice for someone who may not have one. “I would ask each of you to advocate for one women,” added Morrison.

Advice for your career

The panel went on to share careers advice based on what they have experienced and on some of the issues faced by people in the room.

Jones of Sandia National Laboratories told people to tap into their resiliency, as there are going to be setbacks for everyone at work and in their personal life, adding: “You’re going to get through it.”

She advised women in tech to be aware of the language they are using when communicating with their teams, as women have a tendency to apologise or to downplay their abilities as a precursor to a point made in a meeting, for example.

Hite-Syed from National Government Services emphasised the importance of continuous learning in the workplace, and said that throughout her career she has made time for anyone who wants to connect with her so she is always open to learning from them.

Building on the group’s previous advice to find common ground with teammates, Hite-Syed said people need to remember what they bring to a group, and to “be confident in who you are.”

Splunk’s Morrison said having a clear goal in your career, which she called her “true north”, is important, and every step taken should be clearly made to reach that goal.

Life events – such as being made redundant, having a family or getting a new boss – might change your career objectives, but people need to be clear about what they want and where they are headed.

She warned against having an attitude where you “just want to add value” to a company – an approach women are more likely to take than men.

“Leaving your options open is abdicating your responsibility for you career,” she said. “People leave their options open because they think it gives them more opportunities, but it’s the opposite. As a manager, I can’t help you with your career objective if you don’t know what’s right for you.”

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