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Everywoman in Tech Forum 2023: What it means to be an authentic tech leader

One of the main topics of discussion at this year’s Everywoman in Tech Forum focused on authenticity, and how this helps managers to create the inclusive environments their tech teams need

“I got this recruitment letter from a high-tech company that said, ‘We’re particularly interested in you as a female thought leader’,” Radia Perlman, fellow for Dell Technologies and inventor of Spanning Tree Protocol, told the 2023 Everywoman in Tech Forum.

“I wasn’t interested in the job, so I didn’t reply,” she said. “But my fantasy reply was, ‘Thank you for your interest in me as a female thought leader. Although my credentials as a thought leader are impeccable, I must warn you I’m not that qualified as a female. I can’t walk in heels. I have no clothing sense, and I’m not particularly decorative. What aspects of ‘female’ are important to this job?’”

The theme of this year’s forum was "people, planet, progress", a nod to how technology, which is moving at “breakneck speed”, according to Everywoman co-founder Maxine Benson, will be a contributing factor in reversing climate change, and diverse teams will be essential in doing that.

But while technology is moving at a rapid pace, the discussion around diversity and inclusion in the technology workplace isn’t – Perlman wasn’t the only person throughout the day to mention how she wants to be defined by how good she is at her job, and not by being a woman.

One of the FDM Everywoman in Tech Awards winners mentioned her experience on an all-female panel at Mobile World Congress 2023, expressing her joy that the panel was about technology, and not about some of the things women in technology are stereotypically asked to talk about, for example, “work-life balance”.

An audience member during the day asked a panel how to move away from being known as the “woman in technology” and rather as a great engineer and technologist. And Alexandra Duncan, chief technology officer at the British Heart Foundation, said of the panel she was on: “The original question that we were wrestling with was, ‘What do you bring to your company as a female leader?’, and we decided that we didn’t like the female part of that because it shouldn’t define us.”

The crux of the matter is, focusing on bringing more women into an organisation isn’t helpful without building an inclusive environment designed to attract and retain diverse talent and make everyone better at their jobs.

The journey to inclusion

Perlman shared her early experiences of stereotypes and bias in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sector, and how this perpetuates the negative culture that keeps those in the minority in tech away from the industry.

“There’s this stereotype that from a young age, [engineers] always took things apart,” she said. “I never took anything apart. It never occurred to me to do that. I would assume I would break it or get electrocuted or something.”

In a computer programming class, Perlman was put off because the other students met this stereotype. “I walked into the class and the other students were bragging about how they could build Ham Radios when they were seven,” she said. “I had no idea what a Ham Radio was. And then they were asking questions with fancy words like ‘input’. I had no idea what that was. And so, for the first time, my mind shut down. I learned nothing in that class.”

Many claim diversity and inclusion initiatives are doomed to fail if the right corporate culture isn’t already in place – creating a culture that ensures people feel comfortable asking questions without being shut down or made to feel stupid is a must, said Perlman, as well as being honest and open.

“Once you get to be kind of senior, you think, ‘I’m supposed to know everything’. Well, nobody does. And if you actually think you do, you’re dangerous and you should retire. If you want to be a true role model, you should show that you’re very open about not knowing everything, and you should be the first person to ask naive questions.”

What makes a good leader

Authenticity was mentioned several times across the day – many agreed being yourself at work not only makes you a better leader, but makes those on your team feel comfortable to do the same, contributing to a better culture in an organisation and therefore also making it a place where diverse candidates may want to work.

The British Heart Foundation’s Duncan admitted: “[I’ve had] wonderful and awful bosses in my time and they are both equally responsible for my leadership skills … All the awful bosses I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot, you learn as much from them about how not to treat people.”

So, what makes an inclusive boss? Becky Pinkard, managing director of global cyber operations at Barclays, claimed being authentic has led to her being a better leader.

For example, she said that sometimes being open about and disclosing some of your own differences may help others on your team.

“I think being a leader means you have to be brave sometimes when it’s really hard to be brave,” said Pinkard. “Because you have to put yourself first in those kinds of situations, and sometimes speak up when you certainly don’t want to, and I think that’s a big part of what we do when we engage globally and across lots of different cultures as well.”

The result of this authenticity is making people feel comfortable enough to bring their “whole selves” to work, leading to better outcomes.

Read more about diversity in tech

After being told by a past boss not to cry in the office because there’s “no emotion in business”, it took a while for Pinkard to realise this didn’t sit right with her.

“I was walking to the station one morning, thinking about work, and it was like an epiphany,” she said. “Of course there’s emotion in business!

“We have to figure out how can we bring our whole selves to the office, and that’s how we’re successful. That’s how we get the diversity and richness of experience. If someone doesn’t bring their whole self in, they’re missing that emotion [that is] such an integral part of who they are. And for women, let’s be honest, we’re pretty decent at being in touch with our emotions. We pretty much rock at it. And so, if we’re not doing that, we’re not bringing our whole self to work.”

Similarly, when it comes to helping people to be themselves at work, and being “brave” by sharing your experience as a leader to help others feel more comfortable, Helen Needham, managing principal at Capco, explained why many people choose not to talk about their differences.

She said that sometimes attempts at inclusion can lead people with neurodiversity to feel as if firms are saying, “Be yourself at work unless you are autistic, be yourself at work unless you’re dyslexic, be yourself at work unless you have ADHD.”

“There are many other conditions that people struggle with in silence,” said Needham.

If people don’t feel “psychologically safe” to disclose these differences, they often end up struggling in the workplace – as a person on the autism spectrum, she found that before her diagnosis she was labelled “difficult to work with” and often saw people promoted instead of her.

Resource group

Once her firm gave her the green light to set up a neurodiversity and ability employee resource group, and openly talked about being neurodiverse, she was perceived differently as a leader, and started gaining more recognition in the workplace. Needham suggested firms and managers “create an inclusive environment so that people are comfortable to share their differences”, and also highlighted the importance of “amplifying successes”.

It’s not uncommon for people in tech to suffer from imposter syndrome, whereby people are uncertain about their accomplishments and abilities, and Pinkard of Barclays also pointed out that many people, especially women, don’t like to “toot [their] own horn”.

Advocacy, whether for yourself or for other employees around you, can make a big difference to the world of tech.

For Louise Hussey, director of production at Industrial Light and Magic, this comes in the form of calling out where diversity and inclusion isn’t present, and helping people to find a solution. “A lot of times, it’s not that people meant to be excluding anyone. It’s just that they haven’t noticed that they were,” she said. “It’s no good to sit on the side and complain, you have to get involved.”

Jayven Sandy, product owner of low code technologies at M&G plc, raised a similar point. “I didn’t want to be seen as the person who’s always worrying about race, but it’s like, ‘if I don’t who will?’,” she said.

As well as authenticity and speaking out for diversity and inclusion, many of the experts at the Everywoman in Tech Forum this year advised leaders to be curious.

Be open, ask questions and educate yourself around what it’s like to be part of a certain community, contributing towards the inclusive culture many in tech are now pushing for so creativity can flow, talent can thrive, and tech can continue to progress. 

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