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“The assumption is that the women are going to take care of the social things,” said Juliana Vida, group vice-president and chief strategic advisor at Splunk, as part of the Womxn in Tech panel at Splunk .conf23.
“There are norms that are pervasive in our culture, just from decades of how women and men had their roles in work or at home. But now in the workplace, we have to put those kinds of behaviours to the side, because [otherwise women are] viewed as just there to caretake for others.”
Expecting women to do “unpaid emotional work”, as Vida calls it, is a common societal norm that still occurs in the office environment, and not only does being the one to buy the cake perpetuate the “women are caretakers” stereotype, but it also gets in the way of them doing their job.
Societal stereotypes play a larger role in the lack of women in technology than one may initially think. We hear a lot about how many women overlook jobs in the technology industry because they don’t feel they fit the profile of a typical person working in tech, but we hear less about the effects of unconscious bias and societal norms on women already in the industry.
Just some of those highlighted by the Splunk panel included women being more likely to be asked to take meeting notes, women being more likely to be asked to buy cake for the latest office birthday, women being asked to plan the next office party, men not wanting to make eye contact when speaking to women, men being more likely to talk to or pay attention to another man in the room even if a woman is in charge, women being overlooked for opportunities and promotions, and women not having their opinions listened to.
Shefali Mookencherry, CISO of the University of Illinois in Chicago, made the point that as a “new kid on the block”, it can be extremely difficult to adjust to a male-dominated environment when you don’t look or act like the other people in the room.
In the past, women in senior leadership roles in tech appear to have adopted a “one of the boys” approach to leading, with several of the women on the panel claiming to have had issues in the past with female bosses who had been so used to operating in a male-dominated environment that they had actually become very difficult for other women to work for.
When she was in her 20s, Mookencherry admitted she worked for a woman who she “hated to go to work for”, adding that “in my 30-plus years of experience, I’ve only had one woman boss, and she was such a mean person”.
At the time, Mookencherry wondered, “Why is she doing this to me?”, but she eventually realised it was down to the woman’s own insecurities about being the only woman in a boardroom.
I don’t want your job
During the Womxn in Tech panel at Splunk .conf23, Shefali Mookencherry, CISO at the University of Illinois, Chicago, talked about one of her own experiences, where a man higher up in the company refused to meet with her about a project she wanted to work on.
For six months, every meeting Mookencherry tried to schedule with this colleague was cancelled at the last minute – until she made friends with his assistant. Another seven months on, she asked his assistant to block out some time in his diary for her, but without naming her.
“I sat in his office for an entire hour. And I waited for him to come back from his meeting. And so then he opened the door and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I was like, ‘Surprise!’.”
After talking to the person in question, Mookencherry was told the reason he hadn’t wanted to meet her was because he was afraid she would eventually be aiming to take his job, and may well get it because she was part of an under-represented group.
She explained to him: “I’m a friend. I’m not here to do your job, because I wouldn’t want it. I love the job that I do. I think he had respect for me in the end. We worked together for 10 more years after that.”
Mookencherry’s advice is that rather than seeing yourself as a “victim”, be the subject matter expert and you’ve already “earned” your place in the room.
“You have to know who you are and the challenges that you want to take on,” she said.
Hannah Thomas, senior cyber security analyst at the Bank of England, had a similar experience with a female boss earlier in her career.
“She felt like she had to become one of the guys. When you talked to her outside of work, she was actually really kind and really nice. However, in work, she put on this persona, she just wasn’t herself, she couldn’t be herself because work didn’t allow that,” explained Thomas.
She said it left her thinking: “If you’re not here to support people and be kind, why are you here and why are you like this?”
It’s no surprise women don’t want to show weakness or that they make adaptations when in a male-dominated environment, and one panellist even admitted to waiting for the next elevator or booking a different hotel to stay in at a male-dominated conference.
But Michelle Garcia, director of information security and compliance at Carnival Cruise Line, claimed a past female boss of hers, though not while she was in tech, inspired her to be the exact opposite kind of leader.
Going on to point out that there are two types of women in tech – the kind who helps others to the top, and the kind who pull the ladder up behind them – Garcia said: “[My employees] don’t have to work for me, so I’m going to be as supportive as I can, as understanding as I can, do everything I can to help them develop and achieve their dreams, because I didn’t have that.”
Find where you fit, and take others with you
The retention of minority groups is often a challenge for companies, as they put all their effort into recruiting people and not enough into creating an environment those people want to stay and work in.
Garcia advised the women in the audience to seek out places to work that are truly diverse and inclusive. “I realised that there are safe spaces for women to work. And that’s where I went,” she said. “The energy of how much I love my job comes from the fact that I know I work in a safe space, so that’s one big thing about evolution.”
The panel emphasised part of moving forward with your career is accepting who you are, how you work, and what your values are, as well as finding an organisation that matches this and that you’re happy to work for.
Thomas agreed, advising women to “find an organisation that really encourages you and promotes you” and pointing out that “if you don’t work for an organisation that allows you to be yourself, that organisation doesn’t deserve you”.
“Once you’re able, pull other women up behind you – being both a mentor and a mentee play a big role in making the tech sector more inclusive,” said Garcia. “I don’t care what level you’re at, you need a mentor and you need a mentee, because the only way we’re going to grow is if we grow together.”
But it’s not just about women in the sector helping each other, as male allies are crucial for pushing forward inclusive culture.
The importance of allyship
For years, the drive to increase the number of women in the technology sector has been predominantly driven by women already in the industry.
But in some cases, the only people in meetings and boardrooms are men, so if no one in that room is talking about the issues affecting women in the workplace, these issues are not getting talked about at all.
For this reason, it’s important to find, or be, male allies in the workplace – they know how to operate in a male space, they can support you, and they’re sometimes in the room when you’re not and can speak up on your behalf.
Thomas explained: “I have a group of male allies to whom I can point out the behaviour. And what they’ll do in meetings for me is to say, ‘as Hannah said’ or ‘I’m just going to repeat what Hannah has said’, and I find that works amazingly for me.”
While it “doesn’t happen overnight”, these changes and approaches do make a difference when it comes to a more inclusive workplace.
Finally, Garcia recommended being kind. “Kindness is a choice, and there’s not enough, so whenever you see a chance to be kind, take it,” she said. “If you can’t see it, take it anyway, because you never know what someone else is going through.”
Read more about 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.
- Several women in tech spoke about the importance of diversity at Splunk.conf 2018 in Florida, some about shocking diversity statistics and others giving advice from one woman in tech to another.