A Woman’s Worth – DigitalAgeConversations by Edith Utete ( Zimbabwe Chapter Lead WITA)
“Please also pay special attention to women. Women care for the other people much more than men. Men care for themselves. Women are going to be very powerful in the 21st century because last century people compared muscle; this century people compare wisdom. Hire as many women as possible – this is what we did and this is the secret sauce.”
- Jack Ma on one of Alibaba’s successes
Lately, if you are like me (fixated with all things tech) you will find that there has been a lot of talk about the role and participation of women in the tech space, at tech conferences – in the audience and on the panels, in the workplace and at school and in all things STEM related. You would have also probably heard responses to calls for equal opportunities for women being met with responses like, “What’s stopping them?”, “Who’s stopping them?” and “There is a discrepancy?” While I have a lot of personal and intense opinions about the matter and such responses, I will start by being as level headed as I can be, under the circumstances, and do what I consider to be the most rational thing, which is to share some interesting information that I have come across.
Contrary to the comments that there is no discrepancy in terms of gender balances in tech, research continues to show that there is apparent lack of gender diversity. In the US women hold 25 per cent of jobs in tech and only 14 per cent are in architecture and engineering roles while the ratio is even smaller in leadership positions and innovative roles. The percentage of women in Computing occupations has significantly declined since 1991. Some of the reasons for the exodus of women in tech according to a 2016 survey, included nature of the workplace as a central factor, poor prospects of development and advancement, inadequate support, exclusion from innovative roles, unequal pay and benefits (or distorted benefits in favour of male counterparts or subordinates – true story, I had this experience once upon a time) and lack of flexibility to help them balance work and personal responsibilities.
Why does diversity matter? Besides the clear example given of a successful company, Alibaba, in my prelude, research has shown that balanced teams are more innovative and efficient. There is improved and diverse creativity, problem-solving and productivity and companies are provided with larger talent pools. Another bonus of having a diverse gender balance is that companies are able to attract and retain female clients by providing solutions to female pain points.
Now! Now that we have got that out of the way and just in case we still have someone asking the questions that gave me an itch in unreachable places I will now turn to another matter…. that of the girls or women who ARE actually in the tech space in one way or the other. I have had the opportunity and privilege of meeting and inquiring about the whys, whens and hows with quite a number of these amazing and brilliant women but some issues that they brought up made me realise why so many younger women and girls would be discouraged or afraid of entering the tech industry.
For starters in my world, and I have picked up that this is the case in most parts of the world, being techie (or a tech geek/genius) requires you to be super intelligent and unfortunately most girls do not feel or are made to believe that they do not fit that description. We have been boxing potential and ability based on gender so much that STEM subjects are generally perceived and accepted to be the male only domain. So! When, in those rare moments, a girl ventures into the unknown territory of super intelligent beings the first instinct is to become one of the boys. Why? So that she can be accepted, respected and in order to squarely fit in. Suddenly, a woman feels or is made to feel that she has to lose her “femininity”. I can definitely relate to this having been in male dominated environments in many seasons of my life – from growing up in a pre-dominantly male environment, to having very strongly influential men in the form of father, uncles, brothers, friends and peers that I adored and looked up to, to working in male dominated industries where women were usually very few at the boardroom table or in management positions. I remember putting away my makeup, precious heels, brightly coloured clothes and sweet smelling perfume all in a bid to fit in and to be taken seriously. This was after MANY reminders from friends, family and colleagues that I had to tone it down otherwise I would never be taken seriously, valued or considered the formidable team player that I believed myself to be. Sadly, this shift neither made me liked, respected nor valued to the extent that I envisaged and to many I remained the young girl who thinks too highly of herself.
I have also heard how being a “cool girl” in the tech world requires that you be able to keep up with the team (aka the boys). One interesting observation that I picked up from Sarah Stockdale in “The myth of the ‘cool tech girl’ And why she’s dangerous”, is that, “The cool girl in tech plays ping pong, drinks beer at work, is “one of the guys”, participates in inappropriate slack .gif threads, says things like “she’s overreacting”, “I don’t consider myself a feminist, I just work hard”, “I’ve never experienced discrimination at work”. The cool girl doesn’t call out sexist remarks, she laughs at your “jokes”, she defends you to other women, and helps silence them. The cool girl is ‘one of the boys’.”
Unfortunately, as Sarah points out, the “cool tech girl” is a myth and a mere coping mechanism, not a real person. She is the product of environments which do not feel safe for women, which force women “to cope by reflecting the patriarchal norms that oppress them – like a warped funhouse mirror.” It has been said that, “If you don’t feel safe to be yourself, you’ll find someone safe to be.” When I have used this phrase some have responded by saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” or “If you cannot stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” So sadly, most sisters are faced with only two options, to fit in or to head out! And the sadder consequence of their actions is that future female contributors to this amazing industry end up feeling intimidated and opt to keep out of the “kitchen” from the onset.
I have countless examples that make women feel unsafe in the tech space – from the Uber board member who made sexist comments about women on boards to the local cases that I have encountered in the practice of the law and as a female STEM mentor, of sexual harassment and inappropriate remarks on social media or in the workplace. Fortunately, instead of merely whining about these issues, I have also managed to pick up some possible solutions to them:
- Mentoring of young (and even older) women in tech
The call that has often been made in most cases have been for more female mentors to avail themselves to younger women by sharing experiences (successes and failures, wins and errors), BEING VISIBLE (so that other women and girls can SEE that they will not be alone), and raising their voices to encourage younger generations to join them as well as male counterparts to accept them as they are.
Sarah Stockdale proposes that women in tech; “Be a role model of how you can lead a successful career while supporting women… Challenge the people around you to get better and do better… The more women feel empowered and supported, the less we’ll need this harmful persona.”
As part of the Xennials generation (those people who came into the tech boom in our 20s and had a childhood free of social media) I also feel that while we can be mentors we are also in need of mentoring even by the younger generations, the Millenials (those who were born into and live and breathe tech). All generations have something of value to share so we need to explore how best we can combine our “super powers” for the greater good.
- Dealing with Sexual Harassment cases head on
It always breaks my heart when I come across numerous cases of sexual harassment where, instead of getting assistance, the “victim” ends up feeling like they should have kept their grievance to themselves because reporting such cases often leads to intimidation and further victimisation. Sometimes it is subtle such as being subjected to unfavourable working conditions or more obvious ways such as non renewal of work contracts or transfers to less favourable environments. What we can do in these cases is to take ALL reported (and non-formally reported) cases of sexual harassment seriously and to deal professionally and timeously with them.
Sarah suggests that we, “Challenge corporate norms and values that can lead to sexist nonsense. If one of your corporate values is “aggressiveness”, start there.” A contributor named Stormy also added that it is important to back up the people who do speak up when there are inappropriate ‘casual’ jokes or comments. And that it can be done privately if publicity is not your thing. Women should not be made to feel like they are ‘uptight’, ‘emotional’, ‘overly sensitive’ and cannot handle a ‘joke’. The ones who speak up should also not be labelled ‘scary’, ‘difficult’, ‘annoying’ and ‘over reactionary’.
In addition, Rui Mai points out that, “… to avoid any sort of confrontation or conversation about it because to say anything is just automatically equated to complaining and weakness. When it’s precisely the opposite. It takes courage to speak up. Strong girls speak up. Cool girls speak up.”
- Addressing the “Bro-culture”
Sarah states that, “If your company doesn’t perpetuate the kind of culture that makes women feel like they need to be ‘one of the boys’, they won’t need the coping mechanism of the ‘cool tech girl’.” Some companies invariably prefer to hire someone that they can easily relate to or someone that they can ‘have a beer with’. This immediately discards women who are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, breastfeeding, of a particular religious or health standing and anyone who personally is neither a socialite nor a beer or alcohol drinker. Mothers, religious staunches and recovering alcoholics become the wrong fit in the ‘bro-culture’ environment according to Ryan Mitchell’s analysis.
On the other hand, Nikki J. North makes a valid point in that what we should focus on is not enabling sexism. The so called ‘bro-culture’ may just be what some females are comfortable with and appreciate because… after all we are all INDIVIDUALS. My thoughts on this are that while it is obviously impossible if not absolutely ridiculous to expect a culture or environment that suits everyone comfortably, from where I’m standing, when at work we should all be valued for our different contributions no matter what shape and form they take as long as our performance ultimately promotes the company’s standing in the marketplace despite our personal tastes and preferences. To be made to feel less valuable or an improper fit because of one’s beliefs, preferences, age or sex is an absolute No! No! And any practices that do not promote retention or attraction of women into their industry of choice should be re-evaluated with a progressive mindset. A possible solution would be to make an attempt to accommodate everyone (based on skill, competency, merit) without being too one sided towards one particular sex.
- Promote development across the board
There will be need to build programs to train and grow female associates that leverage their technical and innovative skill sets. Women and men need equal opportunities to grow and thrive.
- Re-assess job roles
In my experience as a labour lawyer and consultant one of the reasons that cause women to leave seemingly promising careers is that women are consciously or sub-consciously assigned projects that are execution oriented as opposed to creative and innovative roles. Even where women are in leadership or strategic roles their input is not given the same weight at the table in contributing to the strategic development of key products and business goals. It would be helpful to assign projects without employing any gender or age biases and assessments can be made thereafter.
- Recognize and acknowledge
The contributions of both men and women should receive the same weight and be recognized and highlighted in the same measure.
- Recruitment and hiring practices free from prejudice
I suppose it goes without saying that in today’s enlightened and advanced world job postings and hiring practices should have gender neutral approaches and descriptions and yet I have experienced and so have some of my peers and clients, the clear prejudice in recruitment by some companies based on gender and the perceived limitations that come with being female. I specifically remember when I was younger being asked at the third interview in one company how many children I had, if I had reliable child care, if I planned on having more children in the near future and a whole host of other inappropriate and irrelevant questions which were designed to ascertain my ‘suitability’ for that particular environment. Having a mixed gender interview panel or team is also recommended.
- Retention and advancement
It has been recommended that evaluation of performance be done on an equal and objective basis not based on personality or gender. There should be “constructive feedback and clear yet challenging goals to maximize associate development.” (Insights provided by Jodi Goglin in an article titled: “Women Are Opting Out of IT, Here’s How to Bring Them Back”).
In conclusion, I would like to point out that while women opt into or out of tech jobs for different and unique reasons, and that while pursuing a tech career can largely be considered an option, the reality is not as simple as it may seem. We still have, in local and global cases, women and girls who are not privileged to have the options, who are discouraged by different factors from pursuing their passions, who feel unworthy or incapable of competing in that space, who lack self confidence or information, who do not have visible role models or mentors, who are not given fair and equal opportunities from the word go, who are subjected to unfavourable or sexist cultures and environments, who are not recognized or valued for their contributions and who are given less creative, innovative and “worthy” roles. There is still need to take a bit more interest in the issues raised as opposed to the dismissive and demeaning undertones that usually accompany the discussions on a “Woman’s Worth” in the workplace. These mindset and attitude shifts will certainly assist companies to succeed and reach a wider market for the greater good.