Acts of discrimination lets gender inequality in technology go unresolved

Coming up in tech over the past few decades wasn’t easy. A successful entrepreneur told me a story of how she landed her first tech job as a sales rep for a telecom agency. This was in the early days of deregulation, long before gender inequality in technology was an issue organizations were willing to address. She had a background in sales but knew nothing about the industry. She did well in the interview, but the hiring manager contacted her with bad news. The word from the VP of sales was, “We just hired our first woman and we’re not going to hire another until we see if she works out.”

This vivacious woman wasn’t about to take that as a final answer. She told the hiring manager in no uncertain terms: “I want you to get me an interview with the sales VP.” During that meeting, she talked her way into a job. The VP was reluctant, and warned, “I’m going to give you a chance, but I’m going to be watching you.”

“I hope you do!” she answered.

The VP got to watch as she went on to fight gender inequality in technology and become a top performer. She learned as she went and hopefully made it easier for the next few females who tried to join the sales force.

A woman who is now an executive at a software firm revealed how dreadful it was to work at a different company many years ago as the sole female coder in her department.

“I was the only woman there, and I guess this was before people knew how to deal with us,” she said. The harassment was overtly sexual and very distressing. “As just one example, when they would have a company dinner and start telling off color jokes, my name was always the one inserted as the butt of the joke.”

She took these issues to her boss who simply advised, “Don’t tell your fiancé about it.” After all, she wouldn’t want to upset her husband-to-be with such trivialities when it was all just in good fun. When she couldn’t stand the harassment any longer, she left without even having another job lined up. Sadly, the recent Uber scandal reveals sexism is alive and well in some organizations in the tech industry. While it may be in vogue to be politically correct on the surface, a culture of male entitlement only serves to advance gender inequality in technology, while wreaking havoc in the lives and careers of women in tech.

Perhaps the second most annoying expression of sexism is the dismissal of the opinions of women—even those who have credentials and experience that put them in a position to be exceptionally knowledgeable. A highly educated woman in the analytics field discovered that being heard takes real effort.

“I’m the only female in this role within my organization,” she said. “I have to push a lot to be taken seriously. I communicate in writing with clients. Having a PhD can help with respect and it’s definitely easier to navigate the situation because of having that education level. It shouldn’t be that way, but when gender inequality in technology prevails, it is. I’ve still found I have to get pushy verbally and give evidence that I am right. It’s like trying to swim in mud.”

Women in tech are there to win

An entrepreneur who started and still runs a thriving business found that she faced hurdles in getting venture capital.

“In one meeting I remember the men looking at us with veiled amusement,” she said. “They didn’t come out and say it but the sense we got was that they felt, ‘You have a great idea, but you are women! Come back when you have a male CEO.’ Based on the questions they were asking, the VCs couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that we had long term goals. They obviously thought we wouldn’t be around long.”

It’s not just men who can make life hard for women in tech. Female leaders can also contribute to gender inequality in technology related fields without even realizing it. One woman told me about getting passed over for one promotion after another because her female bosses simply assumed she wanted to stay home with her children. A failure to take female ambition seriously means that many organizations are missing out on the opportunity to invest in developing and mentoring high potential women.

The unpaid second shift

For some women, the environment doesn’t have to be sexist in any overt way to create an obstacle to advancement. It just has to ignore the responsibilities that fall on women’s shoulders on the home front.

According to an expert speaker on female empowerment in the workplace, “Women in technology are often faced with having to work in an environment where they don’t feel comfortable. Silicon Valley in particular has a startup culture. Working in a startup environment or a new department within a company requires intense, long work hours. A lot of younger women leave. They can’t adequately manage being a wife, mother, and so on.”

Women are still being forced to choose career versus taking care of children and aging parents.

“Even with all the focus on placing women in senior positions, when you see women who are highly successful they are often unmarried or have a stay-at-home husband who relocated to support them in their career,” this expert said.

She pointed out that men are facing hard choices as well in their careers. But women are usually the ones who end up stepping in to take on the unpaid work while their plans for promotion are sacrificed.

Individual encounters can rankle

According to a mid-level manager who manages a sizeable team, it pays to be choosy about where to work. Women really do research a company’s culture before accepting a position. They need to know if they are getting into a bad situation.

“I’ve worked in the military, automotive, and construction arenas,” the manager said. “The tech company where I am now does not tolerate harassment. It has a good reputation, and I made sure of that before taking the job.”

Yet she certainly knows what it is like to run into men who are jarred by the presence of a woman in their midst. They aren’t going to welcome an outsider with open arms.

“Some people don’t think women should be in that role. You can work to make that relationship professional, but it is not going to be cordial.”

There are also women who say they’ve never noticed any harassment or gender-based discrimination in a conventional corporate tech environment. According to one woman who worked in a larger organization for many years, “Either I’m extraordinarily dense, or I wasn’t being discriminated against.” Yet as a consultant who now deals directly with clients, she can easily think of that one person who routinely makes her feel uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, he’s an older gentleman who holds views that can most kindly be called “highly traditional.”

“He has told me to my face that ‘Women shouldn’t be in the workforce’ and ‘The reason women get married is so men can protect them,'” she said.

Even the client’s condescending greeting of “It’s so good to see your pretty face!” rightfully irritates this successful and accomplished business owner. She certainly can’t imagine a male counterpart being treated in a similar way.

Coping with a male-dominated workplace

As I’ve talked with women over the past year about what it takes to make things work as part of a team or as a leader, I have noticed an interesting trend. Women in the Baby Boomer generation are much more likely to say they had to “act like one of the guys” or simply treat gender as irrelevant in order to survive in their careers. They have learned to lead and collaborate in a masculine way to fit in and be seen as an equal.

Younger women in the 30 to 45 age-range are more likely to say they consciously bring female aspects and qualities to the table to help them succeed. Things like emotional intelligence, good communication, multi-tasking, and the ability to collaborate are traits they use to their advantage.

Both strategies certainly have merit and can be used depending on the workplace culture, a woman’s career goals, and her natural aptitudes. It will take persistence, experimentation, and courage to find the right mix for each individual. Here is some additional advice from the women in my tech network for how to make it work at work.

  • On fitting in: “If you are a minority in a group it’s partly your responsibility to fit in. As an example, I’m not a big follower of sports, but I will skim the headlines before going into the CEO staff meeting. We have to see what we can contribute to the conversation.”
  • On work/life balance: “We find that work-life balance is a day-by-day thing. Some days, works gets most of you. Other days, you have to make the decision to put family first.”
  • On earning respect: “You can’t be a shy or retiring person and get your voice heard. You have to speak up and step up. You can’t be uncertain, you need to have knowledge and come across as knowledgeable.”
  • On getting promoted: “Be bold. Let people know what’s important to you and go after it.”

While the fight against gender inequality in technology remains ongoing, most women see a positive outcome as inevitable. It’s just a matter of persistence, patience, and boldness.

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