Imagine a world where women can easily find an empty stall in the public restroom, but men must wait in a very, very long line. Sounds pretty unlikely, right? Sadly, at popular Silicon Valley tech conferences, it’s the norm. Women are vastly underrepresented. So, while Apple held its WorldWide Developers Conference last week, and yet another image of the mens’ bathroom line was tweeted out into the universe, I traveled down to Santa Clara to attend the 25th Women in Technology International Conference alongside our Director of Marketing Communications, Sylvia Esmundo.
The Challenge of Bias in Technology Today
There are three common themes that generally develop across start-ups. When multiplied together, organizations can develop with a distinct bias in favor of white men.
1) It’s all about building a viable product.
Startups are, by their very nature, product-led businesses with a direct focus on growth & adoption. This lean business model requires minimal overhead, making talent the most critical component to growth.
2) Fast growth means little time for recruiting.
A technology company must prove its growth capability early and often. Every employee is responsible for producing – whether it’s code, content, sales or otherwise – from C-level to individual contributor. Hiring becomes a passive process, reviewing resumes that come in from one or two job postings.
3) Fast growth means little time for management.
With each employee focusing on producing, a sink-or-swim approach to career development emerges. In order to guarantee that the new hire will succeed at your startup, most founders initiate a “culture-fit” interview process, assessing the individual for personality traits that will mesh well with the existing team. This is where a more subjective bias can come into play.
What We, As Women, Can Do About It
When the Women in Technology International (WITI) Conference first convened 25 years ago, technology in business was focused on IT. This served a critical, yet auxiliary, role in corporate structure. While the unique challenges of today’s startup culture outlined above did not apply, women were struggling for recognition and promotion in these technical fields. What remained consistent, however, is that women continue to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields, both then and now, making bias-reduction quite a challenge.
While “curing” our industry of its gender biases will require a cultural paradigm shift larger than any person or event, we’d like to share with our readers some wonderful nuggets of advice we gathered from this year’s conference that aim to help individual women in the tech field today. Here are my favorites:
1) Convene your personal board of directors
While this was mentioned by quite a few panelists and speakers, Marie Gutgesell (Global Watch CIO at Nielsen Research) explained it the best. Corporate decision-making is made under the guidance of a board of directors who can objectively coach the executive through challenging problems and decisions, providing insight based on knowledge and experience. Each woman in technology should seek out mentors and sponsors who can challenge and encourage her throughout her career.
2) Take risks
A recent article entitled “The Confidence Gap” in The Atlantic reveals a startling trend: men are more likely to apply for promotions despite having a skill deficit, while women will wait until they believe they have achieved all the skills necessary for the promoted position. Two panelists, Sheleen Quish (recently CIO of Ameristar Casinos) and Theresa Wilson (EVP & CIO of Consumer Lending Technology at Wells Fargo) spoke of career opportunities offered to them despite their own uncertainty relating to their qualifications. Both accepted the risk and flourished in their role, leading them to greater growth. Sheleen encouraged others to take on that kind of risk earlier in our careers.
3) Recognize that a winding career path is a strength
Puja Jaspal(VP of HR at Visa) regaled the audience with stories of her career journey, which began in mechanical engineering, transitioned through management consulting, and finally specialized in human resources. Not only did she credit her current position to this varied background, but she noted that the constant introspection required of making leaps and redirects on one’s career is a major asset.
Are you interested in encouraging the development of women in technology? Learn more about Women in Technology International here. Men and women are welcome to join!
For more thoughts on women in tech, follow Claire and Sylvia on Twitter.