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Dreamforce 2018 – ditch happy hour and play hardball

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett September 26, 2018
Four leading women in tech share their tips for achieving gender equality.

women's panel dreamforce
women's panel dreamforce
At Dreamforce on Wednesday, a panel of four women in tech came together to give their take on achieving gender equality in the tech industry, and wider business world. Here’s my pick of the best tips, aimed at everyone from women wanting to get ahead, to firms wanting to build more gender-balanced teams, and investors wanting to support more female-led businesses.

Age is just a number

Samantha Goldman, Head of Marketing at Lyft Business, shared an experience she had right at the start of her career in consulting, when she was told to wear a wedding ring so men would take her more seriously. She went ahead and bought a big ring to wear just so men would believe she was older than she actually was and thus should be in the position she was in:

One of the things I do today because of that stereotype is, I try to recognize that age shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t determine the responsibility you have at work, the role you have, it’s what you’re accomplishing. I try to work with my team based on ability not age.

Don’t label people

Natalie Egan, CEO & Founder at Translator, noted that she’s living in “a sea of stereotypes” since she came out as trans woman two-and-a-half years ago:

I deal with some pretty harsh stereotypes on a regular basis. Labels are really useful for certain things like a rock - that’s a rock, it won’t say ‘I’m more than a rock’. Labels aren’t for people.

Part of my job and my role is showing up, it’s representation, showing people I’m more than just a trans person. I’m also a parent, I’m a runner, there’s all of these things about me that people don’t know about.

Ditch the hierarchy

Sarah Jones Simmer is COO at dating site Bumble, which only allows initial contact to be made by women. She explained that Bumble wanted to create a corporate culture that puts women at the center, instead of the traditional hierarchical workforce structure, which is borne out of a historically masculine environment:

We thought about co-operation with a particular division in the business, and could two heads be better than one here. Women have an instinct to be a bit more collaborative, so how do we build a business structure around that.

We’ve really prioritized flexibility around the working day. 9-5 is so archaic, it was defined at a time when one person went out to work – and it was the man – it’s not designed for the modern workforce and modern women. We trust our team and give them the ability to do their job on their own chosen time. It makes the workforce better for everyone.

Ditch happy hour

Nabarupa Banerjee, VP Product Management at Walmart, noted that as a working mum with five kids “happy hour doesn’t make me happy”.

The panel agreed that firms need to find a way to celebrate with everyone in mind, whether that’s earlier happy hours or ice cream parties. If you have every celebration as 6pm at the bar, you’re going to always alienate the same people – not just women, parents who have to pick up their kids or people who don’t want to be around alcohol for religious or other reasons.

Find a mentor and a sponsor

The panel encouraged women to get a mentor and a sponsor, as the two have very different roles. Goldman advised:

Look for a sponsor within your company, who can advocate for you when you’re not in the room, and help you network.

For a mentor, that’s a two-way relationship. I get a lot of LinkedIn requests from women who ask ‘will you mentor me?’. Let’s meet and see if there’s a mutual connection first. When seeking a mentor, you have to remember it’s not all about you. It’s a bi-directional relationship and you’re learning from each other.

The important role men have to play in mentoring and sponsoring women was also raised by Simmer, who said having had roles in the male-dominated worlds of finance and technology, she wouldn’t be where she is today if it wasn’t for male sponsors:

I fear that one of the outcomes of the MeToo conversation is that men are less likely to want to engage. Yes, there’s a real opportunity for women to create that network for other women but we can’t leave men out of the conversation. We need to preserve those bonds.

And as most of the current leaders are going to be men, it’s vital to find a safe and inclusive way to ensure they’re part of the process.

Have empathy

Before her transition, Egan worked in a climate of “toxic masculinity”, where they hired very homogenous teams, and it was all about speed – diversity and mentorship were things they didn’t have time for.

She saw the world from a very male point of view, with a seat on the board as chairman:

I didn’t think about people and how they feel. I couldn’t see what women can go through before. Being a woman in business is a thousand times harder than being a man – that’s the truth based on my experience.

A big part of this transition is the importance of slowing down and making sure everyone has a voice. I try and make sure people who are underrepresented have a voice and place at the table. I truly have fire inside me to help all women in business.

Having empathy and checking in on people has competitive advantage inside an organization according to Egan, driving retention, engagement and loyalty.

Direct funds to women

Bumble has recently set up the Bumble Fund, in response to the myriad requests they get from interesting founders and companies seeking support. Simmer said:

They were grappling with issues of scale, how do you build your opportunity framework, how do you get to your first million users? We convinced the board – it took a little bit of convincing – that this was the time to do that, and we set aside $1m.

Only two percent of existing venture capital goes to women, that drops to 0.2 percent when you think about women of color.

Bumble has made its first investments, all to funds or companies run by women of color.

Play hardball

Goldman shared an experience she had when interviewing for a previous job that she really wanted. She got an offer but was a little dissatisfied with the salary:

I talked to the hiring manager and she said, ‘no that’s as high as we can go’. The CMO then calls me to try and do the sell and she says: ‘If you want this job, you wouldn’t worry about how much you’re making’.

Goldman took the job at the initial salary, worked hard at it for a couple of years, but said the entire time she was regretting not feeling like she was being paid the amount she should be:

Now I tell my team to negotiate. I’m going to work to get you as high as possible on what’s important to you, but I want you to realize there’s always room to negotiate. For women, we don’t do that enough.

When I hire a man, the first thing they do is say how much they have to make and they stick to that, they play hardball. Women we take it and say, ‘that’s all great, thanks’.“ If anybody tells you not to negotiate, you have to walk away.

Cry if you want to

Banerjee recounted a time at work when she was chastised at work for being too emotional when listening to a team member, who was going through a difficult divorce:

An HR person said to me, you’re a senior leader and people saw you crying. It’s just not going to look good for you.

As well as throwing scientific facts back at her colleague, highlighting that women are biologically more prone to displays of emotion, Banerjee pointed out:

If I can’t be me, how can I be here? How do you have a workplace and have women there and ask them to act like men? I have to come in as my true authentic self.

Drop the ball

The panel also agreed that failure is fine and sometimes it’s ok to drop the ball. Simmer said:

My younger career professional self, I wanted to keep all the balls in motion, and then I had a kid and I realized there’s absolutely no way to do that. You’re juggling every email and trying to get them all answered and trying to be accountable to everyone else. Figuring out what’s most important has helped make me a more effective leader.

So I say, drop the ball.

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