In a sector like tech where women are in short supply, it would seem that a bit of female solidarity might well be justified, whether that means giving one another a helping hand or leaders passing on insights and lessons learned to more junior colleagues.
But the real-life experience of senior women seems mixed in this regard. For example, while Christal Bemont, CEO of cloud data integration supplier Talend, was lucky enough to benefit from a couple of extremely positive female role models, before she met them it felt more like “survival of the fittest”, with “every man, or women, for themselves”.
The same was true of Jen Taylor, Senior Vice President and Chief Product Officer at web infrastructure and security provider Cloudflare. Her advocates and mentors were mainly men, but in the early days of her career in particular, she says:
It felt a little like ‘Game of Thrones’, meaning there were a finite number of opportunities available for women and we’d have to fight to the death to get them. As a result, it felt like women were far less supportive and far more critical of each other than men.
That said, the situation was almost the opposite for Victoria Phillips, Chief Operating Officer at digital commerce and marketing software vendor Avionos. She found women leaders to be her biggest supporters, while her relationship with male managers tended to be “more transactional” and less helpful in terms of career development.
Lessons shared from positions of power
So now that they are in a position of power themselves, what advice are these women bosses able to pass on to colleagues and what action are they taking to support their progress?
A key lesson that Phillips learned from her own experiences was the importance of taking someone under your wing and providing them with guidance and advice, without telling them what to do. She explains:
It’s about helping people to be who they are, which means they need to learn what’s important, what to let go of and what’s worth fighting for. None of my mentors helped me get a job. They didn’t open a door and say ‘here it is’. What they did is encourage me and gave me the confidence boost to do something when I wasn’t sure. I’ve definitely had feelings of not believing in myself and feeling like a fraud, but they said, ‘Look at your accomplishments and see that you’re capable of. Just because you present yourself differently or look differently or have a different voice doesn’t make you any less qualified’.
Bemont agrees. The fact that she came from a deprived background formed her early beliefs that you had to accept your lot in life and could exert little control over what happened to you. But her female mentors taught her the art of the possible. She explains:
I watched them and a light bulb went off. With Jen [Morgan, former joint CEO at SAP and now Global Head of Portfolio Transformation and Talent at investment giant Blackstone], who was the epitome of energy, I learned that even the smallest things mattered. Her attention to inclusiveness and bringing people along and together in a meaningful way was inspirational. It was a softer way of doing things, but she was still strong.
With Elena Donio, former president of SAP Concur and current board member of Databricks and Twilio, on the other hand, it was about giving Bemont permission to be herself:
I’d always struggled with ‘am I good enough’, but while Elena challenged me, she also demonstrated that you can be comfortable in your own skin, even if you’re different. She dressed in couture clothes, which at Concur wasn’t something you expected to see, but she was saying ‘I’m not conforming to stereotypes. I’m a strong individual who expects a high degree of excellence and I don’t want you to have to think about what you look like.’ She taught be to be exactly who I am.
The importance of mentoring
Another important point that such insights demonstrate, believes Taylor, is the importance of mentoring. She explains:
It’s still a critical component of professional development and career growth, regardless of gender. Having someone spend time with you, give frank and honest feedback and advocate for you is as critical today as ever…Mentorship and career-pathing are the fundamental elements needed to help individuals grow intentionally in their careers.
But there is an art to getting mentorship right. As Taylor says:
Mentorship is a powerful tool to help women navigate an uncharted world in a defined way. It’s important for mentors to refrain from imposing a prescribed sense of agenda. Instead, let the mentee take control. Success looks different to each individual and all of us face unique challenges. This needs to be addressed in mentorship. The role of mentors is to enable and support mentees the way they are setting goals for themselves.
Given the continuing low levels of representation within the tech industry though, Taylor also believes that female leaders have a “unique responsibility”:
We need to ensure we’re visible to provide examples and role models. When I was a child, there were no female leaders I could look up to. I simply didn’t have the patterns or ideas I could draw from. Therefore, it’s important for female leaders today to set an example and be visible. This includes taking external event opportunities and speaking up at large company-wide all-hands meetings. We need to give future generations ideas of what’s possible.
The value of allies
A key problem in this context though, points out Phillips, is the current lack of women at a senior level even today. She explains:
When leaders, who are generally men, leave, the immediate action is to fill the hole with a similar person. It’s automatic and people don’t even stop to think about it or whether they could be more successful if they took on someone who thought differently. It’s a vicious circle and so the situation just keeps perpetuating itself.
But even one person, whether they are a woman or a male ally, can make all the difference by introducing new perspectives and opening the discussion up. Taking a longer-term view is also important, says Bemont, as there are a number of non-conventional ways to “intentionally inspire” and “bring more women along”.
To this end, she is currently working with her newly-hired principal program manager Liza Kirkland to explore participating in the Step Up initiative, which aims to provide girls from deprived communities with internship places at organisations operating in a range of sectors. Bemont explains the rationale:
Programs like Step Up are an important start towards empowering young women and having a multiplier effect. You bring them in quarterly for a two-day onsite of learning and education to provide them with hand-on experience and encourage and support them into higher education. We’re thinking of maybe working with 20 to 30 and the aim eventually would be to take them on.
While we have all been bemoaning the lack of women in tech for at least 25 years, things do seem to be slowly changing. As Phillips says:
The fact that we’re talking about it now shows progress. The fact that it’s International Women’s Day and this article is being written wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago, but the issue now has attention and conviction behind it. And it’s no longer just women fighting for themselves. Over the last five years, we’ve also seeing smart males in the tech industry advocating for change too, which is vital.