Dreamforce16 - Scotch, cigars and bathroom deficiencies - a survival guide for women in tech

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett October 4, 2016
Battling the scotch and cigars decision-making mindset - women in STEM discuss how to redress the gender imbalance.

Sylvia Acevedo, Keisha James, Geeta Nayyar, Jo Boaler

Diversity is high on the agenda at Dreamforce 2016, with sessions throughout the week covering all aspects of the topic and an executive appointed to address equality issues

One of the first sessions focused on the most common diversity topic – gender. In a session aimed at Inspiring Women and Young Girls in STEM, four female technology success stories came together to share their views on this tricky and ongoing challenge.

Common among the panelists was the difficulties they faced in rising to the top of their chosen industries. How they overcame these obstacles made for inspiring and often humorous listening.

Sylvia Acevedo, interim CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, White House commissioner and rocket scientist, said in her first engineering job, it was quite clear that women were not expected or accepted;

There weren’t any bathrooms for females. Talk about, you’re not welcome. I worked around this, I carefully monitored my fluid intake and made sure I knew where the nearest bathroom was. It took them about six weeks and they finally relented and realised I wasn’t going to quit. They got me a porta potty, which said ‘Hers’. I realised things can only get better than this.

Another time I was working at Apple, and there were really cool jobs at Apple Pacific. But I was told I couldn’t apply as none of my skills fit. I knew I could analyse data really well, so I analysed all the data on Apple’s biggest customers that had affiliates out of the Pacific region, and showed them all the millions left on the table because we didn’t have the same market share. They loved the report and I told them if they wanted it, I came with it. They wanted the report, so I got the job. Persistence pays off. You learn that people won’t necessarily open up opportunities so you’ve got to think how can I get around this.

Dr Geeta Nayyar, chief healthcare & innovation officer at Femwell, has faced similar situations in her career. She said that as the lone female representative at C-suite level, women don’t always reach out to networks as well as men do, and there is a lack of access to female role models and mentors. Nayyar explained:

The guys have a club – there’s an official Boy Scouts and an unofficial boy scouts. We as women need to be connected to each other, to discuss how do I negotiate, what’s the path forward. We need a foundation for talking to smart people in the same spot.

Nayyar said it was only when she moved into the technology space and away from being a physician that she really noticed how all the women disappeared.

As the sole woman on a board, she advised approaching board meetings like a cocktail party, one where you’re lucky to have scored an invite and the others make it clear you’re not really wanted there:

You’ve got to work the room, just like the guys do. You’ve got to find a way to have some humour about things. There was one very important decision we were making, and someone said, 'Let’s make the decision over cigars and scotch'. 

First off, I’m a doctor, so I don’t like tobacco, and I prefer martini over scotch. So I said, 'Why don’t we go and get mani/pedis and make the decision?'. My point was, you can go and have your cigars and scotch, but you’re not excluding me from the important decisions.

A lot of male colleagues don’t know how to interact with women on this stage. They’ve not necessarily got bad intentions, they’re just so used to treating it like a frat party.

Alone at the table

Keisha James, commercial CIO at GE Power, pointed out that of the 330,000 employees, as a black female tech executive, often she is the only one at the table that looks like her. James has been with GE for 18 years and said that for every position she has taken and with every promotion, she has felt like she has made it in her field:

But there’s always that glass ceiling, there’s always that next opportunity that there’s not someone who looks like me on the other side of the table. In many cases the door wasn’t open. What helped me was to have someone who pushed me towards the right role and opened the door.

Jo Boaler, Stanford University professor and co-founder of youcubed, an organisation set up to encourage young people to study maths, said she faced a lot of discouragement when she was younger around STEM subjects. Her physics teacher decided all the girls didn’t understand the topic and all the boys did, even though they had the same test scores. Boaler was lucky enough to have a couple of people who encouraged her, a maths teacher and her mother:

My mother was the one who said, you’re equally good at English and science – go for science. I had a lot of dissenting voices, but also a couple of really encouraging women in my life.

The situation hasn’t really improved since Boaler’s school days. She feels that many girls don’t go into science and technology because of the maths requirements:

Girls are constantly getting the message that maths isn’t for them, or it’s taught in a boring way with no imagination. We need to fix the schooling system or we’re not going to get more girls into STEM. And when mothers tell their daughters I was no good at maths, their daughter’s achievement goes down immediately.

As the interim head of the Girl Scouts, Acevedo was naturally positive about the organisation’s potential for encouraging girls to get involved in science and technology:

I was really fortunate to become a girl scout at a young age. When I grew up, girls weren’t graduating from high school, much less going to college or becoming a rocket scientist. My group leader encouraged me to earn my science badge, and because I got my science badge making rockets, I had the confidence to go on to study science.

But where the Girl Scouts is working to promote areas like science, Disney came  under fire for its negative female stereotypes. Nayyar quipped:

I’m going to blame Disney. I’d love it if my four year old wanted to go into a STEM career, but she’s always in these princess dresses, talking about Elsa and when her prince will come to save her. We have really interesting conversations saying it’s great you like to look pretty, but why do you need to be saved by someone else?

My take

It’s really inspiring to hear from four women who have over-achieved in STEM fields, and kudos to Salesforce for placing such an emphasis on diversity in all its forms at Dreamforce. My main concern is that these women will stay in a minority. The fact that men were heavily outnumbered by women in the audience for today’s session highlights how the technology industry still has a lot of work to do to place diversity as a core issue for everyone, not just those who fit into any of the categories.

Image credit - Author's

Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.

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