What I’d say to me back then – Don’t try to be something that you're not, says Qualtrics’ Stephanie Barton
- To wear a skirt, or not to wear a skirt? That used to be the question, but thankfully isn’t now for women in tech. For International Women's Day 2023, Qualtrics' Stephanie Barton offers advice to her younger self - and to others.
Qualtrics' Stephanie Barton may have joined the tech industry by accident, but it clearly was a happy accident as she’s been working at tech firms for 30 years now. After completing a business degree, she applied for a marketing graduate program:
They spotted I had some tech sales talent, they put me on the sales track and the rest, as they say, is history.
Barton worked for 12 years at both HP and Cisco, before moving over to VMware and then joining Qualtrics, where she’s Managing Director, EMEA.
When Barton joined the sector back in the early 1990s, tech was very much a man's world. There were very few female role models, especially within engineering and sales. For her sales role, Barton says:
I remember training courses which actually encouraged you to operate like a man. I remember courses on what to wear and what not to wear. There were stages when you were encouraged not to wear skirts or you had to wear skirts, it flip-flopped for a little bit in the nineties. It makes me shudder when I think back as to what it was like then.
And this was the situation for a woman in tech sales at what she notes was a very progressive company. Barton has spent most of her career working for California-based companies and views that as a positive based on things she saw in organizations she didn't work for:
It was more progressive. I found the US leaning in more around the female side because they did have more role models in the US than we did within Europe and AsiaPac.
Thankfully, the situation for women working in tech is very different now and there is much more support and flexibility on offer. Barton says mentoring and coaching is top of the list for attracting and retaining women in the sector. She has been mentoring and coaching lots of different women for many years now.
Employee engagement is another key element. One of the feedback mechanisms Barton looks for is, do her employees feel they can be themselves at work:
If you’re in an environment where you can be yourself, you'll thrive and be more successful because you're not trying to be something that you're not, which is how I felt if I look back 30 years ago. I was being encouraged to be something I wasn't. I know myself, if I'm myself, I perform and I'm a better leader and a better person because of it.
Being a role model is important too, especially for working parents who are often worrying if they’re doing the right thing working versus being a full-time mother. Barton says:
When I say a role model, you have to be transparent about the juggling act. The question they really want to ask you is how do you do it? You need to be approachable to answer it honestly, and help them think about how they could do the juggling act.
Fundamentally, it’s about leading by example. There are two items in the school calendar Barton won't miss, and she’s open about those. It gives people the confidence to see there is a way you can make it work successfully.
She’s also a great example of how you can progress as a woman in tech even when you take time out, as she had two career breaks with her children. What's important is connection points through those breaks:
Don't go off and not talk. You need to keep the communication lines open in a controllable way. You also need flexibility in the conversation about how the return from the break is going to happen and having an environment where you can have open dialogue about what could work or not work for both parties.
She also encourages men as much as women to pick their kids up from school at some point in the week.
In my one-to-ones, I often ask, ' When was the last time you picked your kids up or you went and saw your mom?', if they're caring for elderly. It's not just about children, it's about all the pressures in life.
One of the areas that requires more change to boost the number of women in tech is at the education level. Barton says technology is still very much an unknown part of STEM in schools. Instead, STEM is seen as product, engineering and computing programming rather than promoting the wider opportunities available at technology companies in areas like marketing, sales and finance.
Barton goes into schools to share some of her stories about working in tech and the opportunities it offers, but it’s not always presented as the most valuable career sector:
Schools tend to go down the finance route or the banking route or the legal route, the traditional role types. We need to really challenge schools to think what 10 years’ time and 20 years’ time will look like rather than today, or yesterday even in some cases.
As a parent, Barton has always encouraged her children to go down the STEM route if that’s what makes them happy. She also recognizes that some children are more arty or more theatrical, which is totally fine too:
That's what makes the world more interesting, to have people on different tracks that they go down. But if children make decisions because they don't know the doors open to them and what happens if they walk through those doors, how do we help mentor them and coach them in in that.
To encourage schools to add tech to the more traditional career routes they often promote, people in the tech industry need to continue to improve the perception of career opportunities outside of just core programming skills. Barton notes:
Tech tends to be very agile, progressive, fast-paced companies that are right at the forefront of what's happening. I got exposed to so much, particularly in sales, in dealing with so many different organizations, different cultures. There's just so much opportunity
Even for those working outside the industry, there’s still a need for some form of tech knowledge. Tech is now the change agent, whether it's software or infrastructure change, and tends to be a high cost of organizations, she adds:
Executives need to understand how it works. If you sit in the boardroom of a company, you need to understand tech. It's a really important core skill.
So what would 2023 Barton tell her younger self coming into the technology sector, and what advice does she have for women joining it now? She picks out three things.
- Be yourself. Be in a company that allows you to thrive. That's about the people you surround yourself with and the company culture. If you’re in a company or environment that doesn't make you thrive, it probably isn't the best place for you. If you thrive, you'll be happier and will likely be more successful.
- Tap into mentors. Looking back, Barton says she was incredibly fortunate and probably wouldn't be where she is today if it wasn't for her mentors. They should be both internal and outside the company, and you need to give them permission to be honest in their feedback so you can act and thrive on it.
- Believe in yourself. This one is inspired by Qualtrics EMEA founder Dermot Costello, who sadly passed away due to cancer in 2018. Costello’s motto was dream, believe and achieve - if you dream, you believe you can do it, you tend to achieve it. That says it all for Barton, who adds:
If you're in the right environment with the right people around you, guiding you and giving you that feedback, I think you'll be really happy as well and hopefully be very successful.