Women in IT: Staying Technical and Getting to the Top


Thursday evening The Glass Hammer hosted Women in IT: Staying Technical and Getting to the Top. Held at Goldman Sachs‘ West Street headquarters, the panel featured Dr. Caroline Simard, Vice President of Research and Executive Programs at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology; Wendy Stops, Global Managing Director of Quality and Client Satisfaction, Technology at Accenture, Inna Pomeranz, Technology Fellow and chair of the WIT Technical Pillar at Goldman Sachs, and Yvonne Schneider, SVP Global Commercial Services Technologies at Amex.

Avis Yates Rivers, President and CEO, Technology Concepts Group, moderated the panel. She explained, “The goal tonight is to present to you the stories, the strategies, the successes [the panelists have experienced] throughout their careers.”

The panelists offered strategic and optimistic advice for women in technology on subjects ranging from career development, office politics, mentoring, work/life balance, and more.

What Are the Challenges Technical Women Face?

Dr. Simard set the tone of the evening with a presentation of the Anita Borg study “Senior Technical Women: A Profile of Success.” She asked, “Why is it that only 5% of senior tech roles are occupied by women?” Based on her research, she identified several factors playing into the dearth of technical women at the top.

First of all, senior technical women are more likely than women at the entry level to engage in taking calculated risks for their careers. “Successful leaders are those who take appropriate risks. Risk taking when it matters is especially important for women’s advancement.”

Second, women are less likely than men to consider themselves innovators. She explained that innovation and technology are consistently thought of as male domains; companies and individuals should actively engage women in the innovation process.

Finally, “Women managers suffer form a perceived technical competency gap by both men and women. This shows serious, deep, underlying bias. This stems from a deep seated societal bias – 70% of people implicitly associate science and technology with males.”

She continued, “All of you are defying a stereotype simply by being a technical woman. Defying stereotypes is a difficult thing to do.”

And going against stereotypes tends to impact likeability, she said, especially when it comes to assertiveness, an important quality for leadership. Dr. Simard explained that many technical women experience this problem. The audience responded with laughter when she repeated something she often hears: “I was told to be assertive and now I’m told I’m difficult to work with.”

How can women get around this issue? Dr. Simard explained that successful women usually have a “large level of self awareness and the ability to modulate their assertiveness.”

Finally, she said, there is the issue of work family conflict. “Technical men are disproportionately relying on stay-at-home spouses, and workplaces are structured around this standard,” she explained. On the other hand, most technical women are part of dual-career households. Few have stay-at-home spouses.

This is tough for technical women in part, she said, because the culture of the tech industry awards hero behavior. “Companies really need to pay attention to this, [the behavior that] first you need to create problems to get rewarded. This perpetuates the perception that if you have family responsibilities, you cannot get recognized.”

Staying Technical

To open the panel debate, Rivers asked the panelists to describe what they feel “staying technical” means. Stops answered, “Staying technical means different things to different people. I’m in both technology and management. Even if you are in management, you have to remain somewhat technical. When you’re technical, you have to understand business. When in you’re in management, you have to understand tech.”

She continued, “To me, it means keeping up with what comes across my desk. I still get out there in the field, doing quality reviews with my clients. You can still be in the management role, and roll up your sleeves and still stay in touch. You have to be prepared to do that and not get caught up with the management role.”

Schneider explained that she does feel women get pushed into the project management role. She remembered being asked, “are you really going to be the person who is going to be the next architect?”

While she no longer codes, she said, “I constantly stay abreast of the industry and the technology. Keep with that type of challenge for your own self.” She continued, “As a technical person you are going to give more of what that solution means to the client. You have to know as much as your client.”

Pomeranz also recalled being encouraged to take up a more managerial position. She said, “ I told myself, ‘you should follow your passion, listen to your inner voice, follow what energizes you .’”

In fact, she continued, “At Goldman Sachs, we realized we were losing really talented technical women to project management roles. We decided to formulate a strategy to address this issue and formed a community of senior technical women – Technical Pillar within Women in Technology (WIT).” Technical Pillar provides technology and leadership skills training, mentoring, and increases technical women visibility among senior management.

Mentoring Women in Technical Roles

Pomeranz continued, “Mentoring is very important – encouraged by their mentors, almost one third of senior technical women in the Technical Pillar, within the last year, switched their role or expanded their role – we must be doing something right!”

Schneider said that Amex provides cross-cultural mentoring. She explained, “It’s different, the way different cultures work within regions and cross culturally.” The mentoring program allows the company to manage expectations across its global offices, she said.

“A lot of women feel they need to seek out another woman as a mentor,” said Stops. “When I started out at Accenture 29 years ago, there were not many senior women. It doesn’t have to be a woman, because unfortunately the statistics show the numbers get less and less as you get to the top.”

She continued, “I have a lot of women who want to reach out to me, and I make myself accessible on an informal basis. To me, the informal mentors are worth more than the formal, in terms of someone you can really open up to and be comfortable with that.”

And most people will be willing to mentor, as long as they’re asked. She said, “Just seek out people you feel comfortable with – most of them will say yes.”

Women and Innovation

Dr. Simard said that her research showed that a disproportionate amount of women did not consider themselves innovators, compared to men. She said that a lot of this comes down to societal conditioning, and that, “We all have a responsibility to engage younger women in the innovation process.”

She also recalled how one woman she interviewed went about building her reputation as an innovator. She said, “She makes sure to patent, publish, and document everything she does. This leaves a trail – a domain of innovation everywhere she goes. And people still call her up for expertise years later. It’s a good way to establish your brand as an innovator.”

Pomeranz commented, “It may be a misconception of innovation as invention. In the business world it’s not necessarily about inventing as it is about solving problems in a new and creative ways that bring value to our business.” How can one become a better innovator, she asked? “Open up to new ideas and new solutions. Create atmosphere where ideas can flow. Innovation means risk – without risk there is no reward. Take more risks. I love change. Get involved with strategic initiatives for the firm that bring value to your business and provide an opportunity to influence the organization and reinforce your position as a change leader There is always risk. We all can make mistakes. I think we need to think about how to take calculated risk and how we can mitigate that risk.”

Stops also had advice on taking risks. She said, “Sometimes I feel that whenever I can, I take a great big risk. I’m a big believer that if an opportunity is put in front of you, unless it seems like something ridiculous, you should take it. Sometimes you do have to take a little bit of risk and stick your neck out – especially if you have a little bit of determination.”

According to Schneider, she said, risk-taking is all about convincing others to believe in you. She recalled spearheading a project to build one of the first data warehouses at Amex. “We did it chunk by chunk – [I said] ‘give me $250,000 and I’ll show you what we can do with it.’ It’s about building that confidence. The willingness to take the problem and make lemonade out of lemons.” But that confidence comes from quality, she explained.

“Deliver what you committed to – when you establish a commitment, which is your brand, execute on your brand.”

Work/Life Balance for Technical Women

Stops said, “I’ve had the benefit of a stay-at-home husband,” but of course, she continued, “young children always want their mum.”

“I like to spend time with my kids. I block out time. When the school year calendar comes out each year, I block it out in the calendar. My EA knows it. I always do that.”

She advised, “Don’t be afraid to explain to your boss what your commitments are. I like when my team opens up to me and explains their commitments around family instead of just saying that they cannot make it to the meeting – It fosters a much more natural environment.”

She continued, “But you’ve also got to think about yourself. It’s not just about your kids, it’s also about yourself. …Of course, the more senior you get, the more you get to have that advantage.”

On work/life balance, Pomeranz said, “It’s a very personal choice – what’s right for me isn’t right for you. Every woman has a unique set of responsibilities, schedule, support system and resources. The only person who is an expert on yourself is you. I’m a true believer that you can make both your work and personal life work, it’s a matter of prioritization. Also, decisions that are right for one period in your life might not be right for another. While my kids were growing up . I made sure I stayed with them on the weekend. I didn’t miss extra curricular activities.” She continued, “What works for me is I find my balance in the acceptance of imbalance. I also learned how to have fun with the issue and change my priorities on the spot.”

And, she said, “Getting help is essential.”

Schneider agreed, “You need to give yourself permission not to be perfect.” She continued, “The emails will never be done. They’re not stopping. If you want to ask for some flex time, ask for it.”

Dr. Simard explained, “…women who were more productive were significantly more likely to say that they outsource housework. The ability to not have everything fall on your lap is extremely important to success.”

She said that women should create a “not-to-do list.” She said, “It’s empowering yourself to put things on your not-to-do-list. It’s so liberating. I highly recommend it.”

Assertiveness and Office Politics

An audience member asked the panel to go more into depth about how to deal with the “likeability” problems that come along with assertive behavior. As Dr. Simard had explained during her presentation, successful senior women tended to be more self-aware regarding their communication style.

“Usually women executives are really good at reading people and modulating,” she said.

She continued, “Become the cultural anthropologist of your own organization. Pay attention to who has a lot of influence and be ready to adapt. …It’s tricky and exhausting and it makes me mad that women have to pay attention to their communication style.”

Stops explained, “You have to understand relationships and you have to understand politics.”

Dr. Simard added, “Understand who has influence but not necessarily the title.”

Schneider agreed, “Find out how decisions get made in the organization. Understand the politics. In many cases it’s about creating your network. We do favors all the time but we don’t call in favors a lot.” She advised women to cultivate relationships with the people that they need to help get things done. “The more you know people, if you want them to help you, they typically will do it,” she said.

Stops said, “You have to be yourself. Be your own authentic self. It’s okay sometimes to show who you are, your authentic style, your honesty. Be yourself. Understand politics, but try not to get drawn into them. “

Pomeranz agreed, “Modulating is also about adjusting your message if you want to influence the organization.”

Watch the highlights here!

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)