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We need to talk about women in tech

GSMA Women4Tech

At the end of MWC 2018 there were a series of talks and panel discussions under the banner of Women4Tech, which showed the way forward for the tricky discussion about how to increase the proportion of women working in tech.

The show is a great snapshot of how predominantly male our industry is; quite simply you see a lot more blokes around the place. At this years event 24% of attendees were female, while the number was 28% for speakers. An improvement on 2017, but still low. Getting to the bottom of why this is, and what to do about it, is not only difficult but very delicate, but that’s all the more reason why we should talk about it, and that’s why I spent my last morning of MWC attending the talks.

Despite being positioned at the very back of hall 4 on the last day of the show, the room was pretty full. There seemed to be around twice as many women as men in the audience but according to the host of the first panel – Gary Heffernan of Accenture – there were significantly more blokes in attendance than previous years.

A lot of excellent points were made by the four female telecoms execs on the panel and one made by Robyn Denholm of Telstra especially resonated. She stressed that, while diversity is a key concept, it’s all about diversity of thought and is therefore a business matter as much as it’s a social one. Robyn also talked about the importance of actively encouraging women who have fallen out of the workforce (typically due to starting a family) to get back in.

This theme was picked up by Caroline Das-Monfrais, who is Global Strategy Lead – Industry Futures & Convergence at EY. She confessed to being initially reluctant to speak at these kinds of events because her personal experience of working in this industry as a woman has been a positive one. What persuaded her was thinking about the kind of professional environment she would like her daughter to find herself in.

Caroline then joined another panel focused on mentorship. I was struck by their commitment to positive messages and how vital to increasing the proportion of women working in the tech industry, especially further up the corporate food chain, the mentoring process is. It was explained that sometimes women can lack the confidence to apply for senior positions and assert themselves in the workplace and mentoring can have a profound positive effect on that.

The sessions were introduced by Mary Clark, CMO and EVP of Synchronoss. I got a chance to interview her the previous afternoon about her participation in the Women4Tech initiative. “I think it’s ridiculous that we even have to have this conversation to begin with; that there need to be agendas written to talk about why we need to have more women leaders, period, and specifically in technology,” said Mary.

“There aren’t enough and there are a lot of reasons for that. We know that women in their mid to late 30s frequently fall out of the corporate process because of family obligations and related issues. But I think the real reason is that women just don’t have enough confidence in themselves to assume that they should be in the job to begin with. A man will look at the job description and say ‘I got that’ even though, on paper, they may have done maybe 50% of it. Just that mindset is an advantage.

“I started at a place in this industry where I felt confident that I could do whatever I needed to do, but I was with other women who didn’t necessarily feel that confidence. So why do you see fewer women as you go up the corporate ladder? Is it opportunities?

“One of the things that I find more frustrating than anything is when you don’t see women pursuing operational roles that have profit and loss obligations and will fall into other areas that are not necessarily driving growth in the business. It’s that jump from senior director to VP level when I start to see things falling right through the cracks.

“My father instilled in me a lot of my confidence, and one of the things he taught me early in my career is to understand the difference between management and leadership. What is a leader and what does it take to be a leader? If I had not had that conversation with my father who would have had the conversation with me about being a leader? Planting the idea that women can be the leader is void in most conversations. So that’s why I like Women4Tech, because it’s bringing that conversation to the forefront. You can handle this. You can get it done!”

Mary’s comments reminded me of the now infamous interview of Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman of Channel 4. They spent some of it discussing a recent report identifying a 9% gender pay gap in the UK and Newman seemed keen to attribute this to societal sexism. Peterson insisted there were a number of other factors involved too and they were unable to find a compromise position. I noted Mary had failed to use the term ‘sexism’ so far in our interview and asked her why.

“I try not to talk about sexism,” said Mary. “I know it exists and there’s a problem – I have certainly been in those positions. But I’m very much of the opinion that I can’t let that stop what I want to do. I know there have been times when my career has been negatively impacted by that, but at the same time I can’t say that I’m not sitting here in a wonderful position, having achieved a certain level of success.

“I also know other women that have had significantly different experiences, but I don’t like to use that as an excuse for me. I also think there are some industries where that kind of behaviour is not tolerated at all and as you get younger in the workplace it’s not acceptable. We’ve been teaching kids about appropriate behaviour for decades.”

Mary also indicated that she thinks it’s important to avoid adopting adversarial, confrontational positions on this issue. As well as helping women get the most out of their professional potential it should also be about helping men to understand, not only what we can do to ensure we treat women equally, but also understand how it’s in everyone’s interest to have a good gender mix at every level in the workplace.

“I think positive discrimination is when things start going wrong – it’s when things start taking a punitive perspective and becomes more damning than practically beneficial,” said Mary. “I want this to be about driving a change in perspective that is then going to drive a change in the outcome.

“I believe strongly that we need more women in leadership and P&L roles because then you’re being held accountable for delivery. This is hugely important because it changes the dynamic of the business and there are countless reports detailing the business benefits of having more women in leadership roles.”

“It’s important to understand the makeup of your senior leadership team,” continued Mary. “I think the current benchmark is that about 21% of VPs or above in the industry are women. The thing for me is to say ‘let’s just monitor that number’ and I don’t just want to monitor it, I want it put into an actual audit committee report – to report it to the board. I’m not so interested in specific targets, I would just like to see it get bigger.”

I was really pleased to hear such committed approach to positive perspectives and behaviour from Mary and the speakers at the event. This piece was written while listening to Desert Island Discs, featuring Dame Minouche Shafik. Among the many fascinating points she made was her dislike of the term ‘glass ceiling’ preferring instead to refer to the ‘sticky door’ to incorporate the need for there to be someone on the other side of the door to help you open it.

This inclusive, collaborative approach seems by far the most likely one to achieve the outcomes nearly everyone seems to want. I don’t think many men actively want to discriminate against women in the workplace but a lot of us probably lack ideas or maybe even the inclination to actively do anything about it. That’s why it’s in women’s interests to not just encourage other women, but communicate effectively with men too.

Men, conversely, need to be willing to listen and really hear what is being said. Just as creating an adversarial environment is likely to exclude men from the conversation, men need to work hard to suppress the instinctive defensiveness it’s easy for us to feel when this subject is brought up. If we get this right everyone will be a winner so there’s no reason to feel threatened. In my personal experience parts of the PR industry seem to be especially good at finding and nurturing female professional talent and are far more effective for it.

But this will probably always be a conversational minefield. It’s tricky subject matter and people are likely to bring a fair bit of emotional baggage to the table. One thing Newman seemed to object to in the Peterson interview was his use of generalisations, but these are inevitable when you’re discussing entire demographic groups. There are exceptions and outliers in any such group but a step forward would be for everyone to try to accept generalisations in good faith.

I have embedded that interview below and underneath it a conversation between podcaster Joe Rogan and Mathematician Eric Weinstein (who also has considerable experience of the tech sector through his role as MD of Thiel Capital). I have done so to juxtapose a bad-faith discussion with a good-faith one and the two men (who both have wives and daughters) seem to be doing their best to discuss difficult subject matter fully and seek progress.

 

One of the issues Rogan and Weinstein discuss extensively is the matter of James Damore, who was fired from Google when an internal memo he wrote discussing the matter of gender diversity within Google was made public and elicited highly polarised reaction. He is now suing Google for discriminating against him and it seems that all he was trying to do is contribute to the discussion.

An inspiration for Damore’s memo was Peterson, who had published lectures on this sort of thing on YouTube. One of the many things I’ve learnt from Peterson is how Clinical Psychologists measure the human personality via five key aspects: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness to experience. Doing that test and comparing it to others provides a great reminder that we’re all hardwired differently and that’s fine; there’s no good or bad, just different.

The best education for me in this context is to be in the company of strong, confident women like my wife, my mum, my daughter and Mary who, while they’re often kind enough to put me straight when say or do stuff that’s out of line, are also compassionate and don’t over-punish me for it. They give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t assume bad faith on my part.

In writing this I’m hoping to demonstrate that women and men can have grown up, constructive conversations on this and any other matter, and to observe that this is clearly the way forward. In the above interview Weinstein talks about ‘getting in trouble’ for a tweet he wrote on this subject and I have experience of that sort of thing too, but we mustn’t let that put us off. I think we’re headed in the right direction but we need to keep talking and I welcome any (ideally good-faith) comments on this piece and the topic in general.


3 comments

  1. George Norman 03/03/2018 @ 12:38 am

    The bigger question here is why aren’t there more stay at home dads? Why aren’t more men going into careers that serve their lifestyle instead of more money? You can’t make tech jobs equal alone, you have to make all life choices equal between men and women.

  2. Mary Clark 05/03/2018 @ 5:50 pm

    Scott – thank you so much for this piece on Women in Tech. For taking the time to attend the Women4Tech Summit and hearing their stories as well as interviewing me. I am so glad you found it as compelling as you did. Your thoughtful approach to this topic materially elevates the subject and I appreciate it more than I can say. Thank you.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 05/03/2018 @ 5:54 pm

      Thank you for your kind words Mary and I’m delighted you think it adds value to the topic. I look forward to discussing the way forward with you and Gilbert Scott next time you’re in the UK.

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