We keep hearing a lot about the lack of diversity — the leadership gap– and low rate of women executives in the tech industry.
Only 4.8% of S&P 500 CEOs are a woman, and 22% grace the ranks of top senior management. Less than 4% of the total funding for startups goes to women founders. The World Economic Forum reported a 208-year timescale needed to close the gender gap.
Yet there are many studies about how female-led companies outperform compared to those led by men. More world leaders insist on the fact that companies and governments need to get more women involved in leadership positions.
“If women ran every country in the world, there would be a general improvement in living standards and outcomes. Women aren’t perfect but are indisputably better than men.”– Barack Obama
And even recently, this had been proven during the COVID19 outbreak. Women led the most outperforming countries with the best pandemic responses.
So why do we still don’t give enough credits to women leaders?
According to studies (and my own research), there are three main reasons:
- The external rejection from the male-dominated society mostly based on unconscious bias.
- The inherited bias in women themselves to not believe in their capabilities.
- The time to see the change.
Witnessing the slow progress rate and my recent disappointing experience in a tech company, I decided to dig deeper. I started working on the topic of the leadership gap over the past couple of months. I have been trying to understand how those who achieved success did differently.
I interviewed some of the most successful female CEOs, founders, and top executives that I met. I asked them to share their journey and asked their advice on how to be a badass woman working in tech. An industry where women face sexual harassment, mismatched pay, the glass ceiling, difficulties to raise funds, and more.
What I cover here in this article are extracts of my discussions with some of those wonderful ladies at Web Summit and World Economic Forum, followed by online webinars after the Coronavirus lock down, which resulted in many conference cancellations (and finally gave me a break to write this article).
I have put their valuable advice into a simple list of 17 best practices for anyone to follow.
#1) Pursue a degree in tech
Known as The Queen of seed funding, Reshma Sohoni is a partner and co-founder of Seedcamp, a European seed fund founded in 2007. Their firm has backed more than 330 companies, including three unicorns: Revolut, TransferWise, and UiPath. Sohoni is a member of the Digital Economy Council for which she advises the U.K. government on tech and startups.
Being a woman of color born in India, she ticks all the check boxes, and as an Iranian, I can relate to her to certain degrees. In response to my question of “How to be a successful female leader in Tech,” Reshma confessed that one of the success factors for her had been the combination of having both the engineering and the business degrees.
“When you have a math background or any science background, you have a natural advantage.” This has let her make the right decision in her work, where it requires technical knowledge.
#2) Find a nurturing environment
There is a direct correlation between the environment and surroundings that we grow in and our level of confidence.
“I was nurtured in a very confidence-boosting environment from parents and family. We were all girls in our family and with my cousins around we were so many girls. We were all nurtured to have a lot of confidence. I never felt I was treated differently. But not everyone has the same feeling. The nurture of an environment always taught me self belief that I could do anything. I also credit optimism and having a thick skin. Even if something not so great happens to me, I often think about what I can learn from it and look at the positive side. If this door closes, another door will open, and there will be more opportunities.”– Reshma Sohoni
#3) Don’t choose one mentor
Almost all women I interviewed acknowledged the importance of mentors in their success.
For Reshma, the trace of her mentors and role models goes back to when she was at grad school. “I try to absorb from people around me. I never pick one mentor or one role model. I always try to learn different skills from different mentors and I admire different things about different people. I like to surround myself with people smarter and better than me to learn from.”
#4) Receive honest criticism
One of the things that can be life-changing for any leader is the ability to receive criticism. Also get the right one from the right person if you want to develop your leadership skills. “Have really honest people around yourself. Get honest feedback, and don’t be afraid of confronting a mirror. That’s exactly what you need to hear about. Builds that self-awareness and self-critic,” says Reshma.
#5) Learn by asking
Veronica Costa Orvalho, from Argentina, is a university professor. Also a solo Founder and CEO of a startup based out of Porto. I met Veronica at Web Summit 2019. A first time entrepreneur who built an awesome startup in only 2 years after spending 15 years in research. Didimo, her company uses computer graphics to turn your selfies into cool 3D avatars.
Their clients include Amazon and Sony and they have already raised €1.5M. She started working at IBM when she was 18. She was working during the day and studying at night on computer science. She didn’t have a personal computer, but instead what she calls “a dummy terminal with no memory.” She learned programming by asking others how to do things.
“There was no internet or Google at the time to look for answers, so I was asking around from others how to do this and that. So I learned in the traditional way, how to do it. Try, try and try.”
#6) Have a clear vision
Having a clear vision of what you do and know the “why” behind things you do is very important. Also know what you are made for and follow your passion. This helps you stop doubting yourself and your capabilities. It stops you from asking yourself questions like “am I made for this?” Or “am I good enough?” It is easy to get discouraged as a woman in a male-dominated industry, where you have to fight to convince everyone about your capabilities.
“I do have a very clear vision and a very clear passion for why I do everything I do. I know I was born to be able to learn stuff and share it with someone else. That’s why I teach at the university,” says Veronica.
#7) Be aware of unconscious bias
When we talk about discrimination most people deny the real facts about it. For instance, if we ask a group of people, should two employees with the same skills get the same salary, everyone would probably say yes. But in reality when you add more factors such as age or gender, things get messy.
What happens most of the time is that our unconsciousness decides for us. And that’s a problem called unconscious bias. Women mostly are ignored or downgraded by the unconscious bias from the environment. Veronica gave an excellent example of how this can impact us:
“For example I could be in a meeting and even though I consider myself very open-minded, I can discriminate against someone somehow without knowing it. For instance, my leadership coach, which is our head of HR, always tells me to stop saying, ‘that’s fast, or that’s easy.’ That is treating someone wrongly in that meeting who doesn’t feel the same. It’s important to have people in the company to be willing to pinpoint our unconscious biases and also be open to criticism.”Veronica Costa Orvalho
#8) Let the serendipity knock on your door
Sometimes it’s hard for us to go out of our comfort zone and do something different. Having a different image of ourselves in a new position or under a new job title can be terrifying.
Especially when it comes to leaving a safe job and launching a company. That’s what exactly happened to Veronica. She was a researcher in her little, cute lab. She was not even thinking of creating a company and raising funds, but it turned out that Web Summit got her a surprise.
As a researcher she was involved in several European funded projects. Towards the end of the project, she was wondering whether she should continue her research activities or not. But out of surprise, she got contacted by an investor who was introduced to her through one of the organizers of Web Summit 15 years back from Dublin. The investing company liked her idea a lot and convinced her to start a business.
#9) Don’t deny your personal life
No one size fits all for success, and not everyone should be a CEO to be a great leader. When it comes to choosing a career path, whether we should launch our own company or not, we get to think twice. And it turns out to be the perfect choice. Claire Calmejane’s journey is precisely it. Her story tells us that we can of course reach a C-level position by choosing the path that sounds right to us.
Claire is a perfect example of a leader who climbed the ladder of success in the corporate world. She is the Chief Innovation Officer at Societe Generale (SG). She is also the Chairman of Societe Generale Ventures. She graduated in engineering with a major in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. She pursued her studies in business, working at the edge of digital transformation.
Before joining SG, she was working in London at Lloyds Bank. She transformed the whole online banking system and increased online customers from 3 to 15 million. She serves as the chairman of Treezer, and is on the board of a couple of other startups.
When she was hesitating between staying in banking or going to the startup world, her personal life situation played the role.
“I thought maybe the startup world would be too demanding on the balance of our couple. I needed to make a decision. I told myself, let’s be pragmatic and realistic about how things are. Where I want to spend my time, and how much with my kids. Maybe working in a corporate would offer me a little bit of more flexibility even though the type of job that I have is very demanding. There was also a strategic factor in my decision.”– Claire Calmejane
“The French Banking ecosystem was like the U.K. seven years ago. It was never a better time in banking to be in my position. I always wanted to be part of the trends and act on them. I felt I just had to do it. There is something there that tells me this industry is going to completely change in the next five to 10 years. And my job is going to be one of the critical jobs. And it happened to be true.”
#10) Be your own driver
Being the only woman in the room might feel uncomfortable. But that’s by choosing to be there that we can increase diversity.
“I’ve always been my main driver. I was always a curious person with boldness about saying things. Things like let’s jump in the field, who knows what’s going to happen? Of course, it’s sad to be an engineer in a field where 1% of people are women, but I decided to be the only woman in a room full of men. Today the ratio is closer to 10-15%. For me it was a big shock as I was before in a school with 80% girls. I ended up being the top of my class but you would hear borderline harassing comments. I was of course impacted by the environment, but I was fulfilled by what I was doing. I found the field interesting enough for me that all the other things were distractions.”
#11) Find the mentor who asks you the right questions
Sometimes a simple question can make you better understand a topic. Best mentors are those who guide you by questions instead of giving answers.
“I have been lucky to have mentors and sponsors from the very beginning of my career,” Claire said. “It was a journey for me to find mentors who pushed me and asked me the right question. Questions that made me think deeply about what’s really important for me. Knowing myself and what drives me. Making me understand to enjoy what I do, because there is no point to do otherwise. You need to know that your life cannot be a permanent compromise. In the world of today, our jobs are on the side of our life.”
#12) Think of the impact
Joana Rafael is a serial entrepreneur and a co-founder of Sensei, an AI Lisbon based company. She is a Harvard graduate and Ph.D. in Sustainable Energy. She is also the only woman founder out of four partners.
Talking about choosing her career path in tech, she thinks that “Women are not a minority in the society. So we should not be a minority in any sector that is relevant for our future. I encourage all young women to think about what they want to do in the future. What kind of impact they want to have and then choose the knowledge path.”
Joana believes that AI is fundamentally shaping our future. Although she doesn’t have technical studies in AI and programming, she believes in the significant impact of this technology on our lives. “If you are not studying or interested in an area that is impactful, probably the role that you’re going to have in the future isn’t going to be much prominent.”
#13) Embrace the rejection
Elena Poughia is the Managing Director of Dataconomy Media. She is also the Founder & Head Curator of Data Natives, Europe’s largest data-science conference. She has a background with studies in Economics and Modern and Contemporary Art. She is particularly committed to supporting women to become established in tech professions.
Elena believes that for her, success has been marked by perseverance and courage. “I embraced all the rocky parts, the unstable bits, and pieces. I have lived with more rejection than acceptance. However I never gave up on my dreams and my mission. As a non-techie in a techie world, I could sense the impact data science, machine learning, and AI would have on business and society. I chased that dream till the end. As women we are socially and culturally conditioned to aspire for perfection. You need to come to terms with rejection, failure, imperfection and learn how to land on your fit. Learn how to be in a room full of people who think you don’t belong there. The only person you need to convince that you belong there is yourself.”
#14) Trust your gut
Fatema Hamdani is the President and co-founder of Kraus Hamdani Aerospace, Inc., an AI and Robotics based Aerospace company. Their mission is to save lives by shrinking the gap between data and decisions across space, air, land, and sea. I met Fatema in Davos during WEF. Identified as a “Mobile Women to Watch,” Fatema is a driven serial entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in building startup businesses to further developing large organizations. She has worked with the most prominent financial services and fintech companies, such as American Express, JPMC, and HSBC.
According to Fateman you need to work on sharpening your instincts and intuition. Then trust it.
“Throughout history, women have had to strongly depend on their instincts and intuition for survival and protecting their kin. These are also the key differentiators and qualities that make them strong leaders. Hence, it is crucial for any leader, especially women leaders to build on this. The more one trusts their intuition, the stronger it gets. Leaders such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel or Elon Musk attribute some of their key decisions to their instincts. They also had been unapologetic in their own follow-through. Trusting and developing intuition is one aspect of the process. The other aspect is to have the confidence to follow through on that intuition and the ability to take decisive steps based on it. One doesn’t need to be able to back up intuition with hard numbers or logic at all times. As a leader, you need to be okay with that.”– Fatema Hamdan
#15) Give space to be wrong
Like all humans, even the best leaders make mistakes. But that shouldn’t stop you from believing in your instincts.
“Unless you have given yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them, you will never be able to sharpen your intuition over time and come to trust it inherently.”, Fatema.
#16) Join supportive communities (like Grit Daily)
In ancient times, women used to share more than today. They used to gather in groups and share food and stories of their intimate life. This helped them to support each other mentally during hard times. In today’s modern world, women are more isolated at home or at work.
But as a woman, you need to connect with other women who have paved the same road as you and learn from their experience. As a natural act, women help their female counterparts achieve their goals and feel empowered. When I started Women in AI, I was looking for a safe place to share my worries and challenges with other women like me. It helped me a lot to know how to advance and overcome the anxiety and pressure created by the outside world.
Dr. Anino Emuwa is one of those women who believe in the power of female networks. She is the founder and managing director of Avandis Consulting. She is also a strategy coach for high-achieving women founders from Cartier Women’s Initiatives. She convenes several professional communities for women including [email protected], [email protected], and Women CEOs. Anino believed that all women should seek their tribe -a network of strong supportive women to cry and to laugh with.
“It is very important for women to belong to the professional networks of like-minded women. You learn a lot, get access to information and opportunities.”
#17) Get on the board
After you have established your career and made a name for yourself, it is time to bring your knowledge to the table. Start by drafting your strategic plan to get on the board of directors of your or another company. You can read here at Forbes more about those steps to follow.
Bringing in a variety of points of view, backgrounds, and experiences is key to any organization’s success. Studies show women bring skills to a board that an all-male board will likely lack. Yet women only make up 20% of boards of directors as of 2019 (but 18% up from 2018, which is good news).
Interestingly women holding leadership positions on boards are positively associated with other women directors having longer board tenures. That means that having more women makes other women attracted to join and stay longer on the board.
On this matter I spoke to Polina Khabarova, Chief Transformation Officer of CROC, a Russian IT company. She believes that “There is not a single reason why half of the world’s population should represent less than half of the tech industry on any company’s board.”
Polina has a long experience in HR as the HRD of CROC and has been ranked first among HR directors in the Russian IT sector. She thinks that it is crucial to put female leaders on the board of directors. “This leads to greater creativity and a broader perspective when making key decisions. More female leaders mean more role models for female students and job seekers.”
My understanding of all these discussions comes to one and only one single point:
Girls, just do it. Seriously, don’t listen to what others say or what the society has provided for you in advance. Create your opportunities. Build your success path. Trust your gut.
You are the only one who gets to choose how your life should look like, and you will do a big favor to others who will see you, get inspired, and follow you. Be that leader.
And on the way, find wise people and ask for help. There are so many people and organizations out there for you to support you.
I believe a world where we have confident women who speak up for themselves, inspire others, and lead companies with more care is a better place. Everyone has light within themselves. They just need to learn how to turn it on and unleash their inner star.