Leila Pourhashemi On Being A Woman In Tech & The Need To Embrace Diversity As Competitive Advantage
The share of women in technology disciplines has increased dramatically in the last decade, and in some cases, is reaching parity with that of men. But women’s gains have lagged in key technology fields where for many, it’s taken them years to get a seat at the table. I could not help but reflect on this quote I saw: “Behind every successful woman is herself”—it genuinely spoke to me. When I think about the women around the world who are advocating for tech companies to become more inclusive, it is hard not to get a little excited for the next generation of female powerhouses. Therefore, I would like to share my story to help these female go-getters who want to be part of this encouraging change.
While pursuing an Applied Mathematics and Computer Science degree in college, there were only a few women in my classes, and I recognised early on that there is a diversity problem. As I entered the workforce, first as a software engineer, then as a program manager, and eventually, to leadership roles in product development of servers, workstations, network and storage, I remained one of the few women in the room. That was a very transformative period for me because I quickly realised that I could stand on my own.
As my career progressed into leading enterprise-wide transformation, I was lucky to be in a leadership role at a company that invested in diversity and inclusion. A decade ago, they invited me to attend an internal conference for women leaders, and at first, I was very sceptical. I felt that being a woman in a technical field did not affect me, as I was confident, outspoken, had an excellent education, and was not afraid to speak in a room full of men. So I thought that perhaps this conference would be useful for others, but not for me. The topics were around conscious and unconscious bias, the likeability “tax” for women who perform well in their roles and techniques for women to not only speak up, but also to be heard. As the two-day conference progressed, I realised that I had been so wrong—I had been affected deeply by being a woman in technology, sometimes being the only woman in a large meeting.
Even though I demonstrated qualities typically attributed to a male engineer and a leader—confident, outspoken, on top of my game—I was not being perceived in the same way as a man. Turns out, both men and women perceive women with those traits as less competent and less well-liked. Men displaying these attributes, however, were perceived as being successful and admired. There are noteworthy Harvard Business Review case studies confirming this, “Heidi Roizen” and “Howard Roizen”, and the findings were also highlighted in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. Wow! Attending this conference changed my perspective, providing many actionable ways to address these issues.
Here are some of my learnings, which are actions every woman in technology and every male advocate can take:
- Remove bias from hiring decisions by ensuring that there is a diverse candidate pool for every open position and reflect diversity in the interviewers as well. This will help bring different perspectives on each candidate and enable you to find the best person for every role.
- Enable women to speak up and be heard. If you’re in a discussion and a woman’s contribution was overlooked, build on the point that she made. This will reinforce her point and enable you to add your power to hers. Male supporters of women can also do this to ensure the women on the team are heard.
- Vary your style to achieve the outcome. In some settings, being assertive and outspoken may be the right approach to get results. Sometimes, listening, being quieter and focusing on building business relationships is a better path. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your styles and find the right one for each situation. Both styles exhibit confidence and a drive for results.
- Embrace diversity. Bringing together people with a diversity of thought, skills and experiences will create better outcomes. Leverage diversity as an enabler!
- Ask for what you want. Research shows that if a man feels 60% qualified for a job, he will apply, but a woman needs to feel 100% confident before she will go for a position. Start by asking for a stretch assignment, then build up to applying for a new role where you don’t have 100% of the required experience. If you don’t ask, you won’t get it.
As I reflect on my career and replay scenarios where I felt I didn’t get an opportunity I thought I deserved, or a promotion was delayed, it turns out there was one or more of the above factors at play. But I had not been aware of these dynamics and was not trying to actively manage them. Now, I take every opportunity, such as writing this article, to talk about this with women in technology and also with male colleagues so they can help remove unconscious bias in the workplace, celebrate different styles that can be equally effective, and embrace diversity as a competitive advantage.
Start by trying one new technique each week and enlist the help of a trusted colleague to support you to give you the courage to speak up and to help you be heard. Over time, it will become easier and soon you too will be speaking to other women in technology about how to improve their careers. I hope that this will help you reach your full potential and achieve your career aspirations.