To have more women in senior leadership, we need to walk the talk

Daria Loi 30 Sep 2021

Although there are more women in tech than before, there are still not many women in senior leadership positions — here's how we can change that

I was recently asked to provide input for a colleague’s blog on why, in the tech industry, despite advancements in women representation, senior leadership remains dominantly male. My initial response was okay, let me list a couple bullets and send them your way. I made myself a cup of coffee and started thinking about it. After a while, I felt overwhelmed by my own reactions. 

“I think I have some strong views on this and it may be more than a couple pointers,” I told my husband. He looked at me and said, “Yes, you should really write it all down - there is likely a book in there.” 

So, here I am. 

It’s true: There are more women in tech than before. And it is also true: There are still not many women in senior leadership positions. The so-called “upper levels” are still dominantly inhabited by males.

The question "Why aren’t there more women in senior leadership?" is  legitimate and is one that many have been pondering, globally, for quite some time. Much has been written, researched, and reported. As I continuously dig into data and views on this topic, I am frequently confronted by insights that freeze me in my tracks. For instance, according to this report by IBM Institute for Business Value, “even though there is abundant evidence that gender-diverse leadership is good for business, an overwhelming majority of organizations globally say advancing women into leadership roles is not a formal business priority.” 

Let’s really emphasize that: “Advancing women into leadership roles is not a formal business priority.” While I, like many others, continue to experience this reality on numerous occasions, reading it is another story. 11 words; 11 slaps. I will admit it is rather triggering. 

But this is not the story I want to tell here. Here I want to give an account of what many women in tech think, experience, and demand in relation to those 11 slaps. I will tell this story borrowing from personal accounts as well as those of friends, mentees, and professionals who have shared their firsthand experiences over the past two decades.

The summary is: While we are tired and fed up, we remain fearless and unstoppable. Let me first unpack what makes us tired and fed up.

Energy sucking battles. It takes enormous amounts of energy to demonstrate, justify, and explain every.single.thing we do, think, or suggest, knowing that many of these battles would not exist if we were consistently granted equal levels of trust and respect that others receive. Arguing for baseline resources that would not be questioned in other contexts sucks our energies. 

Fight more, get less. More often than not, we are not set up for success. We may be asked to deliver the impossible with minimal-to-no resources while others get to enjoy a very different landscape. It takes energy to observe male counterparts fighting less to get more opportunities, resources, open doors, or second chances. 

Token. Sitting in meetings and being the only female is lonely. Feeling like a token is tiring. Being the token that is asked to provide input to get a diverse angle and that is easily interrupted, talked over, and mansplained is tiring and infuriating.  

Sour souls. Witnessing female peers turn sour and aggressive as the system convinces them that’s the only way they will be able to progress in their careers is upsetting and frustrating. Observing how they then negatively role model and tarnish young talent is depressing and exhausting.

Patchy paychecks. Receiving token litigation checks that do not even remotely account for the years that we were paid less than our male counterparts is offensive.  Knowing that, despite public declarations and debates, women continue to be paid much less than they deserve is hurtful and infuriating. 

Patchy recognition. Observing how some males are being hired at our grade level even if they are less qualified and capable is aggravating. Watching those same individuals being on the fast promotion track is deflating. Being constantly schooled by male executives, managers, or peers who lack qualifications in the field we represent is exhausting. Especially so while watching them opt to not apply the same level of scrutiny elsewhere.

Self-preservation games. Watching peers blatantly steal or appropriate our ideas and then receive  applause for their “efforts” is demoralizing. Listening to managers explaining to us that nobody would steal our ideas if we were better at protecting ourselves erodes our confidence.

Fitting the mold. Being sent to a career coach to improve our communication skills after asserting ourselves, while our male counterparts get to enjoy a leadership retreat for their assertive leadership, is aggravating. Sitting in performance reviews that  focus on our communication style and not our achievements is aggravating. Being told that a job offer is rescinded because an executive suddenly decided they’d prefer a different type is aggravating. Sitting through job interviews that are packed with biases and conducted only by males is aggravating. Being labelled and expected to fit a man-shaped mold is aggravating. 

Paper allies. It takes control not to react when someone states that they are feminist because they have a daughter. (Is the notion that  genetics is a necessary condition for being an ally not absurd?) It’s hard to believe in allyship when promises aren’t maintained in scenarios that call for personal concessions. Watching colleagues wearing the inclusion badge while engaging in subtle inequities and evident biases is tiring. It takes energy to create excuses for those behaviors. Having to teach how to walk the talk takes energy. That isn’t – or shouldn’t be – our role. And hoping.  It takes great energy to hope. 

We are tired of paper allies, paper promises, paper support, paper training, paper words. We are tired of being disappointed so frequently and then trying to find more courage and energy to give it yet another chance. And we are done with feeling devalued, unsupported, untrusted, disrespected, disempowered, discouraged, and isolated. 

The question “Why aren’t there more women in senior leadership?” is as legit as the  answer that “advancing women into leadership roles is not a formal business priority.”  Yet I wish to offer an additional, complementary,  answer: Some of us gave up.  They gave up after being squashed. They gave up after burning out. They re-sized their ambitions or took a break to reflect on whether any of this is worth the effort. All of us remain mindful of and what we have left behind while trying.  

It’s key to understand that some gave up, as we are justifiably tired and aggravated.

Now, let me tell you another side of this story. Feeling tired yet infuriated has made many of us more fearless, persistent, resilient, focused, aware of our self-worth, unstoppable, relentless and VERY ready.

Like anyone else, I wish I could give advice to my younger self, to prepare myself for the journey I travelled so far and what is ahead. Occasionally, I am asked to share that advice with other women in tech, so here are some ideas on what we can do. 

Do not give up. Persist, yet be kind to yourself. Be fearless, yet carefully pick your battles. Channel your energy where it matters. Don’t let the noise nor shiny, empty objects distract you.

Find co-travelers. Find mentors, allies, and champions that you can sincerely trust, that will advocate for you when you are not in the room and that will lift you up or push you when you need it. Understand and embrace the reality that you won't do it alone, so choose and cultivate exceptional co-travelers. But stay at arm’s length from paper allies and those who want to advance their career or feel good about themselves by “supporting minorities.” They are not going to help or help you grow, no matter how shiny their covers seem.

Remind yourself. Do not give up. I know I said that already but you will need to hear it countless times. You will need to remind yourself of how key it is for you to keep persisting. For you to stay focused on what truly matters: YOU. 

Be focused. Identify what you want, then go get it. Channel your energy (rage?) in constructive directions. Be respectfully shameless. Be unstoppable. Learn how to listen to your gut. Learn how to leave when a situation is clearly wasting your time, energy, and focus. Do not linger because you feel guilty or you feel a sense of loyalty toward someone or something that would never reciprocate if in the same situation. 

Be kind. Do not get trapped in the delusion that to be at the top you need to become a shark, a bully, a jerk. There ARE different ways of being in this world and do not believe those who tell you otherwise. Be a kind human. Model kindness. Compassion. Empathy. Yet be smart, be direct, be clear in your intentions. Assert your view and intentions – it IS possible to do that kindly.

Embrace diverse perspectives. Grow thanks to and with others. Actively participate and help others. Lift, enable, support and celebrate women and other minorities. Do the right thing right. Pay forward and give back. Be part of something larger than yourself. And do all that with an open heart and generosity. You’ll be rewarded.

Do not wait for things to happen. Do not wait for others to open doors for you. While it may occasionally happen, do not rely on that. Open your own doors. Find or even build your own keys. Maybe design new doors. But do not wait – demand what you deserve with clarity and precision, relentlessly and uncompromisingly. Starting now.

Make a plan. Approach your career in the same way you’d approach product development: research, identify your value proposition, plan, set timelines and milestones, get resources, enlist stakeholders, get marketing on board, prototype, test, iterate, adjust, refine... Stick to your plans yet be flexible, as we all change, grow, shift priorities. It’s ok to change your mind. It’s up to you to decide what has meaning and purpose; what you wish to be and what you care about. And it is up to you when it is time to change gears. It’s never too late or wrong if you are in charge, humble, and aware of the power that comes with all that. You are in charge.

Be yourself. Do not try to be something else. Don’t compromise your identity to make someone else feel more comfortable in their own skin. If they’re not comfortable it’s their problem. Don’t linger in their drama. Have compassion, be supportive, yet move forward.

Demand. Now is your time. And if you don’t succeed right away, it’s okay. Get an energy and clarity boost from your true allies, pick yourself up, and try again. Fearlessly. It’ll be exhausting; infuriating even. It’ll pay off.

The IBM report I cited at the start of this blog discusses that “for organizations to unlock the benefits of gender-diverse leadership, they need to elevate gender equality to a formal strategic priority, value the contributions of women as highly as men, and recognize women as top performers in greater numbers.” I couldn't agree more, and I have something to add. 

It’s with direct honesty, much generosity, a pinch of rage, and a good dosage of respectful shamelessness that I send a message to you. Yes, YOU, dear tech entities and corporations so passionate about diversity, about “female pipelines” and about making grand public declarations on your plans to support us: 

Stop the paper promises. Your empty words are exhausting and we are done with it. 

Stop the talking. Start the doing.

--> -->