his blog is a recap of “What Works for Women Leaders in Technology,” a Clinton Foundation and SELF event held on October 29. Event panelists included Rachel Sklar, cofounder, Change The Ratio and TheLi.st; Andrew Siegel, executive vice president of strategy and corporate development, Advance Publications (parent of Condé Nast); Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO, LearnVest.com; and Kiah Williams, cofounder, SIRUM.
Last week, SELF magazine partnered with the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings and Clinton Health Matters Initiative to host a panel discussion on “What Works for Women Leaders in Technology.” I yearn for the day when we can drop the “women” in the title because female leaders in the field will be such a business-as-usual occurrence that there will no longer be a need for such discussions. How laughable would it be if we had hosted a panel titled “What Works for Men Leaders in Technology”? I can’t wait for the day that the road to success is paved the same way for men and for women—the same resources, the same opportunities, the same support—so that together we can get on with the bigger tasks of inventing, innovating and transforming.
As Alexa von Tobel, the founder and CEO of LearnVest.com, said about her experience launching her start-up:
“The most common question I got was: ‘What’s it like to be a woman in finance? What’s it like to be a woman in technology?’ We’ve got to get past this question so we can get to other questions, like ‘Alexa, what are your ideas?’”
So how do we get to that point? It won’t happen until there’s a critical mass of women in tech, which means we have to openly talk about the issues and shed light on the challenges and opportunities for—and innovations by—women in the field. And that’s exactly what our panelists, made up of leading voices and experts in tech, did at last week’s event. The panel built on the successful Women’s Health Codeathon Series, a partnership between SELF magazine and the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, to support women being a part of their own health solutions.
Here some of the key themes that came up during the discussion:
Closing the Imagination Gap
It’s hard to imagine what you don’t see. And we aren’t seeing women in tech as much as we’re seeing men, much less diverse women and men. No Ceilings data shows that women are vastly underrepresented in STEM education and careers, and in some areas we are moving backward. For example, women in the U.S. earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees, but only 18 percent of computer science degrees. This is down from a high of 37 percent in 1984.
We can help change these numbers by closing the imagination gap. As Chelsea Clinton explained, “Conversations like this today are so important, not only to highlight individual success stories, and to learn, together, what has worked and continues to work to empower and support women leaders in technology. But also to help close the imagination gap for those who aren’t in the room today.” She added, “We know that for so many, the image that comes to mind when we think of technology is someone who looks more like Mark Zuckerberg than looks like most of you sitting in the audience today.”
Defining What It Means to Be in “Tech”
A common misconception about working in the tech space is that you have to know how to code. That’s simply not true, and our panelists are proof of this. Leaders in tech have a variety of skills. Andrew Siegel addressed this point: “Five of our best-performing portfolio companies, our investments as venture capitalists, were founded or run by women…and none of those women are what you would consider ‘technical.’” He continued, “I don’t think there’s been a better time to start a company. There’s so much capital, and there are so many opportunities that technology provides.”
Identifying and Embracing Multiple Identities
Gender is just one of the societal characteristics we have to look at when it comes to advancing diversity and equality. Reflecting on her experience, Kiah Williams said, “I think that the challenges that we face at SIRUM, and I face as a woman of color entrepreneur, have a lot to do with the intersectionality and the fact that I am not just a woman. I am not just a person of color. I’m not just in the social sector. I have all of these identities. That gets messy for people who are used to looking at a person who looks different from me who’s running a different type of company.”
Forging Partnerships with Men
Men need to be an active or intentional part of the effort to advance women’s leadership in tech. For one thing, this isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s an economic issue as well. Women are drivers of innovation, and their full and equal participation boosts growth. So women and men alike have a vested interest in the cause. And, let’s be honest, we can always go further when we can count on others to share their experiences and help us get to our next levels. As Kiah reflected, “Some of the mentors I have in life are men. And my two cofounders are men. And I think bringing allies into the space, making them feel comfortable being uncomfortable, is important.”
Creating a Culture of Equality
Kiah also talked about the role of company culture and how parity means treating men and women as equal caregivers. As she explained, we have to create “a culture where it’s not the responsibility of women only to be the caregiver.” And part of that means saying to male colleagues with children, “We want you to be a good father. We don’t want to place all the burden to your wife to take care of your children.” Women leaders can change societal perceptions at large by making their own corporate cultures family-friendly. It not only fosters greater happiness in the workplace; it closes the divide of family responsibilities and “the second shift” so often shouldered by women.
Leveraging Mentorship and Networking
A young woman in the audience asked the panel to react to mentorship challenges among women. And the event itself embodied the willingness of leaders to share their experiences and knowledge to help others. Mentorship and networking are crucial to advancing women in tech. As Rachel Sklar put it, “It is about having a posse, having a network and having each other’s back. That is how the tide will lift all boats.”
Moving Forward with Belief and Guts
Alexa told us about a study done when she was an undergrad that looked at what 90-year-olds regretted most in life. The study found that no one ever regretted anything they did—what they regretted was the thing they didn’t do. “The big gap isn’t knowledge. It’s the lack of belief, in guts,” she said. Her advice: “Have the plan, have the knowledge, and have the belief and guts.”
We encourage you to join the conversation using the hashtag #SELFMadeInTech. By working together to lift up more women, we can improve the world for everyone.