If you’re a woman in IT, perhaps you’ve noticed how difficult it can be to have your voice heard in a world where men, by virtue not only of their sheer numbers in proportion to women, but of such factors as their self-promotion skills, tend to dominate just about everything that goes on. Does it have to be that way? Well, perhaps not.
That was my takeaway from a fascinating discussion earlier this week with Debora McLaughlin, a psychotherapist, executive coach, and author of the book, “The Renegade Leader: 9 Success Strategies Driven Leaders Use to Ignite People, Performance and Profits.” Oh, and she happens to know what it’s like to be a woman in IT. Her career path included stints at Digital Equipment and Uccel back in the day, before they were enveloped by Hewlett-Packard (via Compaq Computer) and Computer Associates, respectively.
Now, McLaughlin is writing another book, “Running in High Heels,” to be released this summer. This time, as you might have gleaned from the title, she’s focusing on women. “It’s about how to be noticed, and making some noise in the hallway, about having your voice be heard,” she says. “How to get on organizational boards, which isn’t happening for women, and how to lead from the top, to be able to build that trust with both males and females.”
So if women’s voices aren’t being heard, where does the blame lie? I asked McLaughlin whether the bigger handicap for women in the workplace is themselves or their environment. She said she had mixed reactions to that:
You will hear a lot about environment, and where women are especially hit with this is in off-ramping from corporate to be able to start their own businesses, and oftentimes are very successful. They really have an intuitive sense of what consumers need; they can get their businesses readily off the ground. But over time they hit what’s referred to as the “green ceiling,” especially if they have a business that capitalizes at $1 million in revenue or more, because now they need to go to outside investors to be able to continue to grow their business. And unfortunately, outside investors still tend to see women as a higher risk in business ownership, and therefore cut funding streams. So I see that as an environmental aspect.
In the book that I’m writing this year, “Running in High Heels,” my recommendation to women is really about taking a stronger step in being seen, being heard and getting noticed. And I think it’s a downside of women in the world today, that they’re not taking those steps to be seen at the conference room table; to voice an opinion, especially if it’s an opinion that’s not shared by their peers; and to really stand out instead of blending in.
I noted that a lot of people I’ve spoken to on this topic are quick to point out that women don’t negotiate the way men do, and don’t self-promote the way men do. McLaughlin said anyone, male or female, who isn’t tooting his or her own horn these days, is making a career blunder.
There’s a difference in communication styles between men and women, and [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg mentions this in [her recent book] “Lean In.” Women will tend to minimize their involvement in a project by saying, “Yes, the team did it,” or “We as a team were able to accomplish that,” instead of really taking a leading role, and saying, “Yes, I understood what the objective was, and I worked with my team to communicate what we needed to do. I directed them, I set the timeline, and together we were able to accomplish it”—to really stand in that place of leadership of direction. I don’t think men tend to hesitate, nor do they feel it’s braggish to talk about their output in something they’ve accomplished.
Given that McLaughlin knows what it’s like to be a woman working in the technology sector, I asked her whether there are any challenges confronting women that are unique to that sector, or amplified within it. She said the challenges lie in building relationships:
What I learned starting in New York City when I was in my 20s, selling high-tech for Digital Equipment, was that in order to be successful, especially in a male-dominated buyers’ world, where everyone in the executive suites were men and most of my colleagues in sales were also male, was that I needed to come at it from a different angle than features and benefits. Maybe it’s from having the psychology training along the way, but that’s where I learned that it really was about building relationships. Building a business case for the technology is all about the impact, not in terms of the features and benefits and speed of processing, but the impact on people, whether someone’s going to get home in time for their son’s lacrosse game. So if women in technology really use that part that comes naturally to them, about building relationships, and tuning in intuitively to the needs of people, and to be able to communicate in a way that focuses on the needs below the features and benefits, I think women can be very successful. I find it very unfortunate that the numbers of women going into IT have fallen off dramatically.
And the reality, McLaughlin said, is that women have to work harder to build those relationships:
Since men still tend to be the buyers of technology, even though women are making the majority of technology decisions at home, women who don’t play the boys’ games—they’re not on the golf course or talking about baseball—need to figure out a way to still have those relationships. Women at all levels, and especially women at the top, need to go through extra efforts in building trust in the people around them. Female CEOs are still viewed with uncertainty, perhaps, by the males around them. Every decision is highly scrutinized, like Yahoo sending telecommuters back into the office—I think if a man had done that, there wouldn’t have been an issue. And the women below them can be resentful of a woman in charge, too. So you have to work really hard to build that trust when you’re up at the top levels.