Last week I wrote about my interview with Becky Blalock, former CIO at the Atlanta-based energy giant, Southern Company, and her insights on such issues as the dearth of women in corporate boardrooms. What warrants equal coverage is the illuminating information Blalock shared in the context of our discussion of her newly released book, “DARE: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage and Career for Women in Charge.” One of the most enlightening takeaways for me was that men exclude women without even realizing it.
For starters, I asked Blalock whether there was anything about being a CIO that made her better equipped to write this book than she would have been if she had been a C-level executive other than CIO. She said there really wasn’t. But her response indicated that it certainly didn’t hurt:
I grew up in utilities, and both the utilities and the IT world are extremely male-do
minated worlds. Not all women are in an environment like that. But when you are, you feel this obligation that you don’t want to fail. I will say that being a CIO, I had so many male counterparts that I could reach out to, that were supportive of me. I think CIOs in general all feel under fire from the companies that they’re supporting—it’s just such a tough world—it changes so much. Martha Heller, who wrote “The CIO Paradox,” told me that only 7 percent of CIOs are women. It was interesting—I’d go to a big event, and there would be three women at the conference. We would meet in the bathroom and talk about women’s stuff. We instantly bonded. So I know what it’s like to be a trailblazer, and I know what it’s like to feel like everything you do is being scrutinized. The truth of the matter is, sometimes that’s an advantage, because people notice you, and they remember you. But there are people, too, who just don’t think you can do things if you’re a woman. And you have to prove them wrong. I guess it’s just in my DNA. I’m going to prove to them I can do it. And I think I’ve become stronger because of that. But for some people, that will shut them down. Women are much more concerned about being liked than men are.
It was interesting that Blalock mentioned Martha Heller, who aside from writing “The CIO Paradox” was the founder of CIO Magazine’s CIO Executive Council, and is now head of an executive search firm that focuses on recruiting IT executives. I interviewed Heller last year, and in that interview she shared a candid viewpoint of what women who go into IT are up against:
The IT organization is still not necessarily conducive to women, because the culture is still very male. Do you want to be the first woman on a pro football team? You may be in a lot of press, but is the locker room really any fun for you? … So it’s still a hard place for women to be. It always has been. But here’s the rub: If you’re a woman, and you care about technology and you’re into technology, go into marketing! Marketing is filled with women, and marketing organizations are spending huge money on technology right now.
I asked Blalock for her response to that. Here’s what she had to say:
I don’t know that I disagree with that. The problem in IT is that the IT organization has a lot of different groups. I used to tell people that the culture inside of IT is very different, depending on what group you work in. You’ve got the infrastructure group, who are mostly engineers. These are the guys who go out and get their hands dirty standing up the servers and the hardware, keeping all of that stuff up and running. And there is no margin for error in what they do. Then you’ve got the group that writes code. That is a very creative process, and you don’t necessarily have to be in the office—you can do that from home. To me, that’s very conducive to women—the thought processes are just very different between the folks who work on the hardware side and the folks who work on the software side. You’ve got a few women on the hardware side, but not many—some of it is physically challenging work.
I wanted to write this book because there are so few female CIOs out there, and I felt like maybe I could be a role model. I’m hoping to make this business more sexy for women, because it is the most exciting place I’ve ever worked. There isn’t anything that transforms business more than the tools that IT is rolling out.
So regarding the theme of Blalock’s book, which comes first—do you choose to be daring in order to gain confidence, or do you gain confidence in order to be daring? She said it’s a chicken-or-egg thing:
You’ve got to have enough courage to step outside that comfort zone. We all live in these comfort zones, where the most important thing is we want to feel safe—Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is alive and well. We want to feel valued, and we want to feel like we’re appreciated inside that comfort zone. And stepping outside of that comfort zone can be really scary, because you might fail. But you know what? It’s important that you stretch outside of that comfort zone every day, because if you don’t, you know what happens? It begins to shrink. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but I have to tell you, if you’re going to be successful in today’s world, you’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And you’ve got to be comfortable with failure, because that’s how you learn. You’re only going to learn so much from a textbook, or in a classroom. You learn from experience—that’s what really teaches you what does and doesn’t work, and if you’re not out there getting those experiences, you’re not going to be ready to move up to the next career stage.
Get yourself a mentor. Get yourself somebody who can coach you. We so overestimate the consequences of failure. We feel like there are far more politics than there actually are in the workplace. People are really pretty forgiving. They’re not forgiving when it comes to an ethical violation. But if you’ve messed something up at work, as long as you haven’t done something that hurts a person, people know you’re going to fail. You don’t want to make the same mistake over and over again, but as long as you’ve learned from it, that’s what’s really important.
I asked Blalock whether women tend to be less confident than men, and if so, why that’s the case. Her response:
Women are less confident than men, and I think it’s because women don’t have the same social safety net that men do. Anytime you’re a minority, the things you do are more closely scrutinized. A lot of times, if you’re the minority, you don’t have a mentor or sponsor who can provide the comfort to you that if you go out and take a big risk on something, and you fail, that they’re there to rescue you.
Things have changed a lot, but they’re still not where they need to be. If you look at the number one thing that’s cited as holding women back, it’s institutional barriers. I don’t think it’s that men wake up every day and say, ‘Let’s see what we can do today to make it rough for women.’ It’s totally unconscious on their part—they exclude women, not because they mean to, but because they’re not thinking about the fact that they are. Let me give you an example that I talk about in the book, because I think this is representative of what happens to a lot of women.
I worked on a team with a group of men—I was the only woman on the team, and we reported up to a VP. I was up for VP of another department, and I got passed over. One of my male peers got it. He was competent; it’s not like he wasn’t qualified for the job. But it just so happened that he played golf on a fairly regular basis with our CEO. My boss told me, ‘You’re probably going to have to take a couple of laterals before you get to the next level.’ I told him the last two jobs I’d taken had been laterals—I went into areas I knew nothing about, I’d proven that I can learn fast and be successful in those areas. I said, ‘You need to understand, this is about the fact that I’m just not a part of the everyday networking that goes on here with the men.’ He asked me what I meant, and I said, ‘Here’s an example for you. Last week, you, the CEO, our general counsel, and one of my male peers, all went on a trip down to south Georgia to call on a customer. Then you stopped and went hunting for a couple of days. Who do you think knows more about what’s going on in this company—me or my male peer who went on that trip with you?’ He sat there kind of stunned. I said, ‘Here’s another thing for you: I’ve reported to you for three years, and never once have you called me up and said let’s go to lunch.’ He said, ‘I don’t go to lunch with any of my direct reports.’ I said, ‘That’s not true. I park in the executive garage, and I see you going to lunch with them all the time.’ I told him I wasn’t saying it because I had a chip on my shoulder—I was saying it so he would understand what I was up against, and that’s why he had to work harder to support me. The next week, he called me and invited me to lunch, and we laughed about it. But he was totally unaware—it just never occurred to him that there were all these conversations going on that I wasn’t a part of.
Finally, Blalock shared a story from one of the prominent women she profiled in her book, which echoed the experience that she had just recounted to me, and that served as a very informative illustration of the sort of thing women have to overcome in the workplace:
One of the things that really struck me, in my book I profiled 28 other really prominent, successful businesswomen. One of those I interviewed was Roberta Bondar, who was the first female astronaut in Canada, and the first neuroscientist who ever went into space. I asked her what the biggest obstacle was that she had to overcome, and she said, ‘Being a woman.’ As an example, she said when she was doing her residency for medical school, no women had ever been through the program, and when she went in to do a surgery, she washed up in the room with the nurses, and the conversation was about what they were going to cook for dinner and their knitting classes. She said that was fine, except that her male counterparts were washing up in the room with the senior surgeons, and they were talking about what they needed to look out for as they did the surgery. She said the same thing would happen when they went in to wash up afterwards—that was a very important part of the learning process that she was totally absent from. It never even occurred to them that she was in the other room, and that she was missing out on all this conversation. She said that’s what happens to women, not just in the business environment, but also in the medical world. It was just a great example of how these things happen, not purposely, but because people don’t think about the fact that you need to figure out a way to include women.