By Carla Rover (Writer, The Advertising Technology Review)
There's a disturbing trend in technology right now. Bright, highly-qualified women, regardless of where they start climbing the ladder at technology companies, rarely end up at the top. Few women found technology startups, or at least, few women who found them get funded. It isn't a matter of an orchestrated push to keep women out of the boardroom by some misogynist club of investors and company heads. Qualified women aren't rising to the top because they are advancing the hard way -- without mentors, the right meeting skills, and, often, without the right mindset.
The Mindset: Thinking Outside the Sorority
A friend of mine has an almost laughable number of technical degrees from Ivy League universities. She's debating moving back in to the corporate world, but is tentative. Because of the on-going hiring frenzy in ad technology, I suggested that she apply for a job with a well-known technology company.
Despite the fact that she is a software engineer, and the COO asked me personally if I knew any qualified engineers, she countered with, "I don't know if I'm really qualified -- I mean, I don't know some of these areas in technology very well, it's been a few years."
After a few more minutes of attempting to disqualify herself, making light of her Ph.D. in mathematics, I hung up and began chatting online with a 20-year old head of a startup who successfully won a seven-figure investment for his social networking company. He assures me that he will soon be dealing with some of the largest brands in the country, but "won't sell to Google for years." He is certain that he will be the next Steve Jobs and offers me publicist work when he "goes public."
Is the difference between my friend and the Silicon Valley 20-year old merely confidence? My female friend, despite her education and decade of work experience, has been socialized into psychological submission by a culture that teaches women that confidence, assertiveness, and demanding to be heard translate as unattractiveness, arrogance, and the dreaded "bitchiness." And those adjectives add up to the "unlikeable."
The Mirror: Learning to Love the Hate
Women, from childhood, are most often socialized to be liked, men are socialized to be respected. Women who are unlikeable in this vein are often deemed socially not to be "team players," and you can't be a leader if you don't start out as a team player. Strength, articulation and ambition aren't used as words synonymous with femininity, so adopting those as the hallmarks of your personality may look unnatural to a world that still equates the phrase "like a girl" with weakness.
Unfortunately, in the corporate world, and in particular technology, the capacity to be direct, react quickly, and compete -- sometimes viciously -- for your ideas to be heard are requisite for anyone to get out of the typing pool. But if essential skills, like consistently and somewhat loudly promoting your efforts, qualifications and ideas, stamps you with the "bitchy" or "aggressive" label, and thereby makes you less likely to become a leader, who would "act out" of the norm? The answer is, of course, a very few.
Acting out of stereotype means that some people may feel uncomfortable around you -- and that's ok. You have to battle through this. You have to allow your ambition and your intelligence to rub some people the wrong way. Be polite, be reasonable, but don't back down.
A half dozen women at the highest levels in technology and media circles have told me that we women, as a gender, have to allow ourselves to be smarter than the competition, and we have to be willing to talk about it. We have to take the risk of being called "assertive" and "brash."
The Moves: You Have to Start Now
The mindset of a leader begins with the acknowledgement not only of the challenges ahead but your fitness to address them, and your unique ability to create needed changer better and more efficiently than your competitors. For this privilege, you have to compete, fiercely, but by the rules. Most women aren't taught these lessons. They learn business strategy, they learn negotiation, but they don't learn how to look at themselves.
We are so frequently judged on our appearance that we import these toxic messages about unattainable perfection to our work lives. We want to be told that we have beautiful minds, just like we want a compliment on our new haircut.The great secret of this mentality is that women are taught that they must actually be the best before trying, men, from a very young age are taught simply to attempt to be the best while trying.
In order to advance, women have to get past their socialization-handicap and be willing to be considered self-serving, even "bitchy" to be able to allow their ideas and qualifications to be pushed into view. It doesn't matter how many times you fail as you improve. It doesn't matter how hard you have to study before you get close to the answers. The struggle is a part of the education. Don't flee from the tension of venturing into a new level of influence or responsibility.
You have to put what you have on the table before you can begin to show and tell. Learning how to not be ignored or side-lined is a delicate art that begins with brute force. If you get cut off mid-sentence in a meeting, tell the interruptor that you aren't done talking and don't get drowned out. Begin to release your ability to win by refusing to be treated like a little girl at a table of grownups. As much as the limitations and the roadblocks may happen to women externally, we also do it to ourselves, permitting other's pomposity to outlast our will to succeed.
The miracle is, that once in the spotlight, better ideas and better qualifications win out, even if there are grumbles, because no company can afford to lose brilliance and ambition, even if it is wrapped up in someone that is considered by some to be a bit of a "witch".
Mentors: Stop Being BFFs
Men are taught to make strategic alliances, even in friendships. They have close friends with whom they may discuss how nervous they feel about becoming a new dad, and then they have business friends that they play golf with every weekend in order to advance socially or in their careers.
Women are taught that the latter type of friendships are "phony", insincere, even immoral. Women have friends, co-workers, but not alliances. At least, most women don't seem to. It isn't insincere to meet with a co-worker to go shopping if you really need to pick her brain on what you need to do to move up at work.
It just needs to be open, and honest. Men give introductions to other men in order to create strategic business alliances that look a lot like friendships, but they really aren't. Mentorships are like this -- you are entering the life of someone who has something to offer you in terms of wisdom, business connections or job opportunities.
In exchange, they get to feel like a wise professor, molding the next generation of leaders. It isn't love, it doesn't need to be. If that makes you feel like a geisha, leadership may not be right for you because it involves working with and for people who are using you in some way. Make alliances that work for you. Learn from them, connect with those that they suggest, but always give back in return. If someone brings you to meet an investor who might like to fund a startup like yours -- thank them and make a flawless presentation.
It's OK to actively and aggressively build a coterie of people who are interested in bringing you the things that you need to advance -- like learning experiences and the opportunity to publicly shine. Men have been doing this long before women where even allowed to enter the corporate world, and it doesn't make you weak to get help, it simply puts you on a more even playing field.
Meeting: Get Out of the Bar
You need quality time with decision-makers and core investors, not time talking to their assistants at the local watering hole. It can be tempting, as the only woman in the room, to use the "look I'm female" tactic to get attention, but really, its your ideas and qualifications that should shine. Get into organizations and groups that are actively working on issues that you care about and that offer face time with people that matter in your industry. Don't let them flirt or pat you on the head and move on to their best friend's grandson who has this great idea to share.
Make it a point to stand out -- gracefully, but without flinching at the spotlight. Don't work behind the scenes shyly -- do your good work and then connect with those who (ought to) reward goodwill and hard work. Whether its a charity or a industry networking group, you need to be your own publicist and your own matchmaker. In this case, its best to have many relationships and outlets that help build your case as someone to watch.
It's time to stop being ladylike. Act like college recruits in front of an NFL scout. Show those that have their eyes on new talent that you are capable of achievement and confidence. Both elements are required to be considered CEO material.
The Message: You Won't Run Home and Cry
Women aren't leading major companies in America for a variety of reasons, none of which can be solved with a single action. What we can do is build a national infrastructure of mentorship programs that gives women a social refuge and a host of listening ears and a place to learn the dance of achievement.
We can actively promote educational programming to teach girls that feminine does not necessarily mean "soft" and it certainly doesn't mean weak. We can create a system of funding for new startups that moves beyond judging potential leaders based on the demographic mirrors of past CEOs, and looks at the idea and the team behind it based on their qualifications and passion, not similarity to Mark Zuckerberg.
Most importantly, we have to create these paradigm shifts ourselves. There has never been a successful social movement -- from the Suffrage Movement to the Civil Rights Movement -- that was successfully sustained exclusively by those who were not at the heart of the matter.
We have to create a level playing field by manning the heavy machinery ourselves. And above all, we have to make it clear that we are here to stay. Too many female CEOs leave after a few years because of the pressure. Too many young women drop out of science and engineering fields in college. We have to stay in the race order to move forward.