Last month, Forbes published its list of America’s 100 most innovative leaders. The report’s methodology was based on four ‘essential leadership qualities of top founders and CEOs’. These were, in no particular order, perception in the media for innovation, social connections, and ‘value creation’, both in terms of track record and investor expectations.
There was, however, one glaring problem: the list of 100 featured only one woman. Barbara Rentler, CEO of retailer Ross Stories, was ranked #75, with a further indignity of having a blank avatar where everyone else’s headshots appeared.
Writing shortly afterwards, Forbes editor Randall Lane noted the ‘data-driven’ methodology behind the ranking was ‘flawed’. Given part of this methodology was focused on media perception, one can see the blame could be spread around. Yet when the Forbes Cloud 100, a list of top privately-held cloud companies, was published later in September, the story remained the same. Only three companies listed – Canva, Darktrace, and Guild Education – had female chief executives.
Questions therefore need to be asked. Is it a case of chicken and egg when it comes to building out greater female representation across cloud and data, and STEM more generally, or are there broader issues to dig into? More importantly, what can be done about it?
The executive and event builder viewpoint
Guild Education, based in Denver, is a cloud-based education services provider. The company does not offer courses in itself, but instead sees itself as a marketplace for large companies to provide education as a benefit to its employee base. Big ticket clients include Walmart and Disney.
It’s very important to remind yourself that you’re good at what you do, you know why you’re there, and you deserve to be there as much as anyone else in that room
Its heritage of tech for good, diversity at the boardroom level and being female-founded is key, as chief product and analytics officer Bijal Shah explains.
“We’re pretty proud that we’re a technology company that is utilising technology for good, and helping these Fortune 1000 employees be able to go back and find educational pathway is really important,” Shah tells CloudTech. “Just getting recognised for the work we’re doing through the Cloud 100 is pretty impactful, both from a technology perspective but also from the perspective of the social impact we’re having.”
While there is pride at having made the list, Shah (left) argues the Cloud 100 shows how ‘there is a lot more work to do’ when it comes to greater female representation at the higher echelons of tech. “I personally believe diversity begets diversity,” says Shah. “When you value it and it becomes part of your culture, then it just naturally happens.”
Getting better female representation in STEM has long been an industry goal. While the success of these initiatives varies depending on where you sit, pushback on failures has been more marked of late. The Forbes leaders’ list is a case in point – justifiable criticism was also levelled at the lack of racial diversity among the group – while an increasing number of tweetstorms around ‘manels’ have forced tech event organisers to think twice.
UK-based Women in Data is in no danger of falling into that trap. The brand started in 2014 as a half-day relatively informal gathering, and is now a series of events with the flagship, in November, expecting up to 1500 attendees.
Rachel Keane, managing consultant at technical recruiter Datatech Analytics, put the event together with fellow co-founder Roisin McCarthy after realising the company had placed fewer women in 2014 for data and analytics roles as they had in 2000.
“We thought this was really strange, because we were more profitable than ever, our client bases were growing, and as far as we were concerned we were placing the best people for the job,” Keane tells CloudTech. “We didn’t really give it much consideration. We had clients of each gender, but in terms of building those teams out we just put the right CV with the right skill set and the right attitude towards the job.”
The issues women face – seen and unseen
Both Shah and Keane note the issues women face both in terms of climbing the career ladder in STEM, never mind getting on it in the first place.
While Shah’s career prior to Guild had been a mix of technical and business development, her undergraduate degree in engineering reveals her passion. She admits that she had noted the number of women dwindling in her technical classes, going from school, to college, and eventually to the workplace. “I think it’s very important to remind yourself that you’re good at what you do, you know why you’re there, and you equally deserve to be there as much as anyone else in that room,” says Shah.
Today, Shah’s role is focused a lot more on the management side of the house, although she can still occasionally get her hands dirty in the day-to-day code spending time with different teams on more technical strategies. Keane notes the need for technical expertise even as you move further up the company’s hierarchy.
“There’s always that pull – you love the data, you don’t necessarily always want to leave the code behind,” says Keane. “More so when you move to a manager [or] director role – it is quite important that you have those skills as a coder, it is the fact you’re able to go in there and check that code and mentor your staff… it’s an important part of the role.
There are times where you have to take two steps back to take one step forward – being okay with that and being in control of that is really important
“You get some people that love to code, go up a couple of ranks and then say ‘actually, I’m going to manage clients, products, manage a team’, then you get some people who are I would say more AI and data science-traditional people, people who would normally remain relatively hands on,” adds Keane.
Other issues which affect women specifically have an onus on employers. Returning from maternity leave is never as simple as firing up your machine and getting back to work as though you had never been away, but in some technology fields women who take time out to have children can return significantly out of the loop through no fault of their own.
“Technology evolves so quickly and programming languages are one minute they’re here, one minute they’re gone,” says Keane. “SaaS programming was a massive tool back when I joined [Datatech in 2009], and now that really is a thing of the past. It’s now the Rs, the SQLs, the Pythons, and dare I say it more languages that are coming out.”
Opportunities for progress and change
The truth is that there should be a place for all women, regardless of what they want to do. As data democratises and becomes pivotal to virtually every industry, this has the potential to open things up tremendously.
Keane (left) notes that many soon-to-be school and university leavers still expect to work in finance with their maths qualifications. This is such a concern that Women in Data is in the process of putting together an informational film, with the support of many large companies including Facebook, the BBC and Sainsbury’s, to educate young girls on the many doors which will open for them with their respective degrees.
“They’re unaware of the fact that you can have a job in retail, or technology, or gaming, or any other industry sector,” she explains. “It is still very much related to finance and I’m not so sure that every girl relates herself to finance. Finance is very typically male dominated, as is insurance.”
The rise of soft skills can also be seen as a major opportunity; as data becomes a mandatory language across all business, being able to make sense of it and explain it is a boon.
“One of the things we have found that is quite encouraging is the fact that in the last few years it isn’t just about the numbers anymore,” says Keane. “We’re not looking for what they used to call backroom analysts, people who just crunch numbers. It is essential that a person is able to tell a story, and to listen, and to deliver the insight to make sense of how that business makes impact going forward. Naturally, they are skills that are normally more relative to a girl.”
Building confidence and power
The overriding message is one of confidence: be yourself, don’t take any nonsense, and be proud of everything you can do rather than fret over anything you can’t.
It is, of course, easier said than done. We all may suffer from imposter syndrome at times, but the struggle is more real if the aforementioned barriers, seen or unseen, are erected. “It’s hard to be what you cannot see,” says Shah. “My trajectory and my career are a little bit untraditional – I’ve always had a technical background but I’ve been in strategy roles and consulting roles. When you don’t see a pathway similar to your own, I think that can cause self-doubt.”
Shah is a believer that careers naturally have peaks and troughs, and that understanding this can also help remove self-doubt. This may be Shah’s millennial upbringing coming to the fore, as emerging research on Generation Z argues the most recent additions to the workforce are more likely to stay loyal if their employer repays that loyalty in kind. Yet this mindset can remove the pressure of having to get everything right first time.
“Careers are not linear – they are a path that ebbs and flows in different ways, and there are times where you have to take two steps back to take one step forward,” says Shah. “Being okay with that, and being in control of that, taking that by the reins and embracing it, is really important.”
Women need to have more confidence in the skills they have – celebrate what you have, don’t apologise for what you don’t have
That said, the famous quote about ‘the harder you work, the luckier you get’ still applies. “It’s really important to come into an organisation, put your head down and do a great job – not worry so much about what that next title is or what that next role is you’re going to get right away,” adds Shah. “I think proving your skills and capabilities opens a lot of doors.”
From a decade’s experience in recruitment, Keane believes that men and women tend to look at job specifications differently. If a woman looks at a spec and finds they can do 80% of it, they will be hesitant to apply for fear of the other 20%. Men are traditionally much more confident.
“There isn’t one person in nearly 11 years that I have placed who matches the job spec,” says Keane. “I never match anyone to a job spec – I match people on their technical capability, on the cultural environment, on what I think their unique skills are, and how I feel that company will benefit.
“Women need to have a little bit more confidence in the skills they have,” Keane adds. “Celebrate what you have, don’t apologise for what you don’t have.”
This confidence can traverse other areas as well. Keane recalls one recent candidate who was ‘in bits’ following a disastrous interview. “I just said to her ‘look, you’re really not thinking about this in the right way.’ Yes, you’re being interviewed by them, but surely you’re interviewing them too,” she says. “You don’t have to go and work there – it’s just not the right fit. When you start thinking like that, that’s when you start giving yourself your power and confidence back.”
“Everyone faces adversity in their careers,” adds Shah. “There are challenging things that come up but I don’t think it’s any different for men or women as long as you are willing to have the confidence to say ‘I can get past this’ or ‘I can get through this’. I can learn this new skill to then elevate my ability to move forward.”