Women in Leadership: Progression and Challenges

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In the last century, women have made tremendous strides, towards taking a fully active role in our modern society. With the advancement of technology and the continuous digitalisation of our lives we have witnessed a growing number of female software engineers, IT professionals, UX/UI designers and other inspirational experts in this field. However, according to the Women’s Engineering Society, only 15% of people working in STEM roles (Science, Tech, Engineering and Mathematics) in the UK are female.

A ‘Women in tech’ report, released by PwC UK, shows that only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women. We at YLD decided to take a deeper dive into the subject, to try and decipher what some of the reasons are for women not following a path into tech. We also explored what challenges females face when wanting to become technology experts during their career; from the early stages all the way through to leadership roles.

A starting point — and one of the most fundamental reasons for this gender gap in the tech industry — would be the fact that girls are less likely to study STEM subjects at school. In fact, this pattern continues through every stage of women’s education and career. Despite all the available opportunities, girls are not considering technology for a variety of reasons. These reasons range from the glaring lack of information, encouragement and support (leading to girls not feeling confident in choosing tech as a life choice) to having a severe shortage of female role models. According to statistics, only 22% of research respondents can name a famous female working in technology. Moreover, some researchers suggest that women are more likely than men to pause or even leave their career once they have children, claiming as well to have difficulties once they want to return to their work.

In order to uncover the under-representation of women in leadership, it is important to look at the reasons and challenges a female professional faces throughout her career. To reflect on this matter we have invited Julie-Laure Mikulskis, our Head of Technology, to share her experience and thoughts on this topic.

What is your professional expertise and why did you choose this path into Tech?

I think my path to leadership has actually been quite atypical, but nonetheless I believe it is important to discuss as it can highlight to others that their paths into tech do not need to be set from the start. I received a degree in Economics and afterwards I took a Master degree in Marketing and IT, so I actually didn’t specialise in any STEM subject at University. After graduating I moved to London for my very first job in a digital agency where I worked hand in hand with engineers. From that point on I had various roles across different business areas but they always involved technology and somehow were related to engineering. Two and a half years ago I joined YLD and this year I became Head of Technology. Here, as part of the Leadership Team, I now manage our talented group of product designers and engineers. Together work very closely with our clients to understand their challenges and guide them in their transformation. At YLD we really strive to transform each of our clients’ businesses by modernising their digital capabilities and my main role here is to give support to our teams so they can deliver their best results.

Do you think that technology at some point chose you, or you chose it?

I have always had a great interest in technology and taken a lot of personal fulfilment and energy from the process of team delivery of great products, and this really fits well with tech. My dad actually encouraged me to follow a career in it, but when I was younger I really was not sure if applied science was something women ‘could do’. Instead I studied Economics, which I believed was a discipline more open to women. I didn’t actually even learn what coding was until really late in my studies; I was more interested in the tech business side of things. So I definitely chose technology rather than the other way around.

Did you know that a career in technology is the first choice for only 3% of female students? The top reasons for this are: too little information or advice on what working in tech involves (61%), too male-dominated (26%) and not creative enough (20%). What are your thoughts on this matter?

I think there are a few things to consider here, girls face many blockers right back to childhood when it comes to STEM subjects. Take, for example the stereotype that boys are better at things like science and maths than girls — this on its own can be extremely harmful and can leave deep rooted insecurities in young girls, who may have otherwise followed this career path. The image that tech and science is a ‘male only’ thing is so deeply ingrained in us; when you ask someone to draw a scientist it’s usually a man — you don’t see a woman represented as such. Cinema, television and other media sources have long portrayed science as male oriented and it definitely has a negative impact on not just women, but the tech industry as a whole. There is also a noticeable lack of female role models that is frankly quite frightening. It has really saddened me to know that a lot of women can’t actually name any female expert who inspires them to pursue a career in technology.

Looking later on in life there is also very little exposure on the non-standard routes one can take into tech (like mine) — it would be great to highlight that you don’t have to go down a strict path to break into this industry. As a people we need to widen the narrative around routes into the tech space, thinking more broadly about transferable skill sets and making roles more accessible to those in other industries (advertising and media, say) that don’t have traditional tech background but have useful skills and the right mindset to contribute and thrive.

Moving forward there are so many things we can do: first of all there is a pressing need for changing what has been portrayed in the media. Women work in STEM subjects too — this needs to be shown. The next thing we could do from an educational perspective is to update school curriculum to make sure that influential women in tech and science are being discussed and studied; this way girls can actually see women that have contributed to great achievements and have someone they could look up for. Then it is up to women currently in leadership to set the example, celebrate, encourage and enable more female professionals to succeed in this area. There also should be more encouragement from the government — as well as from schools and teachers — to show that interest in STEM subjects has nothing to do with gender. Parents too have a role to play; it is important to raise girls and boys with equal opportunities, there are so many different ways we can all help make this change.

Lack of female representation in the tech industry has a real negative impact not only in the gender inequality but also in products we deliver. Apple’s Health App stands as a perfect example — it was created to keep track of our health however it did not include female menstruation; it actually took them a whole year to add this function to the app. This shows how far we still are from reaching equal gender representation, women should never be an afterthought.

Throughout your career, have you faced any stereotypes or stigma regarding women in Tech?

Luckily I don’t think I have been faced with any of that, and hopefully never will. As a young girl I spent many years training in male-dominated industries, so I learned early on how to navigate that. I believe now that this experience helped me integrate myself, and lead teams with a strong male representation. I am still early on in my own career and there is a long way to go, but so far I have been given amazing opportunities by men in the tech industry, and I have always had people who believed I could succeed. I know however how real these stereotypes and stigmas are for many women and it’s very sad to see as I truly do believe that gender has nothing to do with anyone’s ability to do great work. In my experience it is the really diverse teams which are the ones that are the best performing, not to mention fun to be a part of.

According to the Anita B.Org Institute, the representation of women in technology roles declines by 50% from entry to mid to senior/executive levels, in part because women are much more likely than men to leave STEM careers mid way through. What do you think are the reasons behind this tendency?

To start with, one of the main reasons to consider here is work-life balance. There is this culture of working really long hours that women with kids can find hard to follow. I’ve heard of people pressuring women with outdated social standings saying that women should not be in roles that require such working commitments as they should be at home taking care of their household. I believe that things like lack of understanding from perhaps male counterparts, lack of flexibility especially around childcare and lack of support when returning to work are really big factors that affect women the most in the mid section of their career. A woman can easily feel left behind, especially in the tech industry where you have this fast paced environment.

The lack of support for mothers who stopped working when they had children and are willing to go back to work needs also a further discussion. Women have to pause their careers for some time if they want to start a family, however the working world seems to expect them to stay relevant during their maternity leave. What can we do to help bring those women back to work? I think that having sponsorship programs from big companies is a first step to take — giving women training and challenging work that they deserve at all points of their career is so important. Flexibility to work remotely, and at different hours, is also vital; Covid-19 has actually helped many companies to understand the importance of both things. Without such steps we will never reach that gender parity that we all hope for. Personally I feel very lucky because YLD offers a great maternity leave package with training I can use once I am back.

Women also have shown a trend of actually leaving the tech industry (completely) because a large percentage of leadership teams are male dominated, with this kind of working environment proving daunting for some of them. Realising you don’t have the same opportunities or are being given work that is less challenging than that of your male peers does happen, and can be highly demotivating. The gender pay gap is, as we know, another major issue. Research on Tech industry specifically shows that “in the UK, the overall gender pay gap is at 18.3%, higher than the EU-28 average which sits at 16%. Even at the top of the totem pole, female COOs in tech are consistently underpaid for doing the same job, at the same level, in the same industry, in the same city, as men with an average pay gap of over 12%.” From my perspective there is also a ‘character’ expectation that women are supposed to adhere to; this firm belief that if a woman is really strong and fierce she needs to also be likeable. It can be hard to show your strength as a female leader as people seem to view you as either too aggressive or too nice. It has become common unfortunately, to expect women to behave in a ‘certain way’ and I believe this needs to be changed.

What about your experience in Tech outside of work? Do you think there is a good representation of women in training courses, tech webinars and discussions related to this industry?

I have been to a few tech discussions and women’s attendance is actually quite low; I actually remember being the only woman in some of them. I think that training and tech events are still perceived as male dominated and women do tend to shy away from them. In recent times (before Covid-19) this had slowly started to change, but we are still far away from eliminating it. Some other events such as ‘Women in tech’ (and similar) have a whole different female engagement so it also depends on the type of community (as well as the topic) you are looking at. If however you go more into the leadership and engineering side of training outside of work there is a massive decrease in female representation.

In the process of becoming a leader in this industry, what did you do to squash any doubts you may have had in yourself?

I would say that becoming a leader in a tech company might be a bit daunting and challenging. Nevertheless I’ve always managed to put it at the back of my mind and just keep on doing what I do the best — learning and believing in myself. I was reading an interesting study saying that the reason for the shortage of women in leadership roles lies at the management level; we don’t actually have that many women who are encouraged to grow from the entry-level jobs. There is a massive gap between middle management and a leadership role and so there is definitely a need to help women jump over this gap.

Researchers point out that 78% of students can’t name a famous female working in tech. Why do you think having a female role model would foster more women to join the tech industry? Do you have a role model and would you like to be one for other aspiring women?

Yes, I definitely want to be a role model and I believe that you don’t necessarily need to become someone like Sheryl Sandberg or Susan Wojcicki to inspire as well as help and support other women to get to the top. Personally I cannot name only one person as I have multiple role models; every day I get to discover incredible things women in the tech industry do and it motivates me to succeed myself. More recently I have come across a book called ‘Let it go’, written by Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley. She was an engineer around the 70s who was told she would never progress in her career, getting a lot of rejections, because she was signing as Stephanie — clearly a female name. The moment she changed it to ‘Steve’ her business started to take off. I’m not suggesting we should do that — the fact is that her story shows the struggle of many women to succeed in areas seen as predominantly male. Stephanie ‘Steve’ was also a pioneer in running a company managed and driven by women only, allowing them to work remotely as well as within flexible hours and it was really big at the time. I believe that role models are highly important to bring more female leaders however right now we are in a catch 22 where we simply do not have enough women in this industry, we need more at all levels, including those we can look up to and admire.

We all know that there is no one time solution, some things just take their time. Even so, what do you think are the small tweaks we could all adopt in order to balance things out and bring more women into leadership positions?

Skills development is very important so companies need to make sure that women have equal opportunities to gain the skills they need to rise to leadership positions be this through training or mentorship. Also things as simple as giving women challenging work and not holding the unconscious bias that they would struggle to complete the task more than their male counterparts. There is a pressing need for creating a new culture where you remove the bias and stigmas, an environment where everyone is coming to work and simply being themselves; valued and heard because of their skills and not gender. Some companies have actually started to use a tool that removes all words that are more related to men (such as ninja or guru) in any literature surrounding their hiring process, thus making the job more open and welcoming to women applicants. Small changes like this can make a big difference in showing inclusivity for all future candidates. Last but not least — the flexible policy we’ve talked about earlier as well as parental leave and guaranteed conditions for returning to work, giving equal opportunities to both male and female workers.

What advice would you give to women aspiring to leadership positions in technology?

Being yourself is very important; not everyone will like who you are or have the same values as you do but it is important to stay true to yourself. Women sometimes feel pressured to fit into the male leadership model which I don’t think right — you have to focus on your own personal strengths. Don’t be held by stereotypes, you need to be confident about who you are, decide on what you want to do and then go for it. Remember to be your own advocate, take initiatives and create your own opportunities. The other advice is to never stop learning, always ask questions as there is no such thing as a bad question — you need to be eager to learn every day. Don’t be afraid to fail and to fall. Grit is one of the most critical traits needed for success in today’s world. As Angela Lee Duckworth says “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.”

This quote fits so well with women in leadership because it has never been easy for us and there is still a long way to go. Building a network is also important because the more people you get to know the more opportunities you are going to be exposed to. I am not saying that you have to find a mentor that is a woman — it can be a man too — there just needs to be someone you can lean on. Finding a good mentor and building a relationship that works for both (because that’s what mentorship is about) can be very challenging. These days there are amazing tools you can use: social media networks such as Linkedin or Twitter as well as Meetups (once we are back to social gatherings). Last but not least — have fun! It is important to not forget about that. Obviously you need to focus on delivering things, but you need to really have fun and enjoy what you do.

The low representation of women in tech and STEM as a whole is not only a social issue, but it is also a matter of business and development itself. How can we create and build a new future if it’s only based on the knowledge and expertise of one half of the population? Women need to be heard. In order to do so they need to be actively involved. A lack of women in the workplace reflects negatively on the future of technology so it’s up to all of us to change it. Share your knowledge, encourage, talk and discuss important issues with your colleagues, irrespective of their gender.

For young women, it may indeed be very intimidating to take first steps into an industry that for many years has been regarded as very male-oriented. Despite various roadblocks on the way, breaking these gender boundaries will certainly create new opportunities, open up new horizons and foster an environment where more women can acknowledge their potential. At YLD we strongly believe in the diversity of thought, hence we aspire to engage more women into our projects and encourage everyone to join us.

Women in Leadership: Progression and Challenges
was originally published in YLD Blog on Medium.
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