Monday, October 26, 2015

unCon 2015 Session: Women Entrepreneurs – Women in Tech 2.0

By Jackie Ouellet, 2016 MBA Candidate |  LinkedIn  |  twitter: @weplayshirts

The session began with participants volunteering topics they wanted to discuss.  Some topics mentioned included mentorship, networking, and getting men involved.

The conversation started off with some questions about what gets female employees to the next level.  Is it golfing, getting beers with people, or networking in the hallway? How much of this is passive versus the individual making her own decision to break into something new, to make connections, or to find people who are inspirational? The group seemed to decide it was a healthy mix of the two, but that putting oneself out there and actively searching for new connections and opportunities is especially important.

One of the challenges that women can face in any workplace, but especially in the male-dominated tech industry is breaking into a group of men chatting around the proverbial water cooler.  A great networking tip from one participant was to have a wingman (or woman) and go into those situations with a peer.  The suggestion was to go into those conversations with something you can talk to them about.  Yes, participants noted, this might be sports, but it also might be WSJ headlines, travel experiences, or another subject that many people can relate to.  Ultimately, women who want to get ahead have to be willing to put themselves out there.  It was noted that this is where the confidence factor can come into play.  To build confidence, one suggestion was to actively engage in new experiences that initially are intimidating – whether a person succeeds or fails in the new endeavor isn’t necessarily the most important part; it’s overcoming the fear and recognizing that it (most likely) wasn’t as bad as expected.

The topic of discussion then turned to how some women don’t want to differentiate themselves as women, but only as data scientists, professionals.  These women may not recognize how important their decisions are – younger women look up to females in positions of power and if a female recognizes that part of who she is in a professional setting, this can provide hope to younger women looking to go into that field or advance in the industry.  There was a suggestion to use the fact that there’s a spotlight on women in tech right now.  “Women Only” events are a necessary part of the process to getting on a level playing field; at this point they still need to happen. 

A man in the room noted that when stakes are high, people need to find a way to manipulate things to their advantage.  He suggested that this might actually be easier for women as they’ve had to work harder to get what they want in the past.  There was a suggestion to figure out how to get what you want with transparency and at the same time by providing value to the system.  Another male participant suggested females should be going into meetings or interviews with confidence because so many companies are hiring female candidates, finally realizing the value of diversity.  While it is hard to break into the boys club, many employers are actively searching for female candidates to elect to higher-level positions – women should be taking advantage of this right now.

One participant said a great interview questions she’s heard is “how many women are on your executive team?” This is a new question, and it’s an awesome one.  Studies show that teams get smarter with more women (more diversity) on them.  It’s scary that formal studies were necessary, but it’s good that the data shows what we already knew and now people are now listening to it.

It was noted that there are issues around gender balance with women on panels. This might be an issue because only at CEOs or founders are looked at and there are so many women in other exec positions that should be considered for speaking opportunities.  Many women are team players so they very well may be CTOs or COOs, who can add just as much experience and advice to a panel.

If someone is making an effort to hire more women or promote women internally, as women, we shouldn’t be knocking them down just for being late to the party.  An example was given of  a man who had only one woman in his company of 130 reaching out to ask about the best way to hire more women.  He realized his company had a serious problem and was actively working to fix it; women need to encourage this behavior instead of balking at how backwards it seems to have a workforce of <1% female.

The conversation then turned to the difference between a mentor and a sponsor.  Bobbi, one of the session moderators, gave an example of a circle of women that she knows – she feels comfortable promoting and talking about these five to ten women; when opportunities arise she thinks they would be a good fit for she has no hesitation in promoting them.  One panelists made the recommendation to look for sponsors that aren’t just the same gender – women often can benefit from male sponsors/mentors and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Women sponsors are sometimes also tapped out so it’s important to have a range of resources.

The group also discussed ways to manage the male/female perception.  A participant suggested not going out for drinks with male colleagues, but instead trying to set up breakfast or lunch meet-ups. As a female, it’s important to work around schedule that allows you to manage those perceptions so you can have these mentors.

The session concluded with a discussion about how to get men to buy in.  One participant mentioned that as the Co-President of a Graduate Women in Business Club, she was having a hard time convincing men to attend events and was looking for suggestions to make this easier.  One suggestion was to change the name of the event by removing the reference to a women’s club or women’s event.  Another suggestion was to consider exactly what the event or panel is offering.  Is it a discussion on challenges women face in the workplace that might specifically benefit women more than men?  Or is it a general panel on technology or asset management that would be of interest to everyone, but just hosted by a women’s group? 

A final suggestion was to form a ‘man-bassadors group’ as there is a lot of interest from men to be part of a solution.  Another idea was to encourage event attendees to invite a man to an event as a guest to have a more representative audience.

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