Climbing the career ladder in IT is no easy feat. But for women technologists, the path to the top is that much more difficult, thanks to bias, different standards, and workplace cultures that marginalize them.
By Christina Wood
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When you look at your IT team and the people who make up your C-suite, do you see a diverse mix of men, women, and people of color? If so, you are an exception.
In most technology companies — and especially in leadership meetings at those companies — women are sparsely represented and women of color are rare. This is true in all industries, especially as you climb the ladder. A mere 28% of people in senior management roles are women and only 19% of the C-suite is female. But it’s much worse in IT, where only 26% of computer-science related jobs are held by women, compared to the overall job market, which is about half female.
This isn’t because women aren’t trying for leadership roles. It’s because getting promoted — especially in an industry like IT that is dominated by men — is more difficult for women than it is for men.
A woman is required to walk a razor’s edge between being assertive and likeable, prove her worth beyond anything expected of her male peers, and endure an array of biases that feel — and are — challenging to overcome. Part of the problem is that women struggle to get hired into IT. But once hired, they find the ladder to the C-suite nearly insurmountable.
“For entry-level positions, there are a lot of good initiatives that bring women into IT. The challenge happens when it comes to growing up that ladder,” says Nandini Easwar, CTO and co-founder of Speakfully, a company that offers a safe place for employees to address workplace concerns.
If you are a man, you might have little idea how many obstacles women have to overcome to get promoted. Here are seven that you need to understand if you hope to bring more women into — or are a woman climbing toward — leadership.
The razor’s edge of likeability
Getting promoted requires a person to be assertive, make decisions, express ideas, and lead. Men know this, do it, and are rewarded with more money and a boost up the ladder. When women do the very same thing, the response is quite different.
“There is a different standard for women and men,” says Easwar, especially if women are assertive. She has seen male leaders often throw f-bombs in meetings with only mild consequences, if any. “It is a very different experience for women,” she says.
It’s a razor thin line that’s nearly impossible to walk. Not being assertive won’t get you promoted. Being assertive makes you unlikeable. Either one makes promotion difficult. Not being liked holds women back, according to Lean In, an organization dedicated to overcoming these obstacles, because women who aren’t liked are seen as less competent.
“It’s a struggle,” agrees Tammy Fox, head of education and knowledge management at CloudBees. “To find the line between respectful and assertive, without people thinking, ‘She’s an overly aggressive female.’”
Women can’t fix this alone. If you want more female representation in your teams, bias training is necessary. Easwar also suggests calling out hypocrisy when it happens because it gives people the opportunity to recognize their own bias, which is often unintentional. “I call it out and this has helped define my boundary and set the tone,” she says.
Being talked over
Every woman who heard Vice President Kamala Harris say, “I’m speaking,” to Mike Pence when he talked over her in the vice presidential debate knew her frustration. Being talked over in meetings, or being outright ignored, is a common experience for women. And it has a negative impact on a woman’s career.
According to Joanna Wolfe, a teaching professor of English at Carnegie Mellon who researches this phenomena and issued a statement after the debates, “The research is pretty clear: While both sexes interrupt, men talk and interrupt more often. And when a woman complains or stands up for herself, she’s more likely to be negatively viewed than her male peers.”
“My advice to women is to make sure you speak up,” says Easwar. “Don’t let your ability to express your opinions be impacted by prejudice. You have to break that mold because not speaking up can be more detrimental and can be a disservice to other women trying to follow a similar growth path.”
Women can’t change this without help, though, and altering the way your company manages meetings can go a long way to preventing this. “We switch who runs meetings every week,” says Breanne Acio, co-founder and CEO of Sēkr, a female-run tech startup. “And we invite every single person to speak. We create an environment that allows for contributing without anyone having to be the interrupter.”
The dynamics of being left out
Women are often left out of group events or conspicuously ignored because they are not a member of the “in group,” which, in IT, is often white men. Whether this is conscious or unconscious, it is a bias that makes it difficult to get promoted.
When a team holds offsite events at venues that are uncomfortable to women, fails to invite women to lunches or sporting events where socializing happens, or frequently has lunch with the same group of men, it makes promotion less attainable for the women they omit.
“I was consulting with a tech company in San Francisco,” explains Catlin. “The head of the innovation lab there told me, ‘I want to get more women joining our lab, what can I do?’” She asked if the team socialized and, if they did, what they did for fun. “That was his aha moment,” she says. “He said, ‘I guess I should push back when the guys want to go to a strip club.’”
This problem is real. In addition to pushing back against socializing at a strip club, that manager also needs to understand what affinity bias — the tendency to socialize with, hire, and promote people who are like you — looks like and how to avoid it. Bias training can help with this.
The way men talk gets them promoted
“Women and men talk differently about themselves,” explains Acio. “We recently recruited for two different leadership positions. And the way that men present themselves, both in their resume and when speaking, is significantly more exaggerated. Women talk about themselves from a humbler perspective.”
So, if you are looking to diversify your team and promote more women, try listening differently. Bragging comes more easily to men but it does not mean they will be better at the job. “As someone who interviews a lot of people, it’s interesting how men are so confident in their ability to do the job and the majority of females say things like, ‘I want the opportunity to show you I can do this job.’ It’s a personality difference,” Fox says.
Women also have to learn to speak up — and to remind themselves that they deserve to be there. “You can’t change other people’s unconscious bias,” says Fox, “but you can change their perception of you. I try to prove to people that I deserve to be there, but in a respectful way. In the IT industry, knowledge and experience are more important than everything else.”
Everyone I spoke to for this story and many studies done on gender equality agree that men and women are held to different standards when it comes to performance. Women are often told they aren’t ready for a promotion or project, even though their accomplishments exceed those of men who do get promoted.
“Women are often held to higher performance standards than men,” reads McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace study. “And they may be more likely to take the blame for failure.”
This gets worse as you climb the ladder, and no doubt contributes to the lack of women at higher rungs. “Senior-level women are also nearly twice as likely as women overall to be ‘Onlys’ — the only or one of the only women in the room,” says the McKinsey study.
And once you find yourself the only woman in the room, that itself creates more obstacles to promotion. Being an “only” triggers what Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, a company that studies workplace dynamics and offers bias training, calls Out-Group Dynamics. “Our data shows that when people are from an out group, they get more critical scrutiny,” she says. “Men can demonstrate 30 to 40 percent success and that is enough. Women have to actually demonstrate 100 percent success before we get the same outcome a man gets.”
The McKinsey study agrees. “Women who are Onlys are more likely than women who work with other women to feel pressure to work more and to experience microaggressions, including needing to provide additional evidence of their competence.”
The parent trap
There is a double standard for men and women when it comes to parenting that is the most devastating obstacle to promotion women face. This is an intense bias that affects women even before they have children and that assumes that once a woman has children, she will no longer want or be able to do her job.
Lean In calls it maternal bias and cites a study showing that adding “PTA coordinator” to a woman’s resume, admitting she is a mother, makes her much less likely to be hired and half as likely to be promoted.
“Maternity bias is real,” says Easwar, especially in male dominated tech fields. “It’s almost as if you have to re-climb the ladder again when you return from maternity leave.”
Easwar’s experience is supported by data. One recent study found that women who took advantage of accommodations offered for parents were stigmatized and saw their careers derailed. “The upshot for women at the individual level was sacrifices in power, status, and income; at the collective level, it meant the continuation of a pattern in which powerful positions remained the purview of men,” says the Harvard Business Review.
Often, a woman will never know she wasn’t promoted because of maternal bias. Catlin recalls a time when a man on her team was promoting from within. “Jane [not her real name] was the highest performing person on his team,” she explains. “She got stellar grades in the last performance cycle and was ready for this role.” Catlin asked the manager if he planned to offer Jane the promotion. “He said, and I kid you not, ‘She has young children and won’t want to travel.’” Fortunately for Jane, Catlin recognized this bias. “I told him that wasn’t a decision he could make for her, and he fortunately took my advice and asked her. She took the promotion and did a fantastic job.”
Often, the intense difficultly of overcoming this bias, combined with a work schedule that is not combatable with parenting — for men or for women — leads to women leaving the workforce altogether, though it is the bias and workplace inflexibility, according to the research, that leads to this decision not her unwillingness or inability to do the job.
The post-pandemic parent trap
The difficulties for working mothers have gotten much worse during the pandemic. The combination of an increase in parenting demands and maternal bias are, literally, pushing women out of the workforce altogether. McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study calls it a crisis and says that “as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce.”
This is unfortunate, because working remotely is an opportunity to mitigate this bias given that it makes work/life balance easier by alleviating travel and eliminating the commute. But, according to a Qualtrix study, 34% of men with children at home say they’ve received a promotion while working remotely during the pandemic while only 9% of women say the same.
The solution here must be systemic. Create a culture that is friendly and accommodating to parents of both genders and your company will benefit from an influx of talent. Men and women both want this, even if women are paying the higher price when it’s absent.
“It’s important to realize that both men and women have things in their personal life they have to take care of,” says Fox. “If your company doesn’t appreciate the importance of work life balance, you owe it to yourself to find one that appreciates what you bring but also supports that balance.”