Why I’m fed up with the whole ‘women in tech’ rant

Harassment, unequal pay and alienating work environments are just some of the accusations hurled by many women in tech toward their male counterparts. While there is no doubt about those claims, and plenty of evidence to support them, this is a convenient and rather narrow-sighted view. What about what fellow women subject each other to in the workplace? From my experience, they are equally destructive.

woman in yellow shirt screaming with frustration

Madeleine Albright is often quoted as saying, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” And she’s right. But if what I am witnessing is in fact representative of women in tech (and I know that it is), then hell is pretty crowded in that “special place.”

Sadly,  women in tech are often just as ruthless and demoralizing as some of our male counterparts.

I was recently dragged — with ease I might add — into joining a Twitter rant about women in tech in which @alicegoldfuss had declared that “the women who stay in tech 5, 10, 20 years are a supreme form of survivor-ship bias.” Goldfuss has a tenure in tech and war stories to match. We are indeed warriors, survivors and a rare breed, but this is not only due to some men taunting and sexually harassing some women on a daily basis. It’s about time women faced an inconvenient truth about the immense impact of our behavior toward one another before pointing the finger at the likely culprit: men!

Caveat before I dig in: I have spent decades as a daughter, sibling to sisters, aunt to nieces, mother to a daughter, colleague, manager and, currently, employer to many talented women. With close to 20 years of tech and startup marketing in global companies under my belt, I believe my experience is pretty rich, varied and representative. My experience and opinions here relate only to the privileged world of technology and not to other less diverse, less fortunate or seemingly less progressive industries. And yes, while I do realize that tech marketing and “hardcore” code-writing or any other IT-related profession are not one and the same, the companies, teams and work environment very much are.

The inconvenient truth, a typical day for women in tech

At best, women represent 30% of the typical company's workforce, hold 28% of leadership roles and only 20% at best of IT or tech-related roles. Only 5% make it to CEO level of Fortune 500 companies.

Like many others, I started my career in the lowest, most junior marcom position and moved my way through product, channel and global strategic management positions. Every step of the way, I had to prove my worth, earn my next promotion and career opportunity. Many women traveled this journey with me along the way. What did that look like for us?

Common scenarios included typically being the only woman, or one of two women, out of a group of guys in any given workplace situation. In meetings, the women were far more scrutinized than many of the dozing male counterparts at the same meeting. I was OK with proving my worth. I never felt that I did or did not get a promotion based on my gender, and I was oblivious to any pay discrepancies between myself and male colleagues.

While male bosses and colleagues mentored all of us and there were conflicts, the hardest to overcome were those between other women on the team or female bosses who clearly felt threatened. Common female conflict scenarios included:

  • Counter-mentoring a female junior so that she would not get that promotion.
  • Obsessive and subjective scrutiny over every single idea raised or work plan.
  • Ensuring mistakes made were broadcast, with the female culprit named. Every. Single. Time.
  • Fury and jealousy over personal communication or so-called favoritism between the CEO (male) and other women on the team.
  • Ensuring after-work drinks with “the guys” were a closed circle, upon invite only.
  • Being hit on aggressively and repeatedly by gay co-workers.

These stories are not unique. While researching for this post, I found very few papers or articles on women who are biased against other women but every successful woman in tech has her belly full of the women who, at best, did little to lend a hand. Sallie Krawcheck (@SallieKrawcheck), CEO of Ellevest, coined the term “Queen Bee Effect.” to describe this phenomenon. Many women feel so threatened by other women that they maneuver to ensure there is only room for one of them at the palace.

If that wasn’t enough, unsurprisingly, research published in the Harvard Business Review found that despite all the talk talk talk about diversity in the workplace, women were scrutinized and penalized for promoting other women or minorities in the workplace.

So yes, I am well aware that many women are dealt a hard time by some of the sexist men they need to work with, but women can be equally despicable.

Norway passed a law in 2003 mandating that women must occupy at least 40% of the board seats of public companies. Following this, the salaries for women in the top 5% of the earnings distribution did increase, but an in-depth report found no evidence of any effect on women lower down in the companies, nor that the companies hired more women. This is in contrast to several other studies that do show stark improvements for women under the leadership of women.

The concept of being offered a job in order to reach an organization’s female representation numbers infuriates me. Furthermore, if you’d like to see me cringe, ask me to speak “as a woman.” I am more than a gender; I speak and operate as a successful and accredited business professional, or not at all. 

Making an immediate impact

There is a distinct shortage of women in tech, and many fundamental changes in the legal, social and cultural paradigms are evolving too slowly. There are sufficient articles about technology, the education gap and what governments are enforcing to bridge that gap that are out of scope here.

While it is very convenient to blame the male-dominated “system” for the dismal numbers of females in tech, there’s still plenty that can be done by men and women, for women. Here are my top few:

HR managers and the pay gap: 73.3% of workers in HR are… women. If so many women are in key positions that influence pay or know of pay discrepancies between the genders, why are you keeping quiet? Why aren’t you making it your business to ensure that you work for an equal-pay organization? While research highlights that men bargain more aggressively in the interview process, there’s still a significant difference between getting the 10% extra and whopping 30% discrepancies.

Founders, C-level managers and the pay gap: Both genders, you hold the keys. Do you want to run a company that is paying women less than their male counterparts? Do you want to promote the guy you have a beer with or the best man/woman for the job who has earned it? What if the woman is your wife, sister or daughter? Does she still deserve less pay and opportunity?

Mentoring for success: Ladies, your time and honest guidance is worth a whole lot more than you think. Women should make a point of (truly) mentoring fellow women, especially the younger ones who are coming into the company. If you are one of the women who actually feels threatened by an up-and-rising female counterpart, shame on you. You are responsible for prolonging the current status quo.

Founding equal opportunity startups from the ground up: The tech world is privileged enough to be clean of prejudice and chains of history. Startups break industry standards and ditch proven and tested paradigms on a daily basis. There’s no doubt the same can be done for equal opportunity, sexual discrimination and the gender pay gap.

If you are in the startup ecosystem as a founder or employee, ask this question: Are equal pay, diversity, share of voice and a non-alienating work environment principles of this company? If the answer is anything but a clear yes, you are crucifying 50% of the population and, quite frankly, you're a hypocrite.

Women in tech and other industries, let’s quit the ranting and get our own ranks in order. We don’t need to slam all the blame for bleak female representation on the men. Since when has it ever been our modus operandi to wait for change to come knocking on our door?

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