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8 min

"Women in Technology" Panel: I Learned More Than I Contributed

by John Simpson November 21, 2016

Just last month, I was invited to participate on the IAMCP’s Women in Technology panel entitled “The Male Perspective – Women, IT and Leadership.” Now, those who know me know that I love a stage and almost never turn down a chance at the mic. But this time, I was more than a bit uneasy:

  • “These women know more about technology than I do; what value can I add?”
  • “Seeing as they know more than I do, shouldn’t I be asking them?”
  • “What if I inadvertently offend someone?”
  • “I have never been in their shoes, what insights can I provide?”
  • “Is this a panel of pompous white male executives? If so, why is it such a popular session?”
  • “Am I going to be held personally accountable for the fact that our labor market still hasn’t seen equality of wages and opportunities for women?”

First, of course I said yes. I can’t resist the lure of the stage. With the concerns outlined above circling in my mind, I decided to educate myself. I convened a small group of One North women to hear their perspectives. What ensued was an absolutely eye opening dialogue about the challenges and opportunities not only facing women in technology, but women in the workforce.

What follows are some of my takeaways. But rather than write purely from the perspective of someone empathetic to the plight of women and minorities in the workplace (which I am), I am taking a different approach. My approach is to break the subject of women in technology down as a business problem and opportunity. If we want to move beyond the simple premise that ‘diversity is good,’ we need to show how it affects a business in a way that would appeal to a return-oriented shareholder.

The Opportunity: Diversity Creates Better Business Outcomes

Ten years ago, a designer could mock up a homepage in Photoshop and email it off to a developer, who then coded the site up and sent it out the door. Little interaction was required between the two. Today, however, creating cross-platform, context-specific experiences for digital audiences requires a delicate balance between creative design, content, UX and technology. Increasingly, that requires a broad range of skillsets from both ‘left- and right-brained’ individuals who must work together effectively to achieve a mutual outcome.

I’ve personally been a witness to the magic that happens when folks from different backgrounds work together. Not only is the work product taken to another level, but the relationships that form amongst previously disparate talent pools within our organization strengthen the DNA of the company, which only positions us better for the future.

Furthermore, the inevitable cross-training that occurs only aids in individual career development. A designer that learns enough Javascript to know what’s possible when bringing their designs to life on the web is so much more valuable than one that stops and ends in Photoshop. And the same holds true for a developer who knows the right questions to ask of a designer before sitting down to build.

Ultimately the digital experience that we deliver to clients is a collection of ideas, brainstorms, discussions, arguments (sometimes) and compromises. Having a diversity of styles, thoughts and approaches makes the output exponentially better.

It is impossible for me to characterize the unique skills of “women.” I work with a group of women with a diverse set of skills. I know none of them would want me to classify them as all having some common set of skills or characteristics.

We Have a Supply Chain Problem

Services businesses are only as effective as the talent they bring to their clients. People are the ‘supply chain’ to producing value. And it’s here that we have a problem as it relates to women in technology.  

Between 2000 and 2009, the US saw a 79% drop in women declaring computer science majors. When I discussed this with my colleagues, some interesting insights became apparent. The general consensus was that as a society, we are still not steering young women towards careers in technology. In fact, one of my colleagues went so far as to say, “In high school, they wouldn’t talk to me about being an engineer or programmer. Rather, they encouraged me to pursue a career as a doctor, or pursue math and science academia.” 

Further, when I spoke to one of our recruiters, she relayed that “In my experience, women tend to start their STEM education by pursuing pre-med or biotech, but they end up finding how much they love CS when they have to take the required class, and end up switching to the CS track. I’ve talked to far more women who have ’discovered’ CS in their prerequisites rather than pursing CS from the beginning. Very few were looking for careers in web development … but we are starting to see that change.”

She also noted that more than 30% of the recent inquiries at a university job fair were from female applicants.

One thing is clear, we have to reach back further into grammar and high school to break the notion that technology is a men’s career field.  

We Need to Better Position Our Assets

ROA (Return on Assets) gives an idea as to how efficient management is at using its assets to generate earnings. In a services business, those assets are people. What I learned is that businesses – and perhaps society views towards women in the workplace in general – are not doing a good enough job creating the conditions for women’s perspectives to be heard and capitalized on.

One of my colleagues offered that in her technical undergraduate program, she found her male counterparts to be less receptive to her ideas. She went so far as to say, “Men assume they are already in the club … women are constantly adjusting and trying to make it.”

The group generally agreed that they are much more measured in tossing out ideas because the cost to their reputation – and women’s reputations in general – would suffer if one of their brainstormed ideas didn’t pan out. “I feel like I am representing all women, so I am careful about what I say,” one colleague added. 

From a personal perspective, that last comment absolutely floored me. What a tremendous burden it must be to feel like you are representing an entire group every time you speak?! But what I learned in further discussion was that this a societal issue. As one of my team members put it, “Girls are taught to be perfect where guys are taught to be brave.”

And from a business perspective, the idea that we are missing out on ideas and/or solutions because highly-skilled team members are reluctant to speak freely means we have a long way to go to maximize our ROA. 

Diversity and Business Performance

From both a professional and personal perspective, preparing for and participating on the WIT panel was an enlightening experience. Naturally, I want every member of my team, regardless of sex, ethnicity, etc. to feel engaged and part of a supportive and diverse working environment. But through my conversations, I’ve come to realize more and more the tight connection between diversity and business performance – these are not mutually exclusive topics. 

John Simpson
Chief Executive Officer

At the time of publishing, John was Chief Executive Officer at One North.