Sexist attitudes are pervasive. It’s up to risk-taking women to change the tech game.
From time to time, I’m reminded that for every two steps forward, we take one step back.
The latest reminder came last week when reading The New York Times front page story “As Inequality Roils Tech World, a Group Wants More Say: Men.” This story, and some of the men quoted in it, reminds me of the hell I went through to become a successful woman in the technology industry. That a growing contingent of men in Silicon Valley think the women in tech movement has gone too far makes me believe we have only gone backward.
This is 2017. The same sexist attitudes were being thrown around more than 30 years ago when I fought to get my start in tech in New York City. But to read these insults today was nevertheless jarring. James Damore, the same Google engineer who was recently fired for suggesting women held fewer tech positions than men because of biological inferiority, told the Times that the idea that “diversity improves workplace output, it’s not scientifically decided that that’s true.”
Actually, it is. In a 2016 analysis of 500 U.S. companies, the National Center for Women & Information Technology found that organizations with more diverse teams in terms of race and gender had higher sales revenue, more customers, greater market share and greater productivity than their less diverse counterparts.
What’s more, there aren’t that many women in technology to begin with, a point on which The New York Times ended their story. According to Girls Who Code, only 24 percent of computer scientists are women – down 13 percentage points since 1995. The organization warns that if the gender gap is not addressed, there will only be 2 female computer scientists for every 9 male computer scientists in 10 years. The numbers are even bleaker at the top of the sector’s food chain: Only 5 percent of leadership positions are held by women.
I’m incredibly humbled and proud to call myself part of the 5 percent. The men that feel victimized in this New York Times story are not that different from the men I battled in the 1980s and 1990s, when women in technology were a laughing matter. After being mistreated, offended and underestimated long enough in an industry rife with systemic sexism, I realized this was the status quo. I understood I had to create my own rules to be successful in this industry. So, I decided, quite literally, I wasn’t going to work for “the man” anymore. I decided to open my own firm.
I knew I could build a technology services firm with more integrity, ingenuity and commitment to client services than any I had come across. That’s exactly what I did in 1984 with my first company, Turn-Key Solutions. It did so well I was able to sell it six years later to start the technology consulting company I operate today, Sharp Decisions.
But things were still an uphill battle. As a new CEO with Turn-Key and Sharp, I wore many hats – not only was I the CEO, but the chief financial officer, vice president, account executive, human resources manager and receptionist. It was never easy, especially when I had to pretend to be another person. That wasn’t just once, either. I remember a client called once, expecting to hear from a man, so I pretended to be the CEO’s receptionist (in a way, I was). Another time, I hired an actor to play the role of my CEO during a big client pitch in Tennessee. Again, I went as the assistant. This client, by the way, is a multi-billion-dollar logistics company.
I took big risks to be seen for what I am: a businessperson in the tech world. And it’s that type of risk-taking that should continue. Women should continue persisting, speaking up for what they believe in and taking risks to show their skills and value. They should, whenever possible, look to rewrite the rules.
Because the road to 6 percent is paved with those women.