Earlier this year I was invited to be on a panel organized by UBC’s Computer Science department to discuss “Women leaders in tech: How to arrive, survive and thrive.” It was a very interesting evening, and I was inspired and energized by both my fellow panelists and the enthusiastic audience.
Gender diversity is something I am very passionate about, and I have been actively engaged in gender diversity advocacy for the last twenty years. However, what my advocacy looks like, and how I view gender diversity, has changed a lot in these two decades. It has been a long journey that started with a view rooted in a desire for (what I perceived as) fairness, to my current understanding that there is a huge difference between equality and equity. I aspire for the latter rather than the former. I used to shy away from the “feminist” label, but now I embrace it. Diversity, and in particular gender diversity, is a topic that occupies a lot of my time and energy. After the lively discussion, I felt compelled to write down some of my thoughts.
When discussing the increasing number of women in technology, the conversation often focuses on what women can do to promote themselves and their careers. While I agree there are many useful ideas, experiences, and insights that can be shared that will help and advance women, I want to point out that the onus on changing the gender balance should not be on women. To paraphrase this quote from poet G. D. Anderson: “It is not about making women stronger, women are already strong, it’s about changing how the world perceives that strength.” There are systemic and societal issues that create barriers and prevent women from enjoying the same benefits and opportunities experienced by men.
The panel’s theme was women leaders; how do you become one, and how to be one. Let’s start with how to be a leader. It is our responsibility as leaders to be inclusive and to promote inclusive environments, where everyone, including women, can thrive. It is not enough to recruit a diverse team. We must also ensure that people are comfortable displaying their diversity. This will only happen in an environment that is safe, non-judgemental, and supportive. Being an inclusive leader requires a high degree of self-awareness. We need to look at our own biases and leadership style, and understand the impact we have on others. Good intentions are never good enough. Maya Angelou said it best: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If you see behaviour that is not inclusive you must speak up and act. You need to be a role model of inclusive leadership that others can mirror.
Now to the question of how to become a women leader. Before you put yourself in a leadership position, you need to ask yourself what “leader” means to you, and why you want to become one. To me, a leader is someone who people look to for guidance and support. A leader has the ability to see someone’s unique potential, and help them harness it. Leadership is not about power, control, or prestige. You can still be a leader without being in a formal leadership role. However, there is still a great need for gender diversity in leadership, so women should not shy away from leadership opportunities.
I get a bit uncomfortable when I am asked to give specific advice on leadership, because I know what worked for me, but it may not work for others. Women are not one homogenous group. We live and work in different environments and cultures, and we have different life experiences that mold and shape us. Different things will work for different women.
If I had to pick one guiding principle, it would be “learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable”. Be open. This could mean being open to new roles and responsibilities, even if you don’t have the training or experience. Allow yourself space and time to learn by doing, and don’t expect to get it right on the first try. Women have enough constraints imposed on us - we should not suppress ourselves. Say yes to things that excite and energize you, and no to the things that don’t.
I am often asked for resources, and my answer is that your best resources are people. Books and courses can be inspirational and interesting, but it is people - women and men - that can really help you. Find people that inspire you, and ask for their help. And in return, when someone asks you for help, be generous.
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