Although women represent nearly half of the entire workforce today, they’re still massively underrepresented in the technology industry.
What’s more, McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study found that the pandemic has negatively impacted women more severely than men, and we’ll continue to see its ripple effects into the future, undoing much of the progress made over the past six years.
Transformation is needed not only for the women working in technology now but also for the girls hoping to make their mark on the industry in the future.
On this episode of the Transform It Forward podcast, we share a panel discussion from the recent Axway Summit 2021, which brought these issues to light and sparked a dialogue around the need for diverse leadership in tech.
Moderated by Axway’s VP of Customer Success and Experience, Ann Lloyd, the panel included speakers Chhavi Bhargava, Data Exchange Service Manager, Ford Motor Co., Fernanda Toscano, IT Senior Executive, HDI Insurance, and Susanne Schütz, SVP Customer and Business Intelligence, DB Schenker.
Overcoming challenges in a male-dominated industry
At the beginning of Chhavi’s career, she was juggling the demands of motherhood, living in a new country, and with the hysteria surrounding the Y2K bug, learning about mainframe computers. She says it was a delicate balancing act, but she quickly developed the skills necessary to stay laser-focused on the task at hand.
“I focused on dividing my time as best as I could between home and at work, and when I entered into any discussions, I also learned very early on to focus on data-driven discussions and to take the emotions out of any part of the discussions where possible,” she says. “And that kept me focused on overcoming any challenges that I did encounter, and helped me move forward on the problem I really wanted to solve and the goal we were trying to achieve.”
For Susanne Schütz, being a woman in the industry never made her feel inferior or different from her male peers. Rather, she was grateful to the men she worked with who helped her learn, fueled her passion, and appreciated her ideas, regardless of her gender. In challenging moments, it was her drive and tenacity that defined her and kept her motivated.
“I had a lot of male mentors who didn’t care whether I was female or not, if I had good ideas, if I had the drive to bring things forward, I think they were just treating me as an equal,” she says. “And that was something may be stupid to say, but I never had to fight for it. It was more my approach, my ideas, my dedication and passion for what I was doing.”
Balancing work life with motherhood
During the panel, Ann points out that aside from working in technology, all the panelists had something else in common: motherhood. She asks the speakers about balancing work with motherhood, and what challenges they’ve encountered along the way.
Similar to the way Susanne approaches working with her male colleagues, she chooses to view motherhood not as a detriment to her career, but simply as an added dimension to her life. She says in countries like France and Austria, where she’s from, working while being a mother is generally less stigmatized than in other parts of the world.
“There was maybe a challenge seen when my daughter was born and I continued to work, but it was a challenge others did see, but my family and I didn’t see,” she says. “And that’s helped me a lot because I took the approach that is where you continue to work, continue to pursue your career, to also enjoy the time with your child and focus on the child, but also have this balance and pursue what you love to do as you choose to as your career.”
For Fernanda, leaning on the support of her family helps her juggle the demands of her career with being a parent.
“I was lucky because my husband works in IT as well, so he understands very well what happens and the demands that we have,” she says. “And when my son was born, I was stable in my career, so everything had already happened for me and I was ready to [become a parent], so it helped a lot. Today, I really think that I have a good balance and we can manage it very well.”
Freedom of choice and following your passion
While in some countries, the ratio of women to men working in tech is almost equal, in most areas, women represent a much smaller percentage of the industry.
The panelists all agreed that having the freedom to follow their interests from a young age and carve their path in the industry was instrumental to their success. “I think you should be good in your field, whatever it is,” Susanne says. “Freedom of choice — I think that’s the most important part. That’s what I try to give my daughter, who definitely will not end up in IT!”
Similar to Susanne, Chhavi says she feels fortunate to have chosen a career that was aligned with her passions from a young age.
“In the times that I was growing up, there was a lot of stereotyping on ‘women should only do this, women should only do that,’ but fortunately, my parents allowed me the freedom of choice, as Susanne mentioned, of being able to study in the field that I would like,” she says.
“As more women are coming into the workplace, finding that acceptance has been helpful. The conditioning is slowly, slowly moving away, women are getting freedom of choice and as they explore what they are passionate about, I am very hopeful that it won’t be a ‘women versus men’ kind of dialogue anymore.”
Building diversity in the tech industry
During the panel, Ann mentions a 2020 McKinsey report that found that diverse companies perform better, hire and retain better talent, and have more engaged employees than companies that don’t prioritize diversity.
The panelists agree that a diverse team can tackle problems from multiple different angles, and bring fresh perspectives to the mix.
“I have a very diverse team and I look into having complementary skills because if you only have techy guys and you build an application, probably the users might miss something,” Susanne says. “So I bring in people who see the user side, who see the techy side, who are experts in edge technology, or I bring in people who come more from the detailed viewpoint and the people who see the big picture.”
Transforming the future for women in tech
Creating a more female-friendly tech industry will require fundamental changes at the level of companies and employers, but also within the education system and the underlying assumptions that are still prevalent in society.
The panelists had some ideas about how we can improve as a sector and support women and girls who hope to enter the industry. Susanne reiterates the need for more freedom of choice for women and the normalization of being a mother and having a successful career.
Chhavi and Fernanda agree, adding that helping young women make an informed choice about their careers early on could make a big impact down the road.
“I would say exposure to different fields to young people in high school or college is important, so they get to see what life would be like in the field that they’re pursuing,” Chhavi says.
The last question of the panel brings the discussion full circle and refocuses on the overarching theme: Are women in tech transformers or disruptors?
“I would say both, but you have to identify where transformation is needed versus where disruption is needed, so things that are working well you transform and disrupt where things are not going so well,” Chhavi says. “It’s a combination, depending on the situation.”
Listen to the full episode here.
If you missed previous episodes, discover them here.