What I Learned from the Women in Technology Summit
This week I spent a couple of day at the Women in Technology Summit hosted by WITI. I was invited to moderate two panels and rather than just going in for those I decided to invest some time to listen to what other speakers had to say, to attend a workshop on how better to communicate with men and build allies and to network. Over the years, I have attended a few women in tech luncheons and breakfasts at broader industry events, but I usually shy away from women networking events marketed explicitly at women. This is mostly because I prefer to fight my way into events where the majority of attendees are men as this is, after all, what best reflects my day to day in tech. That said, I think there is power in conversations that happen in an environment where you feel it is safe to be open and this is precisely what the WITI Summit offered. There is power in sharing stories, opinions, openly talk about the challenges we face without being concerned of being judged and with the reassurance that more often than not, the person you are talking to is able to relate to what you are saying.
There are Many Smart Women in Tech
You often hear men complain about a shortage of women in tech. Not enough women to keynote at CES, not enough women in tech to follow on Twitter, not enough women in tech to invite as guests on their podcast. Time and time I see women making extensive lists of the talent that is out there if you are willing to look. And by look I mean, taking a quick look at these women are not hiding under a rock but they are openly visible doing their thing and demonstrating their awesomeness.
In case you are tempted to believe this shortage nonsense, let me tell you that at the WITI Summit there were over 100, yes one hundred, speakers, panelists, coaches and guess what, they were all women. I can bet that the organizers did not have to send out search parties to hunt them down either. What struck me was the quality of women on stage. They knew what they were talking about, many had science and engineering background, they were engaged with the audience, they were generous with their knowledge and time, and they genuinely wanted to make a difference.
Something that really struck me in listening to the speakers that the vast majority of them did not just tell a story and spoke hypothetically about a topic, whether the topic was a new technology like AI or the issue of diversity and inclusion in tech. They were prepared on the topic, talked with purpose and always left the audience something to reflect on. All by rarely mentioning their own personal achievements other than to make a point.
There was a Lack of Young White Women in the Conversation
As I was looking at the crowd in the sessions, I started to notice that the mix looked a little different from what I see at other tech events. Coming fresh from the round of developer events over the past couple of months and being used to see young white women making up a significant proportion of the female mix, I was stunned to find a considerable lack of millennial white women at the summit. There were many millennial minority women in the audience, but it was hard to see young white women.
I am aware that millennials are the group where minorities are becoming the numerical majority, but I think there might be something else going on there. I do wonder if, young white women share my feeling that we should find our place in industry events and not at events that are focused on women only. Maybe young white women are in general more comfortable when it comes to their place in tech thanks partly to the effort of those who came before them.
I hate to think that young white women do not want to be part of the conversation about diversity and inclusion. As a matter of fact, I find it hard to believe that is the case. I do wonder, however, if they might not think there is something to be learned from women who were the first in their company to become the CEO, or a lead engineering or product manager. Of course, the bigger point is that whether or not they think they can learn or they can benefit further from being part of the conversation is somewhat irrelevant. What I do hope, is that young white women understand they, like me, have a responsibility help and support other women and women from ethnic minorities.
The Best Pieces of Advice I heard:
As speakers shared their stories and coaches shared their knowledge, I was listening to find little nuggets of wisdom, and that is precisely what I found:
Ahalya Kethees founder of Lead with Brilliance said: You cannot be truly curious about someone if you are judgmental. I never thought about it this way, but it is true that if you are judging someone, it is hard to keep an open mind and wanting to know more about what they are talking about or who they are.
VP of Engineering at Autodesk, Minette Norman said, “ stay true to yourself, don’t try and be one of the boys.” I can really relate to this. I tried to fit in by being like one of the boys, but it just was not for me because it was not me. Over the years I found that being me, with my faults and quirks was the most effective approach to build a relationship with clients as well as colleagues.
Several of the speakers urged the audience to go and get a career coach. And apparently, according to a survey run by IDC across WITI members, a male coach would help you get a higher salary more so than a female coach would! Not a surprise when you think that women generally are not good at negotiating their contracts and assessing their worth!
Barbara Nelson GM & VP at Western Digital said: “Fight your own battle.” Yes, we need sponsors, and advocates, and allies but we need to be prepared to speak up, ask the hard questions and fight our own battles.
Lastly, I leave you with my action point: amplify women’s voices. Highlight when one of your female colleagues says or does something smart, retweet and follow other women in tech, stop a male colleague when he interrupts a woman in a meeting, so she gets to finish talking. Let’s not fight among ourselves to get a seat at the table let’s bring in a chair for someone else when we get there!