I was recently part of an all-male panel discussion on "The Male Perspective on Women in Technology." The audience? About 250 women. I thought it was a very enlightening session for all of us and, after the necessary disclaimers about why any woman would ever care what any man thought about this subject (and why there weren't any women on the panel), we got down to a mostly serious discussion (with a few laughs about men who cry) talking about what could be done to help improve the current and depressing low percentage of women in the technology sector. Bob Miano, CEO of Harvey Nash, said the numbers have remained flat for the last several years according to their annual surveys.
The panel discussion was prefaced by a short keynote talk by Brenna Berman, the CIO for the City of Chicago, who noted that some of her most valuable mentors over the years have been men, so she certainly believes that their thoughts and concerns are, in fact, relevant. I felt she handled this touchy question very well and that her opening comments cleared the modestly tense air a bit before our discussion started.
In any event, I came away with a couple of thoughts and pieces of advice that I want to share, especially with young women (including those in my various ventures) who are just getting started in the business world or in building their own companies. My observations are drawn mainly from the comments of the other panelists, although I will take credit for eventually providing a pretty good answer to the main “curve ball” question of the night (even though I ducked it when it was first asked by saying that I had promised my team in writing that I wouldn’t answer that particular inquiry).
No World for Wallflowers
Roger Liew, the CTO of Orbitz, made a very important point which, in my columns, I've usually short-handed by saying either that "Feasibility will compromise you soon enough" or "Don’t let other people's fears or limitations hold you back." There are always plenty of people willing to tell you why you can't do something and it's very important that you yourself not be one of them. Roger had his own very interesting experiences about assigning women to certain high-visibility and important projects and then having to convince them to step up and take on the job. His point was that no guy would ever say he wasn't up to the task (whatever the task was) and neither should any woman, especially since they should know that their boss or manager wouldn't have asked them if he or she had any doubts in their ability to get it done well. You need to know that in any business everyone "wings it" from time to time and the key to success is simply that some people do it much more confidently than others. So don't be afraid to step forward when you next have the chance, and don’t ever sell yourself short. You'll always miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
Leave the Baggage in the Lobby
Matt Hancock, executive director of the Chicago Tech Academy High School, said that if he had only one piece of advice for young women entering the tech world it would be to forget all the "expert" advice and all the "Dos and Don'ts" about how to act in the workforce: just leap in and go with the flow. He called this "dropping all the baggage" and showing up as you are. If you let your contributions and actions speak for you and use the skills that you uniquely possess, you can make a real impact, and a difference. I’d say it slightly differently, but the point is the same: All the good advice, pre-game coaching and helpful hints in the world won't ultimately make you a better you. Everyone's an expert who doesn't have to do these things themselves. Only you can make things happen for yourself and it helps a lot to be sure that you don't get in your own way while you are doing just that.
The final question of the night was the closest thing to a curve ball and dealt with a very touchy area. The question was: "How do you suggest coming across as confident without being perceived as a "bitch" or as overly aggressive?" I'm sure there are a number of good hints or suggestions in the literature on this subject, but I thought the right approach wasn't to try to outline rules of behavior or appropriate language, which would have just amounted to piling on more of Matt’s "baggage" (see above). The best answer (for me, at least) is that you need to change the conversation and the lens that you're looking through.
"Aggression" is so weighted and ugly a word that I can't think of any context in which we would truly value it (except maybe in pro sports, where we reward violent actions by morons already being driven mad by steroids), so we need to put that word aside and have a smarter and more productive discussion. Talking about a "fierce passion to succeed," on the other hand, or an "uncompromising commitment to a cause or a business," or a "take no prisoners" attitude, those are all positions and postures that we heartily endorse--and, in fact, hope to emulate in our own behavior. Passion is just the flip (and far more attractive) side of aggression, and that's how we should answer the question. The people who want it the most and care the most are the ones who make things happen.
Passion is what moves mountains and makes the world move forward. Passion and unflinching optimism are force multipliers. There's never enough to go around because these qualities are always in short supply. So the bottom line is self-evident. It's short-sighted and stupid to discourage anyone's (male or female) energy and enthusiasm, and it's long past time we got over the rhetoric and the pointless characterizations and start focusing our efforts and energies on who can best help us make a difference in the marketplace and create real results.