Not the stereotype: Women in leadership

women in leadership guide

Strategies, tools and techniques to grow as a woman leader in the tech industry

Let’s stop thinking of women leaders in business as a stereotype entrenched by the trope about skills, benefits and trials specific to women. Fact is, companies with purposeful diversity and inclusion (D&I) perform best. As a result, inclusive leaders are in high demand and will continue to be in high demand. And therein lies the opportunity to grow as a woman leader in the tech industry. 

By nature, inclusive leadership demands courage and commitment — it isn’t easy to become cognizant of one’s bias, welcome criticism and lead by example. But it can be done. Embracing a growth mindset, securing the support of a sponsor and committing to their personal leadership vision is how to take the bull by the horns.

The numbers don’t lie. Women leaders are good for business 

The fact is: that companies with women as leaders make more money. At the board level or senior management level, the return on assets increases by 8 – 13 basis points when just one more woman is added. Companies with at least 3 women directors versus none can expect a return on equity that is 11 percentage points higher.

The ranking looks like this: those with fewer than 10% women leadership (yes, there still are companies with zero) are outperformed by everyone else. There’s a 48% difference between these companies and those at the other end of the scale.

Companies with women as leaders also save more money

Women in leadership roles have more engaged employees and diverse teams, which contribute to the organization by sharing opinions and ideas, collaborating, taking creative risks, innovating and generally putting more into their jobs. And this increased engagement occurs because team members are seen, valued and included. In fact, leadership makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an employee feels included. An inclusive leader creates an environment where each individual feels they belong.

Without included and engaged employees, organizations find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea.

On one hand, disengaged employees are expensive to keep on the payroll. Organizations lose 34% in productivity for every disengaged employee. That’s $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary. In other words, women leaders save their organizations $1.43 million in loss of productivity for every 1,000 employees.

On the other hand, employees are expensive to lose. The cost to replace an employee ranges between half and twice the employee’s annual salary. Disengaged employees are more likely to leave, a trend that is exacerbated by the Great Resignation. Jim Harter, the chief research scientist for Gallup says, “Two-thirds of the reasons people actually left jobs in 2021 were due to issues related to their engagement and their overall well-being.”

When women in leadership leave, you can see why the potential for loss multiplies. Besides the cost of refilling the post, the likelihood that a man replaces a woman leader is high (fewer than one-third of leaders in the tech industry are women), and when this happens the organization must pay the price.

Are companies good for women’s leadership?

Given these statistics, you would think that companies are prioritizing women’s (dramatic) increase to their C-suite. This doesn’t seem to be the case. Across industries, women hold only a third of senior leadership positions, which is hard enough.

Women as senior leaders in the tech industry are just over 10%, which is even harder. And ambitious women expecting an upward trajectory in the tech industry will experience frustration as the more senior the position, the lower the proportion of women. In entry and mid-level positions, women account for 19% of leaders. But at the executive level, this has dropped by almost half. In fact, 66% of women state that they see no clear path for advancement or improvement within their tech careers.

With numbers so low to start with, companies can’t afford to lose women in leadership or the pipeline to leadership. And yet, women quit. The overarching reason is that getting ahead as a woman business leader is essentially limited by opportunity.

Why women quit

Unequal growth opportunities

Research shows that 66% of women say they see no clear path to advancement or improvement within their tech careers.

We need to start at the bottom to understand what’s happening at the top. Women hold only 26.7% of technology jobs. Then, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. At the managerial level, women are significantly outnumbered. The higher you go, the fewer women there are to promote.

The (persistent) wage gap

There are, in fact, jobs where women make more than men, such as nuclear marine technologists, mechanical engineers and chemical engineers, but the margin is negligible. And not in tech. For instance, CEOs of women-led start-ups make less than their male counterparts. Eleven cents to the dollar less. 

And in 2021, while men CEO’s salaries rose by 1%, women took an average pay cut of 27% across the industry.

The credibility challenge

Even in the boardroom, the struggle to be taken seriously persists. 63% of women across the industry say “being taken seriously” as one of the top reasons for quitting. Only 11% of men in tech say they have been treated differently because of their gender. For women, it is seven times that. The uglier brother of this gender discrimination is derogatory behavior and harassment in the workplace.

Being taken seriously and job security are really two sides of the same coin. The fact that women in tech are twice as likely to be furloughed or laid off speaks to the industry’s blind spot when it comes to their impact on the bottom line.

For many, it would be tempting to say that women are less qualified and that the best man wins. But this doesn’t play out in the numbers.

A lack of women role models and mentors

This mobius loop will be broken when there are more women in senior positions, which will be achieved by women who are mentored.

The difference a role model can make cannot be underestimated. Two of the significant findings of a 5-year study found that both mentors and mentees were promoted more often, six and five percent respectively. More compelling is that 38% of female employees who have exposure to senior mentors believe they will make it onto a board themselves.

Inclusive leaders are in high demand and will continue to be in demand

Going back to basics, the goal of business is to make money now and in the future. Inclusive leadership style creates and nourishes the engagement that drives productivity, innovation and loyalty, which have a long-term impact on company performance. 

But this demands purposeful D&I, both as company policy (executive teams that are gender-diverse are 25% more likely to outperform on profitability) and as demonstrated by the leaders in person. They must walk the talk. 

Real diversity and integration is prerequisite for companies to attain sustainable success. Lip service, tokenism and assimilation will not get the results organizations need to stay competitive.

Women leaders in the tech industry who consistently demonstrate their strengths as D&I champions are in the right place at the right time. It is time to pursue strategies and master techniques to be seen, heard and valued because they are ticking the boxes of an inclusive leader.

Signature traits of inclusive leaders

Deloitte identifies six signature traits of inclusive leadership as:

  1. Cognizance of bias
  2. Collaboration 
  3. Commitment
  4. Courage 
  5. Cultural intelligence
  6. Curiosity

The question is how female leaders nurture and leverage these six qualities for success in their careers and organizations both in the short and long term. 

Infographic with the six signature traits of an inclusive leader as per Deloitte

3 Ways to take advantage of inclusive leadership opportunities

1. Maintain a growth mindset

Carol Dweck, a psychologist, professor and researcher at Stanford University, coined the term growth mindset in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A person (or organization) with a growth mindset believes in progress, which they demonstrate through a commitment to learning and improving. For an inclusive leader, this means having both the courage and curiosity to become culturally intelligent and cognizant of their own bias.

A growth mindset profits both the leader and the organization. Employees are 65% likelier to say that the company supports risk-taking, which results in an environment that supports collaboration and innovation. The safety of speaking out stops a team from falling into the trap of groupthink. They are 34% likelier to feel a strong sense of commitment to the company, which improves productivity. And there is better morale as they are 47% likelier to say that their colleagues are trustworthy.

Who says?

  • Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and Option B, says to stop thinking, “I’m not ready,” and start thinking, “I want to do that — and I’ll learn by doing it.”
  • Vidya Peters, Chief Marketing Officer at Marqeta, says, “Being told you can’t created this inner strength and resolved to say, I absolutely can. I don’t even know what you are talking about! I have been able to weaponize that and get into any space with a learning mindset. To ask questions and say that I might not have all the answers, but I will figure it out, grow and master this area, whether you believe I can or not.”
  • Kim Caldbeck, Chief Marketing Officer at Coursera, says, “Worry more about how you are going to learn and grow than about what role you are going to have next.” Her strategy is to focus on opportunities to learn, even when they are not directly related to her career goals. 

How to embrace a growth mindset

Getting into a growth mindset can require a mind shift. It doesn’t blunt ambition; it just frames it differently. Careers will make or break in a rapidly changing business environment, where the value, purpose and manner of work are being questioned and redefined. The gig economy, hybrid work, AI and the metaverse are just the beginning.

Being open to change is important. Being willing to do the work that will equip a leader to grow (both as a person and in her career) is vital. And it all comes back to the value of purposeful continuous learning. With a growth mindset, learning stops being a tool to help the leader become; and becomes a way of being.

Invest in education, not just the skills it takes to do the job

Besides the self-evident action of investing in their (formal) education, Divya Hillier, SEO Manager at Coursera, recommends an inclusive approach for women as leaders. “Learn small things every day about your area of interest, not just the skills it takes to do the job. In interacting with your field in this gradual way, you can better prepare yourself to notice emerging patterns and trends, and you can broaden your perspective to extend beyond the boundaries of your current role.”

Pursue self-awareness

There is a link between a company’s financial performance and the self-awareness of its leadership. Professionals at firms with a robust return on revenue have 20% fewer blind spots than those working for poor-performing organizations. A blind spot is a skill that a leader counts as a strength, but others view it as one of the leader’s weaknesses.

Self-awareness is double-sided. Internal self-awareness is how well we see ourselves; external self-awareness is understanding how others view us. Inclusive leaders need both. The power lies in the capacity to focus on oneself from these two perspectives and grow through this self-evaluation.

Ask yourself the right questions

People tend to fool themselves, and business leaders are no different: 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% actually are. Keeping a record of introspection takes commitment – and skill. Simply keeping and regularly reviewing a journal of successes is not as effective as understanding the why behind your actions.

But Tasha Eurich, organizational psychologist and author of Insight, says that asking why might not be the way to do it. For example, instead of asking, “Why do resist this task?”, it could be more revealing to ask, “What are the circumstances in which I resist this task, and what can I do to change them?”

Classify both successes and failures as learning opportunities. Identifying triggers is as important as celebrating successes.

Ask for feedback

Being an inclusive leader demands the courage to see yourself as others see you to face your own bias and blind spots. Asking for feedback from their team, peers and mentors does more than revealing what-we-don’t-know-we-don’t-know but also demonstrates an inclusive approach in action.

2. Seek a sponsor, strategically

The dearth of role models and mentors is only part of the problem. Women leaders need both mentors and sponsors. It’s just that they need them for different things at different times. Mentors guide and coach developing professionals within their current roles, whereas sponsors help them further their careers. In other words, mentors advise; sponsors act.

A sponsor amplifies their protégé’s reputation by:

  • Sharing their accomplishments.
  • Conferring credibility through association and obvious endorsement (often called the halo effect).
  • Defending the shortcomings of their protégé and advocating for their career advancement. 
  • Ensuring that the protégé is taken seriously, a precious commodity in the tech industry.

Sponsored women are empowered. They are 27% more likely to ask for a raise and 22% more likely to ask for high-profile assignments that build their reputations as great leaders. And yet only 8% of women feel confident asking for a sponsor. There is a need for both in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, where 63% of women report that they’ve never had a formal mentor. The number is even worse when it comes to sponsorship: on any given day, women are 24% less likely than men to receive advice from senior leaders.

The point is that women leaders should actively seek out access to influential leaders, and do it strategically in the form of securing a sponsor.

Who says?

  • Katja Iversen, President/CEO Women Deliver: “Ask not first, how can I do this or that?, but who can I do it with? Networking, alliance building and daring to hire people who are better than you will get the job done well — and help you rise to and in the C-Suite.”
  • Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of The Sponsor Effect: How to be a Better Leader by Investing in Others: “With the help of a sponsor, women in STEM careers are 22% more likely to be satisfied with their rate of promotion. There is a 37% greater likelihood of these women asking for a raise and a 70% higher chance their ideas will be endorsed. Additionally, they have a 119% higher rate of developing their ideas and a 200% higher rate of seeing their ideas implemented.”
  • Serena Fong, Vice President, Strategic Engagement at Catalyst, a non-profit organization on a global mission to build workplaces that work for women: Women who are not afforded mentorship and sponsorship opportunities are less likely to be “recommended for the jobs that will really get them into high-level positions.” She adds that these women are more likely to be “left out of development and advancement opportunities.”

How to find a sponsor

You are ready

First and foremost, women shouldn’t wait until they’re ready. For instance, women typically only apply for jobs when they meet 100% of the criteria. Asking for a sponsor requires courage and commitment, both traits of an inclusive leader. 

It is also worth noting that women in tech and STEM workplaces are 22% more likely to report experiencing imposter syndrome. A KPMG’s study, Advancing the Future of Women in Business, found that 75% of executive women report having personally experienced imposter syndrome, afraid that people around them will not believe (or will discover) they are as capable as expected. Imposter syndrome wouldn’t be so pervasive if more women leaders had sponsors to champion them.

Be proactive

Be direct. Ask a superior about who could be a valuable sponsor and the best way to approach the would-be sponsor. 

Make a strategic decision about whom you invite to be your potential sponsor. Be direct about your career goals. You’re not looking for general advice.

Ask the right questions (again)

When choosing a potential sponsor, The Leadership Institute recommends asking who is the most powerful leader in the organization who knows you. Then you should ask if you two work well together and if that leader would be willing to vouch for you.

In case you don’t have a high-ranking leader in your corner, ask if you know someone who can connect you with one. Ask for high-level assignments or introductions.

3. Create and commit to your leadership vision

Vision is vital for women in the tech industry. Most women who persist in STEM careers have a personal vision that enables them to overcome bias, barriers and discrimination. For ambitious women, a vision statement defines the type of leader they aspire to be. The articulation of intention and intention means taking responsibility for one’s own success. Both the processes of creating one and applying it are empowering.

“A personal leadership vision is a compelling image of an achievable future. Leadership vision is an essential means for focusing attention on what matters most; what you want to accomplish in your life and what kind of leader you wish to be. A useful vision has to be rooted in your past, address the future and deal with today’s realities. It represents who you are and what you stand for. It inspires you, and the people whose commitment you need to act to make constructive change towards a future you all want to see.”
Stewart D. Friedman
, Founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program

Simply put: Leaders with vision go further. People follow leaders with vision.

Who says?

  • Jaime Koppel, founder of the non-profit Bilingual Education for Central America: “Really think about what those things are that you value, what are those things that you need, and look for a work environment that will value your right to pursue those things.  Centering your work experience around your own sense of well-being will enable you to show up as your best self.”
  • Katja Iversen, President/CEO of Women Deliver, “Keep the vision of why you want to lead and not least what you want to lead towards. And keep articulating the vision for the work to your staff and partners. That is what makes the difference between a manager and a leader. Make sure that you really want to go that extra mile to become a leader. It takes hard work, time, tenacity, and sometimes trade-offs and compromises with personal life.”
  • Barbara Agoglia, Vice-President of Global Brand and Communications, American Express: “Be clear about the cathedral you’re building. No one wants to be a bricklayer, but everyone wants to build a cathedral. As a leader, you have to know and communicate where you’re going so that people are really excited about their work. Focus on what people are good at and maximize that.”

How to create a vision statement 

It is worth noting the difference between a vision and a mission:

  • A vision statement is a definition of a desired future.
  • A mission statement represents a roadmap to achieve it.

Inspiring vision statements from powerful women in leadership

  • Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company: “To serve as a leader, live a balanced life  and apply ethical principles to make a significant difference.” 
  • Oprah Winfrey, founder of The Oprah Winfrey Network: “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.” 
  • Amanda Steinberg, founder of dailyworth.com: “To use my gifts of intelligence, charisma and serial optimism to cultivate the self-worth and net worth of women around the world.” 

Get another perspective

This is another instance where many women in leadership feel they are on their own when, in fact, it is an opportunity to put D&I principles into practice. A vision statement tends to be more powerful with input from mentors, sponsors, the leadership team or creative thinkers.

Tick the right boxes: The key elements of a vision statement

A powerful vision statement has eight key elements:

  1. Compelling — those who hear it want to be a part of it
  2. Described in concrete terms, which are easy to visualize and remember
  3. In the present tense
  4. Individual, not generic
  5. Ambitious yet achievable
  6. Aligned with core values
  7. Simple to communicate
  8. Short, no more than 2 lines

Leading with resolve

The bottom-line results of diversity and inclusion drive tech companies to invest in inclusive leadership to remain competitive. This is where women leaders with the courage to do the messy work of facing their biases, growing their cultural intelligence and embracing the unknown can add real value to their organization. 

You are ready.

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