Women hold just 28% of leadership positions in the technology field, according to a recent study. Nearly a quarter of those women believe their advanced technical skills are the most important factor in their career advancement, compared to just 13% of men. Meanwhile, another study found that nearly 80% of women feel that they must work harder than their colleagues to prove their worth, and 57% of those women have experienced burnout. Businesses that build up women leaders can improve company culture and generate greater productivity, according to SHARE Best of the Best Session winners, all from Model9, including: Colleen Gordon (account executive for the western region and Canada), Debbie Miller (senior sales engineer), Liat Sokolov (vice president of products), and Tamar Milstein (chief marketing officer).
IT Workplace Changes
The session, "Building Women into Leaders in IT," at SHARE Virtual Summit 2021 shed light on some best practices for companies and offered an inside look at how women's roles in IT have changed. Gordon shared that she was the only woman and the youngest person on staff when she started working in IT in the late 1970s. "Working in IT has provided me, and many other women, opportunities to learn a variety of skills, including management skills, that I don't believe I would have been exposed to had I chosen a different path," she explained. "I've had the opportunity to encourage and support other women in IT. I believe this session was an important way to express how women can not only be very successful in IT, but also show women that they will meet other women who will provide encouragement and support along the way."
"I've gained lifelong friends in IT with the women who I've worked with. They say that IT is a small world, well, women in IT is even smaller and it's important to build a network with other women in IT," said Colleen Gordon, account executive for the western region and Canada at Model9.
Miller, who also has more than 40 years of IT experience, said that the workplace was very different back then. She was eager to participate in the SHARE session because she wanted to "hear how my younger co-workers would respond to the panel questions." She added, "I learned that even though women are treated with more equality now than ever before, it is still vitally important that we continue to mentor each other." Miller explained that "building leadership skills is a process" through which you gain knowledge and confidence. "Women need to speak from that knowledge and confidence while continuing to grow and expand their skills in this dynamic field," she said.
Sokolov pointed out that, when she was starting out in her IT career, she would have benefited greatly from sessions that strengthened her confidence in her career choices. "It's often encouraging to meet colleagues that are speaking about their own experiences, as I can relate to almost every topic," she said.
Tips for Building Women Leaders
Milstein said the companies building women leaders are those that provide women with the platform to grow and prosper. She offered that businesses should provide at least these three elements to women in their workforces:
- Equip women with a professional development plan that includes a clear vision of how their career paths can evolve.
- Maintain equality in salaries based on professionalism and performance, not on gender.
- Celebrate women every day by hiring professional individuals — men and women.
Milstein advised companies: "Don’t put too much emphasis on making women you hire feel they are special because they are women. Make them feel appreciated for their professionalism." She added, "Don't be so worried about gestures like making sure your LinkedIn post shows you are celebrating women’s day."
"Just walk the walk. In my opinion, genuine equality with a professional development plan will build women leaders more than just affirmative action," said Tamar Milstein, chief marketing officer at Model9."
Gordon also recommended that employers offer women unique opportunities. Her employer offered her an opportunity in sales, and 25 years later, she's been successful in software sales. "My advice, don't be afraid to take the leap," she said. Sokolov explained that she had a similar experience where she was offered a position to lead M&A projects even though she didn't have previous experience in that arena. "I was thankful to learn a brand-new area with the best mentor, another woman in IT. So, my advice is to never be afraid to broaden your domain of expertise," she said. Miller also pointed out that it is best to "praise in public, but punish in private."
Employers can build women leaders by ensuring the supports those leaders need are in place throughout their careers. Milstein said some of the most important supports are providing a work-life balance, equity in salaries and benefits, professional development plans and tools, professional mentoring, and having a platform where they can comfortably share their opinions and insights. Miller added that mentoring is key to growing leaders. "The organization needs to allow young leaders opportunities to use their skills in real situations, while also providing a sounding board for young leaders to discuss real situations, to help guide actions, and to build confidence," she advised.
Career Advice from Women Leaders
Milstein explained that as career women, you need to learn to listen to your gut and lead with mindfulness. "Yes, data is important, and data-driven decision making is the way to go, but don’t forget to listen to your instincts as well," she said. "Parenthood helps develop those instincts, too, so being a mother was never a contradiction to being a career woman, at least in my case."
Gordon added that her best career advice came from her mother when she was in middle school. "My mom encouraged me to take typing. I bet she never dreamed that this advice would lead to a 42-year career in IT," she quipped.
Meanwhile, Sokolov indicated, "If you strongly believe in something, don’t be afraid of the path. Just like in a marathon, it seems impossible to run 26 miles, but the reward is so fulfilling!" She explained that there will always be challenges, but "that's when you should listen and be mindful of other opportunities, analyze the risks wisely, and make the decision in which you can best advocate for yourself."
Gordon, who has been speaking at SHARE for more than two decades and was thrilled with her group's Best of the Best session award, said, "SHARE has been instrumental in helping me build a network of other women in IT. Keeping in touch via SHARE and LinkedIn is an important way to learn from one another and have the support system in place for whatever comes your way."
Milstein added that her proposal for the session was a way for her to honor the high number of women who hold key roles at Model9, but more than that, it was a humbling experience and one she is proud of. She was equally thrilled by the support the SHARE community showed them by showing up and participating. Sokolov expressed that she was deeply honored by the experience and the recognition from the SHARE community.
Miller explained that community organizations, like SHARE and a Women in IT group in her area, are where she finds the most support. Meeting to talk about trending IT topics and providing advice and support to one another is what community is about. Companies and women leaders, alike, can take the time to talk to women in IT, provide them with the direction and support they need, and ensure that sense of community is not only outside the workplace but inside it.