“Countries can’t develop if young women are not given the kind of education that they need.” – President Barack Obama at the third Presidential debate on Foreign Policy
I’m a woman. I didn’t always count myself as a feminist, but the unique position I find myself in means that I have a feminism based responsibility. Earlier this month I spoke at the Grace Hopper Conference – an international conference for Women in Computing, which has been running for 12 years and this year attracted 3600 women in computing and STEM-related fields. The registration queue was so long, I had to film it. I’ve previously written about the lack of women in computing and the importance of helping the next generation (of girls) to appreciate, revere and embrace technology. I’ve also written about how women beginning their careers might get ahead by not feeling sorry for themselves. I’ve got one more piece to add to the puzzle: reasons why women should actually be in leadership.
Vivek Wadhwa, another speaker at the conference began by talking about the new technologies that are totally feasible and can revolutionalise living within the next decade. 3D printers, Health Monitoring apps and open source Robotics were just a few named. He also touched on the ‘grand challenges’ which technology should already be impacting: Energy, Water, Education, Health, Food, Poverty and Economic Security. He then touted the notion that “there’s nothing stopping you from developing apps to solve these problems on your flight home” and pleaded with the mainly female audience to concentrate their efforts on tackling these problems rather than chasing millions with phoney startup ideas in Silicon Valley. Initially I was incensed.
Why should women be left to do the REAL work, while men are off making all of the money?
About a week later in New York at the Women in Wall St (WOWS) conference I heard Susan Cain speak about the Power of Introverts (I’m an ambivert apparently) and Professor Iris Bohnet from the Harvard Kennedy school speak about her research into Gender Equality. She cited Indian gender quota laws introduced decades ago that had mandated randomly selected villages to nominate female chiefs . They had seen dramatic changes in those randomly chosen regions and as a result had seen not only girls aspirations rise, but more money and budget diverted to social goods like education and health, and then an increase in prosperity of those provinces. The success continues to grow, even today.
I then heard a third echo from the final US Presidential Debate I watched while in Atlanta: Romney and Obama somehow managed to speak about the benefits of educating women in a society during a debate on foreign policy:
Romney: …we do have to make sure that we’re protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can’t develop unless all the population, not just half of it, is developing.
Turns out Vivek had a point.
Though I didn’t originally agree with his notion, I had to agree that the business case for advancing women and ensuring a clear pipeline to the top is now stronger than ever. A while ago it was just that ‘diversity is good for business’. Now, its clear that women leaders are more conscious and having a woman around means things are just better thought out. There are numerous programmes out there trying to help advance women, but not enough women are aware of the help available, the women they can turn to or rely on and good reasons why they should make a huge effort to be at the top of their respective games.
Nora Denzel, the Keynote speaker at the conference explained that the reason for a decrease in women at the top of IT was a ’10 year hump’ after which 52% of women drop out of the industry. She gave five tips for staying beyond the 10 year mark (from 25:43).
Women in technology, have a duty to use our technical powers for good. To develop apps, to help deal with major societal problems and issues, and to educate future generations so they’re empowered to do so too. For women beyond Technology there is a duty to do the same within your fields: aim to be leaders and in due course you’ll steer the innovative edge of your industry, for human good.
To close, three ways that future women leaders can stay ahead.
- Travel. Intern abroad if possible. In New York I met a group of Mountbatten interns who were able to work and study abroad. If possible, travel with your job. The same company has different cultures in its offices in different regions. If you’re not in an international company, then similar firms elsewhere have very different approaches. Ultimately, seeing these differences means you’ll be better equipped to lead across geographical boundaries and also take advantages of the differences between cultures. Arbitrage is your friend. Time away is time spent reflecting with a clearer mind than usual. You can temporarily rise above local politics and local trends and genuinely think about where you really want to be headed.
- Bring others in to your field. Nora gave 5 reasons for other women to join Technology and explained that if all women in IT stayed in the field and invited at least one friend, gender equality in IT would become more than just a pipe dream. Are you in STEM? Are you a sole woman in your sphere of work? Can you motivate others to join it somehow? Can you mentor them into industry? Advocate for your field and build up your industry’s pipeline. Be the friendly face of your field for future generations.
- Help others up: be on the lookout for mentees and future talent. I hate the ‘bitchy stereotype’ which says that women like to in-fight, don’t collaborate and don’t work well together. A panellist at WOWS mentioned that ‘there is a need for a critical mass of voice for a voice to be heard. In many spheres we don’t yet have that critical mass for women’. Who else do you know in your field that you can send in your place, or recommend for a role you’ve seen? I recently offered two ladies a leg up by giving them my space at a dinner in London I was out of the country for. Any woman already working is in the position to give others a leg up. You never know who you are helping: perhaps the person behind the next big thing, who will appoint you as her right hand woman.