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Tech Leading Ladies: Overcoming obstacles to leadership

photo courtesy of SEEK

Women are uniquely placed in this moment in time to excel in tech leadership positions. Executives are realising that characteristics we strongly attribute to and encourage in our girls and women, such as empathy, compassion and a sense of community, are exactly what we need in our leadership teams to drive us toward innovation and lead change effectively: far more effectively than the command and control styles of management.

Right now, women in tech have taken back the narrative. We have been working hard to be recognised and respected as valuable technicians, and are proving the stereotypes wrong or at least incomplete. We are succeeding. Our graduate and entry level programs in the tech industry are bringing our numbers up closer to parity. We no longer have to work as hard to prove ourselves worthy as we had to even five years ago. We are changing our recruitment processes to allow for diverse circumstances, with standardised testing is seen as detrimental to building innovative teams. Now we are getting in and coding up a storm.

But we aren’t advancing. We aren’t getting to leadership positions at the same rates as our male peers.

Through mentoring software engineerings and tech leaders, I have heard a lot self limiting beliefs, and struggles faced in challenging workplaces that hold people back from leadership positions. I would like to explore practical actions we can take to overcome these issues: most of which I found along my own bumpy journey, or supporting those around me. All quotes mentioned are real examples from women I know.

Self limiting beliefs

When it comes to having a fulfilling life and career, there is no limit to what you can do. Sometimes the thing stopping us from reaching our potential is that we don’t believe in ourselves or understand the value we can bring, or we believe we are powerless to change our situation.

When you accept a self limiting belief, then it will become the truth. The self-limiting belief reinforces self-limiting and self-sabotaging behaviours. As an example, I can’t sing. I know I can’t sing, and this means I don’t try, and there is not way to improve. If I tried, and failed and learned, one day I would probably be able to sing.

Other self limiting beliefs can be about how other people act or think, and about how the workplace operates.

Waiting for permission to apply

So much research tells us that as a society we have shown our girls it’s important to be likeable and to strive for perfection, and have positively reinforces these traits. ‘Good girl, you have lovely manners’. In our boys, we encourage them to break the rules and be courageous. ‘Boys will be boys’. We expect less from them in terms of toeing the line. When we reinforce likability and perfection it is no wonder that some people don’t apply for promotions. It is not humble. Its suggesting I’m better than others. I am not perfect, I don’t have all the skills. Unconsciously we recoil from this attitude because that not how we want to be seen.

Most companies advertise roles internally before going to market. These usually come with an object selection process, and a great way to get recognition or a promotion.

“I don’t want to waste their time by applying”

I’m not good enough, so I’m wasting that very busy and important managers very limited time right? No. You have just helped them identify their leadership talent pipeline. You have demonstrated a willingness to step up, get involved, lead positive change and grow with the company. You are gold to them right now. They know where to focus training efforts, who to coach and mentor, who to invest that precious time in. They know who to reach out for to run initiative and who their change agent might be.

As technicians we give our ourselves permission to experiment, fail and learn when building systems. We troubleshoot. We try one thing, if it doesn’t work we try another. We need to give ourselves that same permission with our career.

It’s unlikely, though not unheard of, that you will get a leadership role the first time you apply. I didn’t. The first time I applied for a team lead position internally I had been a dev for quite a few years and had often taken the reigns when my manager went away. I did not even occur to me that I should apply for the open lead role in my company. When I heard that a peer had thrown his hat in the ring, I mentioned to my boss that I felt even I was more qualified. So he asked me why I hadn’t applied. And then the penny dropped. No one was going to tap me on the shoulder and say “you are now ready! You have permission, now to go be a team leader”. I had been waiting for recognition. I didn’t want to suggest I was ready, that’s just not humble or likeable, and I knew I wasn’t perfect.

I did apply for the job and I didn’t get it. What I did get was:

  • A much better understanding of what the role involved. This allowed me know where to pitch my answers the next time
  • An updated resume, for which I had to reflect over what I had accomplished in my current role
  • Recognised as a future leader and invited into leadership meetings. Each fortnight I got to listen in on decisions being made.
  • Great feedback on what I had to work on to be considered for next time
  • Confidence to apply again! I thought not getting the role would leave me embarrassed and unable to show my face. That fear turned out to be completely opposite to what happened. I was shown more respect for demonstrating my aspirations and commitment. I realised I was actually closer to the role than I really had thought going into the process.

The next time I went for a team lead role I got it. I had the practice, I knew what to expect and what I needed to demonstrate.

I have used this approach through my career to find out about roles. Does that security engineer or architect role look interesting? Apply! Interview process showed its not what you thought? Don’t take the job! I have also applied for roles to demonstrate my current role isn’t challenging me. I may get the job each time, but now my boss knows they have to work to retain me. When one of my people applies for a promotion they don’t get, I make sure I give them new opportunities aligned to their aspirations.

Every time I have applied for and not gotten a role, I have learned so much more about who I am and what I want. Interviewing and applications are a skills in themselves. When you do find the role you passionately want, you need to be practiced.

Just like I did, I’ve heard women lamenting that a man in their team was unexpectedly promoted, and even ‘rewarded for mediocrity’, when they didn’t believe he was any more qualified than them. He probably wasn’t, but by applying he showed a willingness to learn and grow. Often, promotion is not about waiting to be recognised for all your hard work: it’s about asking for the opportunity.

The key message here is, just apply for it! There will be no adverse consequences: only good things come from pushing your comfort zone. If you do receive negative consequences, then you know sooner that this place isn’t for you. We know it’s true for tech, and its true for our personal development too. If you are waiting for recognition and permission, here it is. It’s time to apply.

Flexible work arrangements

“I can’t be a part time leader”

Though the dial is moving, women are still the primary caregivers in most families. We have a tendency to believe we aren’t considered valuable and as much of a contributor as our full time, nine-to-five peers. Often we work even harder part time because we need to prove ourselves. Juggling the work, the home, the kids and other’s perceptions is so hard, how can you possibly add leadership responsibilities into the mix. You see your boss and other leaders running from meeting to meeting, looking harrowed and rushed, and there is no way you want to be doing that. But that’s not leadership, that’s poor time management. And time managements is what you are good at or can improve on.

You don’t have to be a leader like the other leaders you see. In fact, bringing diversity into that leadership will improve decision making, and challenging unplanned, unstructured processes can lead to better collaboration for everyone.

I am sure you don’t bat an eyelid when your lead is out in meetings and offsites all the time; so you know face to face isn’t necessary. Prioritise what you really value, get organised and you can achieve as much working part time. I used Person Kanban to make this work for me.

photo courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat

Surprisingly, I found going part time actually made me a better leader. I knew I could not be the single point of failure on anything. I made sure at least one other person was across my decisions and that I communicated my vision appropriately, so the team is empowered to make judgment calls in my absence. While I thought I was setting this up so that I could be successful, I discovered it was beneficial for more than just me.

One unexpected side effect, was I no longer got stressed one of my kids were sick and I had to take the day off. I could put them first, because I was confident that someone else would step in to run that important thing I had to do that day.

Getting my people involved in decisions meant more robust conversations leading to better outcomes, and a unified team that really brought into the same goals. The team performed better and were more engaged, meaning I spent less time on people management stuff.

I grew leaders! When we needed to split the team to expand, I had multiple trusted people to take the reigns. If I had hoarded all the knowledge and power, I would have been overworked trying to establish new leaders for high priority, tight time-framed projects.

I was also leading by example, and showing others that part time leadership is more than just doable, its valuable. Even if you may not have a flexible working culture, once people see its possible, their misgiving will fade quickly.

Lauren’s story

Lauren is a mum and a software developer. She couldn’t find part time working coming back from maternity leave, so took a less technical role which did not challenge or interest her. She and I met when I was struggling to find senior women engineers, and advertised my open developer role as a part time position. Lauren applied, and was like a gift from the universe. Having another women involved in tough technical conversations was like a breath of fresh air.

A few years later when we opened up two development team lead roles I had a jubilant moment of “Woo hoo! We can promote some women and I won’t be the only one in the leadership team…happy days. Go the sisterhood!”

Despite the fact we had nearly closed the gender gap through diversity initiatives over the previous few years, no women applied for the roles. Quite a few (no so qualified) men came and asked me for advice and support around applying. When I asked Lauren why she did not apply I needed both hands to count the reasons. She has a special needs child and couldn’t possibly go full time. She could not make leadership work part time. She was unqualified to lead and had nothing to offer, she didn’t tick all the boxes on the job ad, she didn’t have time to update her resume, she just liked coding and didn’t want to be off the tools again, she would be embarrassed if the team found out…and on and on.

I am not sure Lauren got over any of limitations she imposed on herself. She did apply and was genuinely surprised when she got the role. Lauren works part time, is still very much on the tools and is a highly valued member of the leadership team. She is absolutely smashing it.

The Confidence gap

“People around me are so confident”

The confidence gap in women is real. Studies tell us that women judge their own abilities worse than the reality, and men have a tendency to judge themselves better than they really are. I have found over the years that a male colleague will overstate their level of knowledge, unconsciously, to save face or because that’s what they believe is expected.

I use to shrink in technical conversation with all the bravado flying around. I would assume someone speaking with conviction actually had all the answers and was endowed with superior technical knowledge. This gave me serious imposter syndrome, and made me feel like an outsider through my whole junior tenure. I would stay quiet hoping no one would notice I didn’t understand, and run to a text book (yes, it was pre stack overflow) later to work out what was being said. During one such conversation I caught a sentence that I knew to be incorrect, and I realised speaker was not actually the authority he seemed to be. I worked up the courage to ask him to explain it in more detail, feeling extremely vulnerable and expecting to be ‘found out’ as an imposter: after all maybe I had it wrong. When pressed, he said that he wasn’t really sure, but he had heard something once about it. From then he was far more open to an actual dialogue. I am so grateful to him, because that was the moment that I knew, for the first time, that I was good at my job, and those around me also didn’t have all the answers. I have never shied away from a technical debate since, and I always get people to drill into detail. I find out what’s fact and what’s not, and can make much more informed decisions. I learn more that way, and they cement their understanding too.

“I’m not qualified”

Ignore those lists of ‘must have’ skills on job ads. Generally speaking men do, and you should too. Often hiring managers really want someone with a subset of those skills, hoping they can teach the rest. Got half the points covered? Apply! You are not expected to be a true, inspiring, authentic, all-knowing leader on the day you start your first gig. When you get promoted, that’s the organisation saying they believe you will grow and continually learn, often from making mistakes. Learning is exactly what you are qualified for. Many women I speak to haven’t considered a leadership role within their first decade in the industry, where men around me generally consider themselves ready before five years. Men just go for it. They are courageous, they put themselves out there and they learn. We need to do the same.

Perceptions of leadership

From a non-leading role it can be hard to really see what your lead gets up to all day every day, and sometimes we form perceptions that may not be completely accurate.

“I just like coding”

Me too! The best leaders are those that are passionate and engaged. I decent manager is not going to take you off the tools if that’s what drives your leadership qualities. Not all leadership roles mean exclusive line management. In fact, I’ve only had one role like that and I didn’t last long. Despite ‘position descriptions’ people will gravitate toward the bits in the role that excite them, and you will be no different. You may also discover the joy of building teams can be as motivating as the joy of building software, and you can do both. I certainly do. Applying for the role is the best way to uncover what it would be like day to day.

photo courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat

“I have a strong accent”

It’s hard to picture how you might be successful when you don’t see people like you in leadership roles. If you have a personal trait that you feel disadvantages you, really think about what the underlying implications may be, and prepare for ways to overcome it. If you have a strong accent and you feel you can’t get your point across, perhaps you can communicate important concepts in a written form, diagramming on white boards, or even over slack.

Own your trait. Calling it out can reduce its negative power. For example, stating “This is my second language and I need a moment to translate and consider how I respond” is perfectly acceptable. Or “I know my accent is strong, so please let me know when I should repeat something”. This lets you know your message is getting through. I saw a conference presenter once start the talk by saying “I know I talk fast and have a strong accent, so if you can’t understand me wave two hands in the air and I will slow down”. She demonstrated this with humour, and thanked people for calling her on it through the talk. She had skilfully taken this possible barrier to communication and transformed it into a tool for bringing people together.

We all have strong opinions on our supposed weaknesses. Most of the time you are the only one who would see it as a weakness in leadership. And maybe it really does cause limitations. It would be a shame to miss out on all the other great qualities your could bring for one possible down side. Ask yourself, if a close friend said this about themselves, would you agree or would you think they were undervaluing what they could bring.

The person who gave me this reason also said, “you probably never faced something like that”. No, absolutely not. Not from my position of anglo-background privilege. Imagine how much more support you could bring to people in the same situation. You would be able to give more empathy than I could. It would be so empowering for them to see you lead.

External challenges

With all the awareness around unconscious bias we are getting really good at spotting it, and understanding our lukewarm success is not only about us. When you face it day to day its very real to you: the problem is, your unaffected peers probably can’t see its there. As well and overcoming our own self doubt, we need to take steps to overcome the negative impact of implicit bias in others.

“My opinions aren’t listened to or valued”

Being interrupted in a meeting can be frustrating and embarrassing. Being interrupted for the twentieth time will just make you withdraw. The greatest success I have had in overcoming this is getting an advocate. Pick someone you trust, take them aside beforehand, explain your perception of the meeting situation, and ask them to back you when your ideas are dismissed. Get them to credit your ideas when someone else picks them up and runs with them.

All meetings and team discussion should be facilitated by a disinterested person. Not someone with a vested interest in the outcome, and certainly not you. The facilitator can set meeting ground rules, like no interrupting, and can ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

Own other people’s perceptions

“You are too aggressive”

This is an extension of our earlier discussion of owning a disadvantageous personal trait. I am an assertive person. I have been told (unsolicited) that I am aggressive.

If I sense that someone’s unconscious bias is kicking in about how I as a woman should behave, I can change the reaction by calling it out.

“I know I may come across as overly assertive, that’s not my intent. I am really passionate and I want to make this work.” Instantly you have put it out there from their subconscious, to the conscious, and have shown them some inaccuracies in their perception.

If you are soft spoken and seen as friendly, you might say “I know I come across as too quiet and friendly to lead, but I can assure you I have the confidence to have hard conversations and I have solid judgement and decision making skills.”

“Sorry to disturb you … I know you are busy”

Often, we undermine our intentions and our credibility through our words. Emails like this use to fill my sent folder:

Sorry to disturb you, I know you are busy, I was just wondering, if you have time, could you possibly get this to me by Friday?

This language is not considered leadership-worthy, and your words are undermining your message and credibility. It’s not empowering and its not assertive, but we do it. Our cultures have told us to be likeable all our lives and this is how it manifests in our written language. You may feel it would be nice to be able to use apologetic language and not be penalised, but that’s not the world we live in. You can be polite and thankful without being sorry to have asked them to do what’s probably their job. For example,

I would like this by Friday lunchtime so I can submit my budget before the weekend. I realise you are busy, so please let me know if that’s not possible and I will find another solution. Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it

I have used a browser plug in to make me aware when I am undermining myself through language. I have been able to strengthen my messages, and it has given me more confidence, especially when asked for something. There is a shift in my thinking: by using clear, non-apologetic language, I actually feel more worthy of the outcome.

As an extension to this, don’t discredit your work verbally. I have seen people start presentations with apologies for imperfections like “sorry the formatting isn’t very good” or “I’m so tired I hope this will make sense”. Own the issue internally, with confidence, but don’t discredit your message by calling attention to it. You are telling your audience the presentation isn’t worth listening to before you’ve even begun.

Having hard conversations

Throughout your career you will need to have hard conversations to change a situation. Sometimes you will need to deal with limiting behaviours head on. There may be a repeat offender who is making it particularly hard to get your point across.

“I don’t like conflict”

The only real way to resolve this is to have a crucial conversation, and make the other person aware of what is going on for you. When doing so, it’s important to remember that their path has been different, and all people have good intent. Teach with kindness and patience, so they don’t become defensive and stop listening. Be curious about their behaviour, and don’t going in having already judged their mindset.

photo courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat

The first hard conversation is the worst. Once you have proven to yourself you can do it and it works, you will feel empowered to do it again. A good way to get started is by setting a meeting time to demonstrate it is significant for you, and so you can’t back out! Don’t procrastinate. The best conversations happen soon after the event. It doesn’t have to be in a meeting room though. Men especially feel confronted by eye-to-eye conversations. Suggest a walk around the block, and talk when side by side. Even the act of walking reduces inhibitions and stimulates your creative brain.

Plan what you are going to say. Even if it doesn’t come out right, it’s good to have said the words out loud to prepare. Think about how what you want can lead to a desirable outcome for the person you need to talk to. There is always an upside for everyone when a team member can be their authentic self. One way to frame the conversation is using Situation, Behaviour, Impact.

Situation: When we were in the team meeting yesterday

Behaviour: I made a few suggestions which you interrupted

Impact: This shows the team you don’t valued my opinions and I felt embarrassed. Now I don’t have the confidence to participate.

These conversations are usually a surprise to the person and are generally well received. In my experience, this newly-aware person will usually be your strongest ally next time.

Subjective promotion processes

Unconscious stereotypes can easily influence the job selection process when decisions are based on subjective personality traits rather than objective examples of someone’s job-related skills and abilities.

It makes sense to want to promote those with positive attitudes, who have confidence and intelligence, but these traits are attributed subjectively, and usually more liberally to those in the managers ‘in group’. Leaders sometimes believe they know what being a leader means. Its being like them, sharing the same strengths, having the same values. After all, that what got them into leadership, so it must be right.

“You just haven’t got it”

I was recently told the story of a woman who asked her boss for feedback as to why she hadn’t gotten a promotion, for the third time. His response was, “you won’t be a leader here, you just haven’t got it”. She got nothing more constructive than she has ‘the wrong vibe’. As well as demonstrating an ignorant fixed mindset, he was also using subjective unconscious reasoning to make his decision.

This is when it’s time for you to manage up. If your leader does not set objective measures for you to reach your goals, it’s up to you to have them set and agreed upon. Book some time with your line manager, at least an hour, in a meeting room. Take a development plan framework for you both to work on together.

Approach from a place of curiosity. Go in with the mindset of “I want to understand how I can improve” not “this guy is a misogynist and that’s why I am not getting promoted”.

By the end the expectations of both parties should be clearly stated. Set regular catch ups, monthly at a minimum, to demonstrate how you are delivering on your development plan, as well as continually refining and extending it.

This approach can work in a number of ways. First, it can build a professional respect between you and your line manager. Secondly, you are demonstrating your passion and drive, taking them along for the ride and making them an advocate for your success. Another great outcome, is you have a clearly articulated list of accomplishments to take with you to the next promotion interview or discussion. If that doesn’t go as planned, you have objective arguments to take to a third party for help, such as an HR representative or your bosses boss.

A simply framework to start with is the GROW model. This will help you really get to the bottom of what’s missing, from your manager’s perspective. Ask you manager what traits, behaviours or demonstrated skills are required for the promotion, what the reality is for you and explore options to bridge your skill gaps. Once you come up with actions, turn each into SMART goals.

To recap, overcome process bias by taking what’s subjective and make it objective.

Love it, change it, or leave it

Despite your best efforts sometimes it’s just not going to work. When dealing with entrenched unconscious bias, it may not be worth your energy to shift perceptions. It’s important to recognise when your work relationship becomes toxic, and to have the courage to find a job that will support you to reach your potential.

photo courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat

When you get there

The first time I managed a team I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to manage the way my manager told me I should, but it didn’t feel right and I was behaving outside my nature. I wasn’t authentic, and I burned out within a year. My family suffered, my health suffered and my team did too.

When you get there, you be you. Be a role model for part time, a change agent for subjectivity, and a mentor to those who think they are unworthy. Take women, and male allies, up with you.