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It’s High Time for Women in High Tech


Women Execs at Peak 10 Weigh in on What Could Make the Difference

Women hold less than one-third of programming and other computer jobs, compared to near parity in fields such as physical and life sciences and mathematics. About 49 percent of publicly traded information technology businesses have no women on their boards, compared with 36 percent of the 2,770 largest public companies in the country.

For an industry that makes seminal advancements possible in so many industries and that is having such transformational impacts on lives and cultures, high technology remains anchored in an ‘old school’ mentality when it comes to more modern models of business leadership.  Some could say that the situation has not hampered industry growth and innovation, but a large body of empirical data gathered over many years would suggest otherwise.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics shows that companies with women on their boards of directors have better results across many dimensions, financial in particular. According to the study’s co-conductor, Chris Bart, professor of strategic management at DeGroote, having women on a board of directors is no longer just the right thing but also the smart thing to do. Companies with few female directors may actually be shortchanging their investors, he says. It’s a growing business (and social) imperative to push more women into leadership roles in the tech sector and to provide the tools and environment to enable their success.

There is evidence that a coup d’état is underway. More women are starting and leading their own technology companies, and employing more women in them. Women executives at Peak 10 greeted this apparent turnaround with enthusiasm. They reflected on the matter of the female leadership gap, as well as their own career paths, offering perspective on what can make the difference for women in the future.  Peak 10, an IT infrastructure and cloud services firm headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, has many women among its leadership ranks. Although they came to the company via a variety of career routes, their experiences in getting there had similarities.

Give me a W! Give me an O…

The brouhaha erupting from the recent Facebook and Twitter IPOs, sans women board members, shows that the topic is as volatile as ever, if not more so. The absence was all the more confounding considering that many more women than men use these and other social media.

At this year’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and author of the bestselling book Lean In, noted the dramatic differences in how the workplace accepts and promotes women.

“If you ask men why they did a good job, they’ll say, ‘I’m awesome. Obviously. Why are you even asking?’ If you ask women why they did a good job, what they’ll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard. Men can comfortably claim credit for what they do as long as they don’t veer into arrogance. For women, taking credit comes at a real social and professional cost.”

A hesitancy to speak up, be heard and claim credit can make it that much more challenging for women to penetrate  the relationships and networks of an industry predominantly led by men. In turn, aspiring to higher-level positions and greater responsibility to position themselves for leadership opportunities is more difficult.

“Most companies are bound by tradition, and tapping women and minorities when a director’s seat open up disrupts what is comfortable to the existing leadership base,” said Angela Haneklau, vice president and general manager of Peak 10’s Atlanta operations.

Many will say the situation is improving albeit not fast enough, despite the many global organizations and leading educational institutions focused on bringing about change. On a more granular level, mentoring and being mentored repeatedly surfaced as a key process for advancement to leadership. “Seek out role models and go to them, particularly when the balancing act becomes overwhelming,” advises Haneklau.

Karin Davies, vice president of human resources, put it this way: “Set realistic time expectations around your goals and roadmap, and communicate regularly with your boss and mentors about your career progress. Network extensively in the area community, your professional community and inside your company.”

“Be a continuous learner in order to keep yourself marketable,” advises Cheryl Kleiman, vice president and Tampa operations general manager at Peak 10. “Be true to yourself and lead with your values. Care about the people around you.”

Be More Self Aware and Active About Changing

Peak 10 vice president of marketing, Tara Heptinstall, has observed a key difference in companies’ successful integration of women into key and often non-traditional leadership roles.

“It’s the self-awareness of the existing male leaders and their conscious effort to develop, promote and nurture women to step up into roles historically held by men,” she explained.

“Male leaders need to understand and accept their gender biases, and then do something actively to change their behavior.  The businesses where leaders seek to pull women in to important business discussions, offer opportunities and listen carefully to smart voices that might not carry as loudly as their male counterparts – they’re the businesses that will succeed.”

Model Good Leadership

Much of the available research suggests that women make better bosses and better leaders than men. In 2012, Zenger Folkman, a company that studies leadership, found that women rated higher than men on 12 out of 16 leadership attributes tested. And, Jay Forte, author of Fire Up! Your Employees and Smoke Your Competition, writes that women are more astute about knowing how to activate passion in their employees. In the estimation of Kleiman, “Women have greater empathy and sensitivity to cultural differences. By the same token, women can be more emotional and afraid to stand up for what they believe in.”

Being a better boss has little to do with gender in the minds of Peak 10’s leadership. Good and bad bosses reside in both camps. A good boss is attuned to the individual and interested in their development. “Good leadership is all about having a genuine interest in people and their professional growth,” said Davies. “Strong leaders have their employees’ backs and remove obstacles that could hinder a person’s success.”

Marissa Mayer covered this point in her Dreamforce interview with Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff.  Some CEOs convince themselves that they actually do things, “but your job is to play defense,” Mayer said. “The team is on offense, they’re going to move the ball. Your job is to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to run in this direction,’ and clear a path, get the obstacles, the process, the bureaucracy, the nay-sayers out of the way and help people run as fast as they can.”

Take More Risk

Sandberg cautions women about allowing themselves to not be heard, not setting their sights high enough, not positioning themselves well for advancement and not taking risks.

In terms of her career path, Peak 10’s Davies was not to be deterred. “I changed jobs and moved my family to keep myself on my career track and push myself into the next set of challenges,” she said. “Balancing family and career has its own challenges, but having patience and perseverance, and taking responsibility for my own happiness have been essential in my career.”

The guidance offered to aspiring women leaders by Peak 10 executives draws from their own experiences, and echoes that from others. “Take difficult, challenging roles and accept failure as part of natural learning progression,” said Haneklau. “Situations that stretch you beyond your comfort zone are the best opportunities for growth.”

Find Your Voice

Heptinstall joked about a mentor she had who once told her the only real training she needed was acting lessons.

“He told me, ‘most of the things you do and say are right. The trouble is, the men in the room will act like they are right, even if they aren’t, and they’ll speak up’.”

She finished by leaning in and saying, “So my advice to women who want to move up is to speak up.  Don’t get yourself in big trouble but, then again, don’t be afraid to get into a little trouble either.”

Other resources that may prove helpful to businesses who want to actively improve the number of women leaders in their ranks include:

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About Peak 10

"Our values are the foundation for everything we do at Peak 10, and are ultimately what enable us to earn our customers' business and their trust."
David H. Jones,
Board Member, Peak 10 + ViaWest