The Leaky Pipeline Issue.

by jennifermshoop

The topic of the scarcity of women in technology comes up on a nearly daily basis for me, in forms as wide-ranging as a well-intentioned male acquaintance asking “what it’s like to be a woman in tech” (these conversations are often painfully loaded with awkward assumptions) to a dear friend talking passionately about a gender-freighted experience she or a friend has had in the industry to scouting new talent for my start-up.

Well, the sharp Freada Kapor Klein said it best at a recent demo event I participated in out in Oakland, CA: “It’s not just a pipeline issue.  It’s a leaky pipeline issue.”  It’s not just getting girls into the funnel, it’s keeping them in the funnel for a long time.  (This is a large part of what interests me about Fizz — it’s potential to retain and promote the best talent in a more fair and equitable way.  But that’s a bloglet for another day.  Suffice to say that I have a lot to say on the issue of gender bias in talent management.)

My thoughts on this complex issue evolve over time, but top of mind thoughts for today:

  1.  Invest in girl empowerment programs, including ones focused on STEM education for girls.  (But not exclusively STEM-focused programs.  I would argue that programs focused on nurturing creative confidence + physical fitness can have strong adjacent outcomes that will in turn lead to more women pursuing “typically male” careers.  Maybe this is a hat tip to my educational background in the humanities and my confounding subsequent dedication to the world of technology.  But I digress.)  Nike does a lot of interesting work in this area, but there are also smaller rockstar non-profits and impact businesses addressing this need in different ways.  My friend Annie Warshaw runs a rad company called Mission Propelle that empowers girls through yoga, literacy, and mentorship.  Annie will change the world because she’s insanely talented and bright and approaches her work with so much authenticity and energy.  It’s programs like hers that can widen the funnel to include more girls.
  2. Mentor the women around you.  I have dedicated a lot of time to supporting the women (especially younger ones) in my life.  I am intentional about taking my female interns and colleagues out for coffee/lunch/a drink to talk about professional development + challenges.  Especially with the younger ladies, I am nauseatingly explicit: “Make sure your voice is heard!” “You can do this!” “I expect great things out of you!” And I always share some of the specific tactics I’ve learned.  A lot of it — in my opinion — is becoming aware of when you’re tripping over your own gender and inadvertently conforming to gender norms.  I didn’t even know I was supposed to — or that I could– negotiate my salary until I read Lean In.  No joke.  I read this book and immediately went to my boss at the time and asked for a raise.  I got it.  I also didn’t realize I was often brushing off praise and reattributing my accomplishments to the team.  It was hard to coach myself out of that mindset — and I’m sure an argument can be made that it’s kinda beautiful and rad that most women are inclined to share glory with others — but I trained myself to bite my tongue and say, “Thank you.”  And then there are even more minute tactics I’ve learned — for example, I am typically not the loudest person in the room.  I’d rather listen, take it all in, and then share a well-formed opinion.  I’m more inclined to ask a probing question than to make an aggressive claim.  But you need to make sure your voice is heard or it becomes habit to sit back and let the boys duke it out.  You need your horse in the race.  So there were times earlier in my career when I would head into a male-dominated meeting and tell myself: “You must say something within the first minute.”  It worked.  Once your voice has been heard in the conversation, you’ve set a precedent for participation.  And, at the suggestion of my brilliant aunt, I semi-recently used power poses to counteract a particularly aggressive male I was working with on a frequent basis.  He just took up a ton of space.  I felt trampled over, shut out, silenced.  Power poses changed everything.  Spread out your papers on the desk, put your hands behind your head, put your hands on your hips.  Show that you can take up space, too.
  3. Seek mentorship from the women around you.  I give and take on the mentorship side of things.  While I try to be mindful about nurturing the more junior ladies in my life, I also look for women who can teach me.  I have a monthly mastermind with a fellow female entrepreneur — her support and thoughtful guidance humble me and fuel me, and have bugged many-a-bright-and-more-accomplished woman with requests for advice.  But the point here is: let’s build an ecosystem of women helping women.  My personal opinion is that building out these networks organically is more powerful than participating in a “women in tech” group.  No knock against them — I understand that they work for many.  But in my experience trying to launch an “ed-tech women” group here in Chicago, we all show up and then don’t know what to do.  “OK, we’re here.  Next?”  If you’re instead proactively seeking targeted advice and showing love and support for the women in your professional network, things happen.  Just my two cents.  I also think there’s a kind of weird profiteering that happens in some of these professional networks.  I remember I received some sort of “invite” to be one of the top women in technology in such-and-such female network.  After a lengthy “screening” call, they let me know I’d be billed $1000/year.  What the hell?!  Just, no.
  4. Don’t demonize the men.  Yes, there are horrific stories of outright sexism emerging on the reg.  This is the latest and most stomach-churningly annoying. But let me be real: many (maybe the majority?) of my biggest cheerleaders and strongest mentors have been men.  I’m fortunate to have the tireless encouragement of my father, brother, husband, and brothers-in-law.  They are all convicted in my abilities and dedicated to helping me succeed.  And I’m talking about the Jason Henrichses of the world, wicked smart businessmen who understand that diversity is not just a “good thing” but a necessity in the workplace and who are working to even the playing field in any way they can.  As an example, Jason rounded up some other awesome guys here in Chicago — Ethan Austin at GiveForward and Adam London at Uptake among them — in an informal working group focused on promoting female entrepreneurship.  All three of them took time out of their busy days to encourage me in the early days of co-founding my new start-up, opened up their networks to me, and gave me rock-solid advice.  And there are well-known gents out there making some noise about this issue, like marketing genius Everette Taylor (read about it here). So, it’s insultingly reductive to focus this conversation on what men in the workplace do or do not do.  (Illustrative example being the weird turn this Hacker News thread comparing the pros and cons of being covered by HackerNews vs. TechCrunch vs. ProductHunt took when folks started assaulting Ryan Hoover of ProductHunt for building an elitist, white-male-only “echoing chamber” disguised as a product discovery platform.)

As with all things, an evolution.