Real Leaders

Are Tech Companies Deaf?

women and tech

Imagine you’re sitting in the audience where the Nobel prizes are being awarded. This year, the prize for physics is being awarded to an obscure French genius who has discovered the algorithm that runs the universe.

Just suppose it has been described as the greatest scientific discovery in all history. Now imagine the physicist, who is a woman, has a thick French accent and it’s making it hard for you to understand her without focusing all the energy of your brain as you translate the sounds of her voice into thoughts you can comprehend.

Now imagine that the two colleagues that sit on either side of you are on their cell phones. One is playing a violent video game. The other is texting someone at work about a missed deadline. Meanwhile our Nobel Prize winner is announcing that she is on the verge of making another mankind-shifting discovery she calls the biology of physics or the “secret of life.” Initially you’re interested, at least in the topic. But you find her voice so difficult to decipher that you soon drift off into a ping-pong match of mental multitasking.  Eventually you pull out your phone and start responding to new e-mails from work.

Suddenly the crowd is on it’s feet clapping so hard it sounds like crashing ocean waves even as the wooden floor beneath your seat shakes in resonance. As you and your newly awakened friends bolt to your feet you can’t help but wonder what it is that she said. But the moment is lost. Your time at the event was wasted. In the presence of genius you tuned out. You made yourself… deaf. Well, maybe you will read about it later.

That story represents why women will continue to leave tech companies in an un-ending flood. We have known for years that the primary reason tech companies lose their smartest professional female talent isn’t pay equity, or the workload, or the desire to have children. It is being UNHEARD and OVERLOOKED. The genius of women falls too often on deaf and distracted ears.

Of course it’s not that pay inequality doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. It’s what is known as a necessary but insufficient condition of work satisfaction. It’s also known as an organizational hygiene factor. It simply means that taking a daily shower is necessary not to be repulsive to others. But simply not smelling doesn’t make you attractive to others. All pay equity does is make employers not stink. But that is not enough.  So not enough.

Lately I’ve been trying to explain this to leaders of tech companies who are getting sore shoulders from patting themselves on the back from their most recent studies showing that companies like Apple, Facebook and Intel have reached 99.7% pay equality between men and women. Many of these executives talk as if they solved the problem. Now they want their female workforce to quit whining and get back to work. Frankly I’m flabbergasted. Reaching gender pay equality in 2016 is like giving women the right to vote or allow them to own property. Are you kidding me? To think of that as an achievement is an embarrassment.

Some companies are trying to do more. They are trying to close the opportunity gap. Some companies have discovered that men and women who graduated from the same top-tier schools with the same degrees in the same year find themselves on very different rungs of their career ladder 10 years later.

In one case I know of, two Ph.Ds. were research partners in graduate school and were hired by the same software company. Within a decade he is her boss’s boss even though her name is on over 50 patents.

My new partner, Women in Technology International (WITI), recently completed research discovering that the lack of advancement opportunity is women’s biggest source of work frustration. It’s no wonder. 52% of women managers in tech companies have held the same job position for over 5 years. Of course this is the opportunity gap that causes the most pay unfairness over one’s career. For some professionals, men will make over $2 million more than women over the course of their career due to the good fortune of their gender.
So closing the opportunity gap is a good thing right?  Well, it all depends on how you do it.  Highly analytical people run most tech companies. After all, it’s technology right?  So they do what all engineers seem to do.  They set targets to have a certain percentage of women in the ranks of directors, senior directors and vice presidents. I know this may sound good idea. But here’s why it isn’t… at least not the way it’s being done in every tech company I’ve talked to.

Management jobs are scarce. As you go higher in an organization they become even more scarce. When gender-based quotas or targets are established and women are elevated on a preferred basis it has the inevitable result of creating mass resentment among males who feel like they are being discriminated against. The result is that men are angry and women are set up to fail.

When anyone is perceived to have been granted promotion for any reason other than merit, they are put on a hot seat.  Every flaw and every mistake is amplified. If the people they lead are resentful they are likely to create subtle acts of sabotage to prove that the new leader is undeserving. This is going on right now. I know because I find myself coaching newly elevated women leaders who feel like the Nobel Laureate in my story.

What is happening is if new women leaders don’t lead like men they’re almost immediately dismissed as lightweights. Of course if they try to lead like men they quickly gain a reputation as ball-busters.

I believe there is only one true solution to the problem and opportunity of gender differences in the workplace. For over 5,000 years armies, governments and businesses have been organized as male authoritarian structures.

This organizational design promotes people into leadership-demonstrated authoritarian traits. Competitiveness, confidence and decisiveness are all viewed as leadership traits in authoritarian organizations. These are traits found most commonly in men.

Recent science tells us these traits are the result of the way male brain neuro-networks develop combined with social modeling. The problem for tech companies is that authoritarian cultures are not agile or easy to transform. That’s why companies who have great success with their initial product usually have great difficulty disrupting themselves with new ideas, business models and solutions needed to keep thriving.

Science confirms that most women do not think like most men. We know that women are much more flexible and versatile in their thinking which enables them to consider far more different ideas before settling on an action plan. We know that women are much more likely to have a deeper and richer view of the user or customer experience which will lead to high-value innovation rather than bells and whistles which fascinate engineers but do little to wow customers.

There is much more scientific evidence that supports the idea that if you want to build an agile, innovative and efficient organization, women who lead like women are an essential source of leadership talent.  However, in most current technology cultures women are treated as if they are speaking a foreign language. They are simply tuned out. They are frequently ridiculed behind their backs. Too frequently they are subtly sexually harassed.

Recent Harvard research shows that most companies today have only about 7% of their workforce that are well-balanced enough to truly drive results through collaboration. Meanwhile, 34% of the workforce (mostly male) is relying on authoritarian power and 59% (mostly female) are simply compliant.  This why companies are not agile, innovative or even efficient.

My experience has taught me that the only solution to this immense and obnoxious waste of talent comes down to three things:
1. The CEO must believe that women who lead like women are a significant competitive advantage to the organization’s growth and prosperity. (This a mindset shift for most CEOs that only comes from opening their minds and having them participate with women in leadership in ways that generate better solutions and opportunities then they’ve had in the past.  They have to experience the benefits. I have been able to set this up in disciplined leadership experiments.)
2. Women need to be unleashed!  Women have been trained to devote themselves to helping others achieve their goals. This makes most women helpers rather than leaders.  I have found that when women are trained to use their gender strength to lead you often see a powerful synthesis of social intelligence and strategic wisdom, which is transformative.
3. Men need to listen to the questions women are asking. Most men must learn how to work with women as partners. For example, most men have never received any modeling or coaching about how to translate the way women have been conditioned to communicate so that their ideas will be heard and valued. (Social science confirms that women communicate their preferences through questions rather than assertions. It is common for woman to say something like “Would you like to go to a Mexican restaurant tonight?” when she actually means that she would like to go to a Mexican restaurant. At work it may sound like, “What do you think of putting Susan on the team?” instead of “I would really like Susan on the team.”)

Women have been conditioned to communicate their preferences softly for thousands of years because they feared either violent consequences or economic sanctions, and those legitimate fears don’t disappear in a single generation. Of course, as more women are unleashed (#2) they will become more clear and powerful.
To sum up.

If companies really do value both the talent and judgment that women can bring to an organization, the CEO must open his or her mind to the probability that women are a competitive advantage. 

Women need to be trained to amplify their talent and judgment in organizations that have evolved around male strengths. And, it’s critical that men learn how to work with women in in ways that make both male and female strengths synergistic.

Anything less will lead to failure . . . and that would be tragic.  Women have tried to be heard before but not achieved the success we need. This time the powerful contributions of tens of millions of women must be liberated if we want to create a future that our children will thrive in.

If you are waiting for some one to take action, wait no longer. Send this blog to your CEO and ask for a response. If doing so might put you at risk, then you need to find a new CEO.