International Women’s Day celebrations in the tech sector fill me with rage…

Here’s what your company can do differently this year to achieve profound change.

International women’s day is fast approaching, and with it my foreboding dread as tech companies seek to jump on the bandwagon to show how they embrace and champion their female employees.

The reason this topic gets me so hot under the metaphorical collar (of course I’m wearing the new wfh uniform of leggings and a big jumper as i write this) is because the official declarations of support for women in organisations this one day of the year is contradictory to the experiences that most women in tech experience every other day of the year.

Tech companies perceive this one day as an opportunity to showcase what an equal opportunities employee they are, and how au courant they are for hiring women in this male dominated industry. I’ve witnessed exec teams consisting solely of white men (as only 5% of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women[1]) passing down directives for IWD initiatives, such as videos where employers (again, predominately white men) talk about the women who inspire them. Frustratingly, these videos often amount to people lamenting the heroism of their ________ (insert mother/grandmother/wife trope here). They frustratingly don’t seem to realise that this is contributing to the issue. I can’t help but wonder what the response would be if you asked them to share inspirational men. I’d put money of not one person mentioning their father and instead receiving an onslaught of mentions for Steve Jobs and Elon Musk (who are quoted far too much in PowerPoint presentations for my liking anyway)!

Although disappointing, I can understand why 78% of students can’t name a famous female working in tech[2], but you’d hope those working in the tech sector would be better informed. On IWD, rather than celebrating female entrepreneurs, technologists, scientists, public figures, they instead fall back on the stereotypical female figure that they can all relate to — those that are key to family life, their ‘caretaker’ figures.

And this is the crux of the issue. When faced directly with sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, I’ve seen the perpetrator fall back on this weak defence of “I would never be disrespectful to a female colleague, I have a [mother/wife/daughter].” Which is laughable considering that everyone that was ever born has a mother, yet 48% of women working as tech employees experienced harassment[3], so this defence just doesn’t cut it.

It’s excruciating to see all the tributes pour out on this one day, particular from organisations where I know reports of sexism and discrimination are rife. It’s makes a mockery of the lived experiences that women are unfortunately still victims of within these organisations, and worse still is seen as a PR stunt to hire more women into what can be a dangerous environment.

So, instead of falling into these well-meaning, but completely misplaced efforts, to embrace International Women’s Day, here’s my 8 top DO’s and DON’TS for how tech companies can approach IWD in a new way to achieve profound change:

1. DO talk to your female employees. Create a safe space where you can run surveys and focus groups to give them the opportunity to voice their experiences. Use open questions and anonymous feedback as a mechanism to capture qualitative feedback. It takes a lot of bravery for women to share their difficult experiences of working in the tech industry, so keep this sensitivity front and foremost of this initiative.

2. DON’T just create a high level report with a summary of findings. I’ve seen companies hide behind “well, the majority of women reported having a positive experience here so we don’t have a problem”. If it’s anything less than 100%, then you are failing your female employees! Take the time to hear the stories and experiences shared (whilst of course respecting anonymity), and take the time to process what you’ve heard.

3. DON’T fall back on defensiveness. Some of the things you hear will make you feel uncomfortable. Rather than rushing to explain these away as anomalies, spend some time sitting in that discomfort and really consider what it must have been like for your colleagues and employees to go through that. Don’t overlook the small moments, the time they felt uncomfortable walking into or speaking up at a meeting as the only woman. Any experience where we’re made to feel less than or Other is one experience too many.

4. DO Assess your whistle blowing policies. Review how many of these experiences raised have been formally reported and assess why your reporting mechanism isn’t working. Only 45% of women reported the harassment they experienced to senior leadership in 2020, (concerningly this has dropped by 10% since 2017). And 67% said they do not have a lot of trust in how their company would handle allegations of harassment[4].

Look at what the current process is, how accessible is it and what measures are put in place to protect the vulnerability of the reporter. Improve, implement and work to continually improve this mechanism so you can build trust with employees, have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in real-time, and take action immediately. If these moments go unaddressed, then it’s sending a clear message to perpetrators that it’s acceptable within your company culture.

5. DON’T assume that being female is an umbrella experience. The intersectionality of gender with ethnicity, religion, class, ableism means that women have differing experiences. For example, women of colour founders are harassed more by potential investors (46% compared to 38% of white women founders) and 65% of LGBTQ founders say they have experienced harassment.[5]

6. DON’T just focus on hiring initiatives to create a more diverse workforce. Focus first and foremost on how to develop the right company culture to support and retain female talent (across the aforementioned intersectionalities). Otherwise you’ll continue this self-fulfilling prophecy of hiring new talent who experience discrimination and decide to leave, and this embeds the cultural belief that women “can’t cut it” at tech companies.

7. DO support women in leadership positions. I recently learnt about the “glass cliff” — where underrepresented leaders are set up to fail once they have broken through the glass ceiling due to their Otherness (Sophie Williams has a brilliant TedXLondon talk on the topic). Day by day, female leaders are edged ever closer to the cliff edge due to the lack of support and resources around them, and when they do eventually topple over the edge, they are replaced by a white, male, “safe pair of hands” who’s given more resources to succeed. You only need to look at the treatment of Marissa Meyer to see that the bar was set higher for her as a female leader; she was harshly criticised for micro-managing, something that Steve Jobs was well known, highlighting yet again how much more lenient we are on male leaders.

8. DO set lofty aspirations. Your big, hairy, audacious goal as executives should be to ensure that ingrained sexism and misogynistic behaviours have zero place within your organisation. You need to be brave enough to recognise that it’s not enough to say this once a year, but requires a daily commitment. And what better way to start this uncomfortable journey than by looking around at your fellow executives and acknowledging the privilege that exists amongst you and determining to be the change that we need to see within the tech industry.

With the above points in mind, your company and exec team can used International Women’s Day as a springboard to develop an internal manifesto on how you will deliver the change you want to see.

So here’s my rallying call to the tech sector for International Women’s Day 2021 — Use this day to create something long-lasting and impactful to inspire, encourage and empower women in tech.

(And I’m more than happy to be a second pair of eyes if you need help getting the ball rolling)!

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