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The impossible art of being a female leader

July 27, 2016
Diversity & Inclusion

New research launched by Mortimer Spinks revealed that the number of women tech bosses is doubling year-on-year.

And while this certainly doesn’t spell the end of the glass ceiling, it certainly shows that great cracks are appearing.

This is brilliant news for the technology industry. Having a greater number of women in the workforce, and in positions of seniority, has clear benefits for business. Beyond more diverse and fresh ideas, it has also been shown to lead to better profitability. Indeed, research from the University of Leeds Business School found that having at least one female director on the board helped cut a company’s chances of going bust by 20 per cent, with that risk decreasing further with a higher female representation on the board.

But despite the benefits, “being the boss” remains a challenge for many women. Indeed, many of us must still tackle the impossible art of either being ‘too soft or too bossy’ and ‘having it all’ (otherwise – and more appropriately – known as a work life balance).

Dawn of the alphazilla

A great contributor to the boss vs. bossy issue is the continuation of the traditional, male-orientated work culture. Women sometimes feel inclined to emulate male culture to reflect expectations of how a woman ‘should’ act in the workplace. This is not surprising because ‘fitting in’ is one of the most important aspects of cultural acceptance, especially as woman climb the ladder. There is a lesson for us all in learning from the successful conduct of our own leaders – whilst also maintaining our authenticity and focusing on being ourselves rather than playing the part of the ‘alphazilla’.

Frequently we can find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where we want to emulate the management style of those bosses we respected, but then face accusations of being “bossy”. Go too far the other way, women are sometimes labelled ‘soft’ and then struggle to command the respect of their colleagues. It is a fine balance, but I find that being authentic often helps to strike that it.

Not having it all

Women who have chosen to have both a successful career and a family – or other massive commitment to something outside of work – are challenged with the question of ‘can I have it all?’

Personally, I am not sure there really is such thing as “having it all”. There was, for me, just a perfectly imperfect world of a crew of people who helped me at work, at home and at play. I chose not to hide the fact that we had kids or commitments to other things and I suppose there is a confidence in that, which might have been more easily tolerated in the tech industry. I found that a combination of being transparent about what I needed and leveraging technology which enabled me to work remotely on some occasions helped me did get things done. But, I also have to admit that I did tend to work all the hours that God sent to get those things done. In a way, it was my ‘fear of failure’ gene kicking in. Even now I do still, by the way, kill myself to make deadlines.

I do understand though why women often feel like they can’t open up about the struggles of juggling work and home life, for fear of being judged. It is a legitimate fear but there are women’s networks and mentoring that can help here.

It is also, perhaps, also unsurprising given many people’s experiences: for example, 14 per cent of British women report been asked about their plans for marriage and/or children at a job interview. This sets a clear tone for that company’s attitude towards the juggling act they may face in the future. My advice? Choose the culture of your prospective employer wisely – culture trumps strategy every time and the best laid plans can be scuppered by an overwhelming culture.

Holding a more senior role, with the new risk and responsibility that it holds, certainly doesn’t make getting a healthy work life balance any easier. Indeed, for many who feel like more eyes are on them, the challenge is even greater. As a leader though, I also believe that getting involved in women’s networks or creating one inside your own business can help to shift the dynamics. WATC is a great example of that!

A greater climate for success

Despite all of these issues, women are succeeding and creating change in the technology industry. But women, or supporters of diversity in general, should not sit on their laurels and come to expect such a battle against these age old issues. There have been many pieces of legislation to support women in work, which have played an important role in improving conditions. In my mind, though, with these challenges, change will not come from laws and regulations. It has to come from people, cultural shifts, new generational thinking and new ways of working

Now that we do have more women in senior roles, I find that it’s vital to play the ‘generosity game’ and send the elevator back down. I try and play this game once a day – one thing that can make a difference! When were you last late for work because you let one extra car out at that busy junction? When did it kill you to make that introduction to someone, which could have changed the course of that person’s entire career? When did you spontaneously take ten minutes and write someone a fabulous reference?

We already have a great culture of this: many and most women that I know in tech have worked with other women in the industry to support them. It’s really important to “do our bit” to help the next generation of digital entrepreneurs to not only achieve, but to surpass our expectations.

Another important task is to support a move away from traditional working patterns. Flexible working provides a great opportunity for both men and women to better manage a balance between their work and home life. For me, the notion that I can #workhardanywhere has helped me achieve a balance and build trust with colleagues and superiors based on the performance outcomes, rather than how many hours I’ve ‘clocked up’.

But for all women to feel the benefits, organisations must do more than just offer a programme, andsupport a cultural shift, with the wider company embracing the end of the nine-to-five mentality. Men and women at the top, to help achieve this, must stand up against practices like “showing face” to ensure that those who work flexibly are as championed as their office-based counterparts. It is ok for any parent to walk out of the office at 2pm to pick up the kids…it really is! I strongly believe that productivity is a better measure than activity in the workplace.

Evening out the bumps in the road

Women are making waves throughout the technology industry – from the top to the bottom of nearly every business. The growing number of women taking on more senior roles testifies to this. But while the road is certainly more travelled, the route to success is frequently met with the same bumps and challenges.

To help support this generation of female leaders and the next, we must ensure that we support each other to build a culture where we are able to be ourselves and unashamedly strive to achieve our priorities – in and out of work. The continued struggles associated with being a female leader are just a waste of everyone’s time but also, perhaps, an opportunity to create a digital nation of significance if we choose to harness all of this fabulous talent…

This article was written by Jacqueline De Rojas who has more than 25 years operational experience in the software industry and is the President of techUK.

Source: We Are The City

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