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Women at the Top: 3 Female CEOs on the Industry Gender Imbalance

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“I was expecting to be able to tick many more boxes in order to be a decent candidate,” De Lathouwer says. “Often men, if they tick 60 percent of the box, they consider that that’s fine [and that] it’s going to work. I think it’s a way of seeing either what’s missing or seeing what you already have. I believe that other women like me have the tendency to see what’s missing, while men have more the tendency to see what they already have.”

Rachel Payne thinks that part of the disparity is that men often get a helping hand up the ladder. There’s an expectation that they’ll rise, something that women don’t benefit from.

“When I was at Google, I remember having a conversation with a very senior executive there,” Payne says. “I asked her, ‘What do you think the greatest barrier is for women to advance in this company?’ She said, ‘It’s the fact that women get stuck in a middle management position and never get out.’”

Men get sponsored, Payne says; they become someone’s protégé. They get coached and, if they have the right potential, fly through the ranks quickly. For women, the experience is different. At the biggest names in tech, power is shared behind closed doors, denying an open and transparent process.

“Some might argue that bringing Jack Dorsey back to the helm of Twitter without disclosing what the actual criteria for the CEO was, what the hiring process was, what the evaluation criteria was, a lot of people argued—and VentureBeat was one of them—this demonstrated a very overt case of implicit bias,” Payne says.

There are signs of improvement, though, she notes. Companies such as Google are taking steps to address implicit bias. This comes in the form of training sessions and coaching sessions with managers on how to evaluate people and what to look for when giving promotions. It’s needed, Payne notes, as only about a quarter of tech employees are women. “Men are evaluated on potential. Women are evaluated on past performance,” Payne says, taking a note from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation.

If she hadn’t built her own company, Munson thinks she might have been put on a product management track, based more on other people’s expectations of what she could do. As a software engineer, that wasn’t where she wanted to go. The startup experience can be exhausting, and without supportive peers, that can be discouraging to women, she says.

“I worked on software every hour of the day and night, all the time, constantly, and I think that’s culturally a big difference and how the doors open differently in companies,” Munson says. “It’s not like women were given different projects, but you’ve got to hang around in the afterhours. You’ve got to hang around in all the stuff that goes on, and by that I mean just working on stuff that is typically all guys. I think for some women, it gets old for some good reasons, but you don’t have peers and it’s grueling.”

When that gets to be too much of a burden, many women move to the marketing side of the business. After a while, women want to move to an area that’s “a little cleaner and more bounded or more comfortable socially,” Munson says, because there are more female colleagues. Before they know it, they’re on a different career path, one that stops at middle management.

“I think if I look at women who have become tech CEOs, especially in companies that are making new technologies, they were on the development side,” Munson says.

Attitudes and Expectations

Once women reach a leadership position, they still need to deal with assumptions or stereotypes that men don’t have to think about. De Lathouwer realized years ago, when she reached a leadership position at a previous company, that she needed to assert herself in meetings from the start.

“People sometime have some stereotype about women. What you have to pay attention [to] is when you enter a room, you have to make sure that you don’t stay quiet in a corner for a few minutes, because otherwise they might believe that you are the assistant,” De Lathouwer says. “Talk quite soon so that people realize that you are in charge and you know what you’re talking about.”

Payne also knows that meetings can be trying for women in executive roles. They often face an inappropriate level of scrutiny.

“When you walk into a room, if you cannot command a professional presence based on your attire, based on your demeanor, based on your gravitas, you are judged, and it is very easy to be disappeared. Something as simple as your shoes or your nails get noticed. I know a female CEO who went to pitch at a VC, and they spent 15 minutes talking about her shoes,” Payne says. “That’s ridiculous, right? It’s those kinds of things where appearance matters too much, but it is one of the factors that implicitly women are judged by.”

In the workplace, there’s a different expectation about how men and women dress. Packing for a conference, Payne realized that she needed to plan her wardrobe in ways that men don’t. If a male entrepreneur goes to a conference with three t-shirts and wears the same pair of jeans every day, no one cares. The reaction to a female entrepreneur doing the same thing would be far different.

That division extends to management style, as well, Payne says. She’s learned that people have expectations about her, and that female executives can’t be as diverse in their management styles as men.

“Try to imagine the female Steve Jobs, with the temperament and the rebelliousness and the avant-garde, iconoclastic style. You don’t see that because, in large part, women aren’t allowed to be,” Payne says. “Women get punished if their behavior falls outside of the range of what’s acceptable in a professional setting.”

While Munson, De Lathouwer, and Payne have all faced obstacles in their journeys to the corner office, they’re all determined to make the road a little smoother for future generations. That takes the form of instilling office diversity, speaking at women’s conferences, and mentoring girls and young women interested in technology. Munson makes a point of recruiting outside of California to get a diverse workforce at Aspera. She recently gave a keynote address to a thousand people at the Women Tech Council in Utah. De Lathouwer speaks at conferences and panels, and enjoys coaching young women considering a career in technology. Payne and her collages at FEM Inc. actively mentor individuals and organizations. They also make a point of bringing in interns from disadvantaged backgrounds—women who have potential and only need an opportunity.

The end goal is simply to let women in tech grow their careers in whatever path they choose. “What I do try to avoid though, I would say, is the mantra of the woman thing. I think all women trying to do things want to avoid that because the last thing we need is more stereotypes,” Munson says. “We need people to believe intrinsically that they should and can—women especially—do the field. So try to avoid too much emphasis on the woman side of things. For myself I never want to be thought of as having succeeded because I’m a woman. I want to be thought of, respected, for what I do.”

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Women at the Top.”

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