I've written about the lack of women working in technology, and the problems the imbalance can cause for those women that do make up the 17% of the industry. But it can sometimes feel like we don't hear enough about the success stories, the remarkable women leading the way and paving the way for the next generation.
Recently I was lucky enough to talk to Lee Epting, content services director at Vodafone. After starting in mortgage lending, Lee landed a job with a telecommunications company and hasn't looked back during a long successful career in technology. I asked her if she feels—like many women I've spoken to—that she has to sacrifice femininity in order to achieve strength in the workplace? At the end of the day, does she have to put on a "man suit" and play by men’s rules? On the contrary.
"For me the strength that a woman has is her femininity," Epting says. "I have often found that being a woman has often given me the opportunity for growth. I often find I can get better airtime as a woman because I am often unique in the room. I think we should celebrate the uniqueness; I do communicate differently because I'm a woman."
The key to making diversity count is adaptability. Epting says that you need to learn how to get your message across in different ways depending on the audience. She will communicate in different ways depending on the gender, race or age of who she's talking to.
Her philosophy is that technology will only fully benefit from the experience of women if it lets them be themselves. She acknowledges that many men and women do work differently, and that this is something that should be embraced rather than ignored. "Tech can benefit from the more emotional approach that women can bring," she says.
I was intrigued to find out what she makes of one of the key culprits in the male/female imbalance—a 2010 study by Intellect found that 84% of women they surveyed in technology companies believed that not enough was being done to encourage women to return after maternity leave. Lee believes there are solutions.
"There is always that moment where you consider as a new mother whether or not to go back to work," Epting says. "We are talking to our colleagues in Egypt who have started to implement some interesting programs."
There, mothers who have come back from maternity now have access—at their place of work—to discounted ‘meals to go’ at the end of their day.
"It just makes their daily chores that bit easier," she says. "It's been very well received."
If more initiatives like this were introduced to make new mothers feel welcome back at companies we may well see a decline in the so-called 'leaky pipeline' of female tech employees. She also believes more subtle initiatives could make a huge difference.
"We need to create programs that support women's growth. Give women a clearly defined path showing how they'll progress in a company," she says. If women know where they are going they are more likely to keep heading down the path.
So where will the next generation of Lady Geeks come from?
Epting says we need to combat tech's geeky image before anything else, instead making it accessible and fun.
"To make technology cool for young girls it comes down to how and what brands we associate ourselves with—it comes down to the content. Technology can allow a girl to fulfill her dreams because basically there's nothing in the world that isn't going to be digital or isn't already digital in some capacity."
To get girls interested in technology we need to get across the message that it can help them do—and be—anything they like. They don't need to change themselves. It's amazing to see woman in Epting's position advocating strong, feminine behavior at the top of the technology industry. As companies start to grow more receptive to the needs of women—be they 11-year old girls or new working mothers.