Last week, we blogged about the importance of role models in
inspiring and increasing the number of women in technology. What is it like to
be one of those role models? Women in leadership positions in male-dominated
industries face some significant challenges.
First, a female leader who is one of the “very few” women at
the top experiences much more scrutiny than her male peers. She stands out,
because she is the “only one”. All eyes are likely to be on her, and her
actions are likely to be scrutinized. There is no room for mistakes and the
spotlight in on her performance. What she does or does not do becomes interpreted
through a gender lens – she is seen as representing all female leaders. This is
the social psychology dynamic which was coined by Harvard Professor Rosabeth
Moss Kanter and is called “tokenism.”
Women leaders also defy the norm because of societal
stereotypes. Research documented in the book “Through the Labyrinth” shows that men are perceived as more
influential than women (by both men and women), and that women need to show exceptional
competence to be taken seriously as influencers and leaders. This dynamic is even
worse in domains that are stereotypically masculine, such as sports, finance,
This is why technical women often say they have to “work twice
as hard” as their male peers to be taken seriously. This woman in a leadership
position we interviewed for our study of technical men and women in the high
tech industry, Climbing the
Technical Ladder, said it best:
“I’ve had a couple of experiences
where I’ve worked with guys and it was very hard for them to take me seriously
until I proved myself. It might be a little bit harder for women than for men.
If a guy walks into the room, it’s easier (especially if it’s a room full of
guys) for him to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. If you’re a
woman, you have to try just a little bit harder until you prove yourself.”
This is not a case of men being the sole source of bias against
women – women tend to hold the same stereotypical assumptions against women leaders.
For example, in our study, both male and female respondents were likely to rate
the technical competence of their manager higher if their manager was a man.
Women leaders are also not afforded the same kind of repertoire
as their male peers in terms of acceptable behavior. For example, they are
either seen as “too assertive” or “not assertive enough.” This creates a need
for women leaders to self-monitor their
level of assertiveness to match the situation.
While being in a leadership position is tough for women in
male dominated industries, there are several examples of successful role models
who have successfully navigated their tech careers. Stay tuned on their
profiles and tips for success.