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Becoming a female tech leader | Part Two

Happy thoughtful young businesswoman with digital tablet in hand smiling and looking away in front of colleague at background

In this two-part series, we highlight how the technology industry is continuing to take steps to have more female representation.

We spoke to female tech leaders showcasing how they entered the field, what appealed to them about the industry, and the advice they would give to other women looking to start a career in tech.

cynthia stantonCynthia Stanton, SVP, Vulnerability Risk Management Practice Leader at Rapid7

“I never viewed my career path as having specific milestones or a linear progression. I was always interested in science. In College, I majored in biology and environmental science, as I planned to pursue a career in medicine. However, some experiences working in college led me to change my path.

“I had some experience in a local start-up during college and discovered that I found solving customers’ problems in a business to be really interesting and satisfying. I had a few other jobs before landing my eventual career in cybersecurity. My entry to that field began because I wanted to live and work in London. I leveraged the network I had built in London to offer my assistance to a cybersecurity company that needed product management and marketing assistance.

“The advice I would give to a woman looking to start a career in cybersecurity or technology is that at the end of the day, if you’re in the right company, you’re going to be evaluated on what you bring to the table and how you approach problems. Technology is important, but there’s always a human element to it. I often think, if you have the capacity to think both technically and with empathy, you can really address the need for your customer.

“Rather than looking to fit a certain mould, I would urge you to put yourself in a position where you have the opportunity to always learn and gain new experiences. Lean into the parts of your experience or personality that might make you different or allow you to approach a situation with a different perspective. I fully acknowledge that flexibility isn’t always possible, but I’d advise you not to try to engineer your entire life; rather, run to opportunities when opportunities present themselves, and trust that things will work out. Early on in my career I was really intent on maximising my impact where I was and was also open to taking positions others might not be so comfortable doing.”

Maria Thompson Saeb, Senior Program Manager Governance, Risk, and Compliance at Illumio

“Technology is exciting to me; I’ve always liked the science of it. It’s amazing to look at the progress we’ve made over the last 20 years – it’s clear that we wouldn’t be where we are today without so much interest and investment technology.

“I started my career in the 90s as a hardcore technologist – managing and building systems – and I loved it! Then, we entered an era where we needed to prioritize security more, so I started exploring and eventually made the move to cybersecurity. My technical background helped give me a strong foundation for the work I’m doing now.

“For women who are looking to start a career in tech, my biggest piece of advice is to figure out what you enjoy the most. In technology there are so many opportunities and roles to choose from – focus on satisfying your curiosity and do what makes you happy. Once you figure out what’s most interesting and fun for you, you can start looking at the qualifications required for that role and develop the skills you need. You can also start networking and get involved with groups like Shecurity or ISACA’s women in tech network. Never underestimate the power of a strong, supportive network.

“Overall, technology is an exciting and rewarding space to be in. If you’re looking to start your career in tech, remember that you deserve a place in this industry as much as anyone.”

lisa gradyLisa Grady, Product Manager at Radiant Logic

“I always knew I wanted to work in the technology industry so was looking for a company that could really harness that enthusiasm. As such, I started my tech career as a solutions architect at Radiant Logic, the company I am currently still working for, and, over my 22-year career, I have progressed to Product Manager.

“I was one of very few women to have joined Radiant Logic at its infancy, but now we have a great team which includes a number of women who are enabling the company to grow and develop as the leader in the identity management space. While I have not experienced any form of gender discrimination during my career, I have noticed an obvious difference in the industry’s openness towards women. There was a time where we were the minority at the tradeshows I went to, but that is not the case nowadays and it’s great to see.

“I have been very fortunate in my career to have such a positive experience and it goes to show how welcoming the industry can be, and what a great place it is to have a career. For those looking to enter the field, go for it! If it is something you’re interested in and you think you can make a change, go for it. Every single company out there needs a diverse range of voices in order to be truly successful, so believe me, you are wanted!”

Lara Vafiadis, Regional Sales Manager at Deep Instinct 

“When reading about some of the largest technology companies, Microsoft, Google, VMware, IBM, we know these are all lead by great leaders- but not women. The idea that technology is a male industry starts at a young age, and there are still stigmas around young girls showing interest in science and technology when at school. This needs to change and maybe seeing a strong female leader at one of these companies could be the push it needs.

“To those women considering entering the industry, don’t let the fact that women are the minority phase you- be who you are and have the confidence to show that; it can be an advantage! In a room predominately male, being a woman means you have the edge, you have different ways of looking at a problem and you are unique. Companies are starting to realise that a diverse workforce is a strong workforce- we all bring something different to the table.”

To have so many female representatives within the technology industry is truly wonderful to see- and it highlights how the sector, and those within it, are making great efforts to create a more diverse and equal workforce. The technology industry is an undeniably great place to have a career, with opportunities available for all, so it is important that those women who are looking for a career in tech, don’t let stereotypes and stigma from getting in their way. With more women entering the field and feeling like they have a space to fill within the sector, then we can be certain that we will see more female tech leaders, and the percentage of female FTSE 350 CEO’s will continue to rise.

female leader, women leading the way featured

Honesty and vulnerability can open doors for women leaders in business

female leader, women leading the way

Rachel Probert, co-owner and chief commercial officer at postgraduate digital education provider Learna, shares how her experiences in the tech industry has shaped her view that leaders who put on false shows of confidence can hold back women from taking the reins themselves.

During difficult times while managing and leading tech industry teams, I’ve learned not to hide how I’m feeling. I’ve worked with people who stand at the front of the room and give this projection that everything is fine, and think that’s a comfort to people –  it’s not. I think people know when their leaders are being honest.

As a leader, I am the conductor of an orchestra. I don’t need to know how to play all the musical instruments, I just need to make sure that everybody is playing when they need to be. I want to surround myself with people who are excellent, who know more than me. But I’ve sometimes witnessed managers who are uncomfortable with people working below them who know more about a subject than they do.

It is this culture of putting on a front,  pretending to know all the answers and being better than everyone else, which I believe is one of the barriers to women taking up leadership roles in businesses. This needs to be addressed by leaders to make sure opportunities are accessible to all.

I’m a big fan of the American professor and lecturer Brené Brown, who talks about leadership and leading from vulnerability, or a place of honesty and integrity. She argues that vulnerability is a sign of strong leadership, and defines vulnerability as taking action when there is “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

I learned not to hide how I’m feeling through failures in business practices in the past, like relying too heavily on one large customer, or building a business around one organisation.

When I co-owned iPassExam, a business helping prepare marketing professionals for their Google AdWords examination, everything changed overnight when Google made their exam free. Suddenly, everybody who would have previously  been prepared to pay for our services no longer saw any value in doing so. If they failed the Google exam they could just try it again as many times as they liked for free.

I learned a lot from that experience, including the value in being open and honest about where you stand, so that it’s OK to say that you’re scared or you don’t know what the future holds. It’s OK to talk to your team about being uncertain and there can be a comfort in that for people. For me, that is a fundamental part of my leadership strategy.

I don’t think of leadership in business as taking people by the hand and pretending that everything is OK, perhaps then taking them down a path they’re unsure of, while wrongly under the impression that I have all the answers.

Younger female members of staff can sometimes lack the belief they could one day be in a leadership position because they think they don’t, or won’t, have all the answers. That’s why I believe adopting that real and honest approach to leading a team opens the door for more female leaders in the future.

When I’m advertising a job and I list all the skills I’d like prospective employees to have, there is a distinct difference between the male and female applicants. The males are more likely to apply for that job even though they don’t tick all the boxes, because they are willing to have a go and be honest about what they can and can’t do. But with female applicants, I’ll generally only get ones who can tick 90% of the boxes that I’m looking for.

I’ve also found myself in circles talking to women where they say they won’t apply for a job unless they are sure they can do everything that is desired, instead of understanding that these are things they can learn on the job and that they already have transferable skills for.

As someone who’s lucky enough to be in a leadership role as a female, being able to teach them that leaders don’t always have all the answers, or indeed all of the skills, can help them realise that they too can assume those sorts of positions too.

I have a better understanding of the business than most individuals who work for me, because I’ve worked in it longer. I understand that I have holistic vision or knowledge and that’s where I add value. But if there’s somebody on my team who has very specific expertise, I completely trust them in that field and I want them to feel that they own that space.

If we as leaders are honest about the skills and knowledge that we have, or more open about how vulnerable we might feel because we don’t know something, it’s my opinion that we will have more women stepping up and leading.

About the author

Rachel ProbertRachel Probert is the co-owner and chief commercial officer at digital postgraduate education provider Learna, and has more than 20 years’ experience managing commercial and marketing departments within the tech industry.

In her role at Learna she leads the business’ commercial strategy, forging new commercial partnerships with universities and businesses internationally. Learna recently saw its highest student intake for the second consecutive year with a 130%  increase in admissions for 2021-22 compared to 12 months ago, as well as a 41% increase in turnover

Before Learna, Rachel founded and directed a number of successful businesses in the technology sector, including EdTech, and online education business iPassExam until its sale in 2018.

Always looking for new challenges and adventures, Rachel grew her previous company while travelling around Europe, growing and nurturing a new business in the EdTech field, while raising a family.

female leader, women leading the way featured

Why not me?

Article by Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify

female leader, women leading the wayAs a young girl growing up in Newfoundland, I received the typical societal messages around gender differences and capabilities.

Luckily, I had a very strong foundation of equality at home to drown some of that noise out. My parents weren’t entrepreneurs - they had more traditional 9-5 jobs - but my mother was a strong woman. Both she and my father gave me the space to think differently about what my career could be and permission to ignore barriers and go for what I wanted.

Ask yourself the right questions

That said, I didn’t start my career as an entrepreneur – nor did I start out in tech. I spent five years working as a chartered accountant for a large corporation. And, despite being intrinsically driven to do my best work, I certainly suffered from imposter syndrome in the early days. I had his perpetual feeling that someone was going to realise that I didn’t know what I was doing; that I would be “found out.”

But then one day I had an epiphany that changed everything. After many experiences sitting in meetings with very senior people who boasted long careers and big titles, I found that I could very clearly see what was and wasn’t going to work out with their decisions. So, one morning I woke and rather than asking ‘Why Me?’, I said to myself: ‘Why not me?’

Any notion of imposter syndrome disappeared that day and it never returned.  And I never looked back, going on to successfully run four tech businesses, the most recent of which is Axonify.

Fifteen years ago, a tech leader asked me why I was the only local female tech CEO in Waterloo, Canada, where Axonify is based. I told him to just wait and give it time. Happily, I was right. And I was glad to do my part to enable more women to lead in tech and rise through the ranks.

My co-founder, Christine Tutssel, is also a woman and after almost 10 years in business we have 180 employees, half of whom are women. That’s not to say that I lean hard into supporting women over men—I always choose the best person for the job. And I strongly believe in trusting people to show up every day and do their best work, giving them the support they need and the space to try things without fear.

Fear is extremely paralysing, to people and businesses

My advice to any woman reading this is to stop fearing the things you don’t know.

Early in your career, you think everyone is smart and you’re afraid to speak up. Don’t fall into that trap. Be yourself. Work hard and ask lots of questions along the way.

Insatiable curiosity is one of the characteristics of any great leader. And don’t be fearful of making the wrong choices. There are no wrong choices, because even if you end up doing something you don’t love for a little while, the experience is meaningful because it showed you more clearly what you don’t want to do. It sets you on your right path. Lose the fear and the caring too much about what people think and you’ll free up so much mental energy that you can channel into doing amazing things.

There’s never been a better time for women to get into tech

The evidence is strong that women are changing tech for the better and providing great ROI to investors. There are so many jobs beyond traditional engineering now, and the industry could use more confident female role models.

Women everywhere just need to muzzle the fear, shed the imposter syndrome and ask themselves the same simple question that I asked myself one morning 15 years ago: Why not me?

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