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Post-lockdown tech leadership needs soft strength…and we’re well-placed to deliver

female leader, women leading the way, tech leadership

By Camilla Zucchi, Head of Production @ Nucco Brain (strategic content agency operating at the intersection of technology and storytelling)

As the Head of Production for a tech-led content agency, I have been a fully paid up member of the tech community for over three years now.

And the role has given me valuable insight into what women can bring to the oft-touted bro culture that typically dominates tech businesses.

For women, it often isn't easy to climb up the tech-land career ladder; and this is especially the case when aiming for a management, rather than specialist, role. If you thought the ground floor was chock-a-block with testosterone-fuelled coders, wait until you take the elevator up to the top. Leadership roles are often even more male-dominated because they’re skewed towards ‘strong’ (a euphemism for ‘masculine’, if I ever heard one) personalities. But sometimes – just sometimes – women in tech manage to level up to leadership. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough to be one of this privileged group.

Of course, it helps that my CEO is a true champion of gender equality; someone who isn’t blinkered by the usual parameters of what constitutes a ‘strong’ leader. But, in hindsight, I can now also see that a few different factors have played into my tech-land progression.

One of them is my varied experience in previous work environments. Having a colourful and broad career history – I’ve worked across museums, education, design and architecture – has helped me strengthen the key skills that I rely on in my current tech role.

The design and architecture industries are notoriously male-dominated because they place so much value on ‘strong’ (that word again) characters. Working in this environment taught me about resilience, focus and flexibility: resilience to push back against a sea of men; a laser focus on the project at hand; and the flexibility to jump between tasks and personalities.

Whereas my time spent in museum and education roles has gifted me problem solving skills alongside razor-sharp attention to detail. These skills allow me to navigate the difficult projects and new challenges that arise constantly in an ever-evolving work environment like that of tech.

These qualities have given me a new form of ‘strong’. And it’s not a shouty, badass, bossy or lone genius form of strong because it’s balanced by the softer and more nuanced management skills that are more commonly associated with femininity.

The forward-looking nature of tech means we’re faced with new challenges on a near daily basis. And these challenges are best met by a version of ‘strong’ that manages people and processes in a collaborative – perhaps even ‘soft’ – way.

Soft management turned out to be a critical skill during lockdown. Although remote working was already commonplace in the tech world, the experience of lockdown brought a surge of social and personal issues into the (virtual) workplace: team stress, lack of social interaction, mental health, to name just a few. As Head of Production, my primary focus was to make sure projects were delivered on time and to a high standard. But to achieve this, I had to fully support my stressed-out team by making sure they had the time and flexibility they needed. And I’m just not sure this element of crisis management could have been successfully achieved in tech businesses that are drowning in chauvinism.

Lockdown’s new challenges have, I hope, given tech businesses an opportunity to understand more about how a new form of softer (yet resolutely strong) leadership can make a real impact at a number of levels. I just hope what we’ve learnt during this difficult time can prove to be a blueprint for a brighter future in tech-land.

If you are a job seeker or someone looking to boost their career, then WeAreTechWomen has thousands of free career-related articles. From interview tips, CV advice to training and working from home, you can find all our career advice articles here.

Stefano Marrone

HeForShe: Stefano Marrone | Founder and MD, Nucco Brain

Stefano MarroneStefano Marrone is Founder and MD of Nucco Braina tech-led strategic agency that creates innovative content (eg: AR and VR experiences) for clients including Deloitte, the European Space Agency, Google, HSBC, JP Morgan, BBC, John Lewis Partnership and Water Aid.

Stefano Marrone is also a former Forbes ‘100 Under 30’ alumnus, a Google for Startups Accelerator programme mentor and a guest lecturer for a number of leading UK universities, including Goldsmiths University of London, UCL, SOAS and ESCP.

After a career in Italian advertising agencies and the Canadian entertainment industry, Marrone moved to London to gain an MA in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship from Goldsmiths University. He then founded Nucco Brain, which is now part of the UNIT9 Group (named Tech Company of the Year 2020’ by ad land bible, Campaign).

Why do you support the HeForShe campaign? For example – have you witnessed the benefits that diversity can bring to a workplace?

We have definitely strongly benefited from a diverse leadership and workforce. The variety of angles from which business challenges can be seen is higher, and so are our options when tackling and solving them.

We also believe that more diversity in the business provides better creative outcomes for our clients. Creativity thrives when different points of view, cultures and opinions can interact and enrich each other.

Why do you think it’s important for men to support gender equality in the workplace?

Sadly, it’s true that often positions of power are still largely held by men. If we want gender equality to happen, we need to get men involved and sponsor it as much as possible.

How welcome are men in the gender equality conversation currently?

I think it’s a mixed bag at the moment. I have felt unwelcome in some of the events and conversations I’ve joined in-person and online. Too often men are seen as “the enemy” for this cause, but they can be as big an advocate as women, if they are allowed to join the fight.

Do you think groups/networks that include the words “women in…” or “females in…” make men feel like gender equality isn’t really their problem or something they need to help with?

If a man feels that way just because of the name of a group, we are in trouble as a society. Gender equality is so clearly a challenge that hasn’t been resolved, that any group called “Women in XXX” just clearly identifies its area of interest.

What can businesses do to encourage more men to feel welcome enough to get involved in the gender debate?

Firstly, simply make the invitation. And repeat it often. Saying “all men are welcome” in a clear way is helpful to break hesitation.
Second, make clear the difference between listening and sharing moments.

Sometimes, I haven’t joined a group or a conversation out of respect, to leave space for a forum. It’s important for an association that promotes gender equality to clearly define the moments when men are invited to take part of the conversation and the ones when it’s about having a safe space to discuss without boundaries or feeling watched.

Do you currently mentor any women or have you in the past?

I am part of the Seed Mentorship Program at Ravensbourne University, where I have mentored two very talented female students on how to build a portfolio and launch their career. I will certainly do so next year too.

As MD of Nucco Brain, the career progression of my direct reports is essential and, at the moment, four out of seven of them are women.

Working with the Google Startup Accelerator programme, the opportunities to mentor female funders have been many in the past years, and will be in the future. It is one of the aspects of mentorships I like the most.

Incidentally, one of the key mentors in my life is a woman; the amazing Kate Gray.

Have you noticed any difference in mentoring women – for example, are women less likely to put themselves forward for jobs that are out of their comfort zones or are women less likely to identify senior roles that they would be suited for?

I often find myself insisting on “fighting for your space, because no-one else will”. In general, it’s frankly disheartening to see many talented women being ignored in the room just because they are not the loudest, most aggressive or most cocky.

Most women I have mentored feel the need for external approval - a certification, a degree, formal praise - before even trying something new when they are perfectly capable of the task in hand, whilst many men will just “give it a shot”.

I don’t think the problem is in seniority per se, but the unnecessary need of validation outside of self-belief on the capacity to complete a task, or be right for the role.

In my career, I have definitely hired my share of under-qualified men that ended-up being a disappointment and plenty of overqualified women that didn’t show their full potential during the interview process.

WeAreTechWomen has a back catalogue of thousands of HeForShe interviews, including Christian Edelmann, George Brasher, Stephen Mercer and many more. You can read about all the amazing men championing gender equality here.