The Female Technologist: The View of the Top

This time around, I want to talk a bit about gender and leadership. The TL;DR version is that I think it’s a complex issue, and that context, industry, company composition and one’s personal approach to leadership all have their parts to play. Personally, I’m happy where I am, and am optimistic about seeing a more representative balance of genders in leadership roles more generally.

Without beating about the bush, gender is relevant to perceptions of leadership. It just is. People often have pretty specific ideas about how men and women are meant to behave, and violating these scripts can cause some people great discomfort. On May 14, Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times was fired. According to Ken Auletta’s article in The New Yorker, this may have been driven by tension over perceived pay disparities between Abramson and her male predecessors. According to Politico’s Dylan Byers (three weeks before Abramson’s exit), the chief complaint of “many staffers” was that she could be “cold” and “condescending”. Auletta pointed out that, in his 2011 profile of Abramson, he had noted that some in the newsroom had expressed concerns about her “sometimes brusque manner”.

Without speaking to the truth of these words — I’ve never met Abramson and have no real basis for that — I do think the comments as reported reflect certain expectations. Let’s talk a bit about those expectations. According to the empirical data, likeability and success are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women (see, for example, the story about Heidi Roizen in Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, starting from the 07:30 mark).

Now, I gather that this finding is fairly well established, but it doesn’t line up all that closely with my personal experience — at least, not so far. I think that there are probably a few reasons for this. In my first TFT post, I speculated that being a woman in a male-dominated niche has allowed me to disrupt some of the traditional dynamics in networking situations with other entrepreneurs. Internally, Debenu has women in key leadership positions, on both the executive/operations/marketing (i.e., me) and development (i.e., our head programmer, Lucia) levels. While I think that this must influence our company culture, I also don’t think that this alone would explain the (apparent) disruption of the success-unlikeability link within the company.

So what could it be? I believe that my position, context, and the composition of our staff are all relevant. I think that gender-specific expectations are also crucial. When thinking about both Abramson and Roizen, I was struck by something. In both cases, the unlikeability of the women in question was tied to a certain perceived callousness or self-interest. By extension, it seems that these women defied the expectations of their critics that they should have been warm, self-effacing (or at least collegial), and self-sacrificing. When I try to make sense of all of this in the context of my experiences, I suspect that some of the specific differences between our situations really matter, along with individual approaches to work and leadership.

Before co-founding Debenu, I trained and worked in the the business and research sides of healthcare (specifically pharma). While I originally focused on conducting hands-on research, I swiftly discovered an interest in helping teams to work together more effectively, and on advising these dedicated scientists about how to put together submissions that would pass muster with regulatory bodies. In this setting, it was a fairly natural progression to move towards leading teams and fostering best practice. I wasn’t aware of any strong sense of resentment from my researcher colleagues when I was promoted; indeed, it often felt like they were relieved that they could better focus on their empirical work. When I later co-founded Debenu, I was in a senior position from the start. As such, there was no real individual progression as such, and I was a “boss” as soon as we hired our first employee. As an entrepreneur, my sense of progress is closely linked to the fate of my business.

When I compare my history to Abramson’s and Roizen’s stories, I can see why their experiences, and others’ perceptions of them, might have been quite different. Both women enjoyed highly visible and impressive career advancement in competitive arenas, the one in journalism and the other in VC. In those conditions, success meant winning, and in a zero-sum game, one person winning means that others are losing. Each woman would have had to drive hard bargains, fight for their ideas, and make good use of their available advantages. Necessarily, this would have involved cultivating valuable professional contacts. Further, each woman would have encountered many people who lost out to them on promotions, assignments or deals. While I think that succeeding in almost any field requires drive, determination and the ability to make tough decisions, it’s more likely that these qualities will be held against you in contexts that produce clear winners and losers.

I would argue that, while I have been successful in reaching a senior position in an international company, my path to this point has been very different from those of Abramson and Roizen. During my pharma career, I was able to maintain a strong atmosphere of collaboration when I shifted from research to management and consultation. Most likely, that is partly due to the specific context, as I wasn’t competing with my immediate colleagues for promotions, since I was essentially shifting focus. While I am perfectly happy to fight for my ideals, I also have a general preference for working collaboratively rather than competitively. Indeed, as I noted in my first TFT post, being a female technologist has allowed be to short-circuit some male-focused competitive dynamics and get straight down to business.

This is by no means a criticism of Abramson or Roizen. In some contexts, “getting down to business” is the same thing as competition, because you need to be the first to the story, first to close the deal, or the one to get the glittering promotion. Neither do I think that the unlikeability imputed to these women is entirely explained by their work situations or their own approaches to them. In Roizen’s case, the role of gender-specific values is very clear, because it has been scientifically tested. When the story of her career was attributed to either “Heidi” or “Howard” in a randomized experiment, respondents rated them as equally successful but only liked Howard.

My take is this: attitudes towards successful women are complex. Sometimes, as has been my experience in the tech sector, this has worked in my favor. For other women in other settings, their success has clearly been counted against them. The research implies that this might be the rule, rather than the exception. Nevertheless, this phenomenon is not universal, and it has generally been my experience that, when my gender has mattered professionally, it has often been an advantage. Considered as a whole, it seems that these observations result from a complex interaction of contexts, attitudes and individual approaches. I’m in a good position personally, and I like to think that things are getting better in general. I’ll admit, though, that perhaps this is happening faster in some areas than in others. Vive la technologie!

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