“Why aren’t there more womxn in tech?”
An often asked question, kicked to a group of panelists by Shervonne Cherry, director of community & partnerships at Spark Baltimore and coorganizer of the Baltimore Womxn in Tech group, as the opening icebreaker at last week’s event.
The question brought both a simultaneous set of laughs — those awkward half-sighs that reveal the exhaustion associated with the fact that this question is still unanswered, unheard, still necessary to open a panel with, and a series of serious answers.
With stats from a recent Thomson Reuters study that 30% of 450 technology executives surveyed stated that their groups had no women in leadership positions, Cherry pressed on, noting that each of the panelists had in some way climbed the corporate ladder, and had to do so on their own. Over the course of the discussion, each woman graciously recognized the help and support they were given along the way, but whether at a startup, in VC, or working in the government, recognized that it’s not just about there being a lack of women in tech roles, or the overall lack of equality in tech, but the fact that far more often than not, women never make it to the top. Exploring the reasons why, panelists advocated for attendees to take matters into their own hands.
We pulled together the top three ways to work your way up and build your professional tech career shared by the panelists at the October 16 event:
Build your tribe
When Lolita Taub was seeking a new position in a new city, she was able to activate connections she’d been building for years. Now the chief of staff at Otterbein-based workforce data science company Catalyte, she said that Twitter proved a powerful tool for networking. A friend saw her share that she was looking for a new role, connected her to the job posting, and one thing led to another. New role or not, nurturing your network doesn’t stop.
“Even now I am constantly meeting with one or two new people on a weekly basis,” she said. “I ask myself how can I be of service to and connect the people I am interested in myself.”
Even though six female leaders from her team at Federal Hill-based cybersecurity company ZeroFOX were in the audience, Jen Meyer remembers the isolation of being one of two women in a room of 50 early in her career. After this experience and realizing her lack of confidence, need for mentorship, and that sometimes you’ve just got to do things yourself, she rounded up 15 women and started an internal roundtable that was required monthly; members could only miss two sessions per year.
It was during these deep-dive downloads and the collective unpacking of tough questions that she realized the power of making the professional personal.
“You build these bonds and all of a sudden you have these people looking out for you,” she said.
Now the Vice President of Global Customer Operations at ZeroFOX, she encourages her team to do the same.
“Find the right people, find that tribe, find the people who are going to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. These are the people who are going to be there when you need it,” she said.
Show up even if you don’t feel qualified
Kenyatta Powers has been with the Maryland Department of Human Serivces for over 16 years, rising from working in a server center to executive level leadership.
“The way to show you are leadership material is by highlighting your problem solving initiative and ability,” she said.
From her experience, the biggest thing holding women back in tech fields is not applying for positions that they don’t think that they are qualified for. Early on, before her tech career started, she was a single mom, had been laid off, and went back to school to study information technology. She took a few bootcamp classes, and went on numerous interviews. Still searching, she applied for something she believed she had no chance of getting.
“I had no IT experience. I had nothing they wanted. And I got the job,” she said. “When things happen, sometimes they happen for a reason and they can make you take the jump. Sometimes life happens.”
Taking this risk on herself changed her life. She’s been the chief information officer there since 2011.
Be an activist
Early in her career, Saleema Vellani admits she was doing too much. She was a developmental economist, a social entrepreneur, and started a whole host of side hustles. Stretching thin, she burned out. And her house burned down. And her sister died. All in the same year.
With some serious soul-searching, she redesigned her life, found her focus, and has spent the last 12 years helping companies turn their people into innovative leaders. Now the cofounder and COO of Innovazing, she reminded the audience that your success starts with your relationship with you.
“You need to know who you are first — you need to be really comfortable and confident with who you are,” she said. “Be present and really actively listen. Being able to authentically connect with people starts with yourself.”
It doesn’t matter what phase of your career you are in, being an authentic, active listener, who is always thinking about what’s next and how you can give back, makes you an active participant in your career. It’s something admirable and hirable — and worth sharing.
“If you know about something or are an expert on something — write about it,” said Taub. “That way, when somebody asks you a question, maybe you’ve already written on it. Then instead of having that 30 minute call, say here’s this post. If you have more questions ask me.”
As someone who is often asked questions on her experience and is very willing to share her opinions, Taub encouraged the audience to share their knowledge, too.
“There’s so much intelligence in this room, it’s a shame if it stays in your head,” she said.
Meyer reminded the audience that ultimately they are in control of their story.
“There’s not one straight line. Things do happen for a reason,” she said. “Remember it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. You can always try something new.”
Great insights and advice from @BmoreWomenTech panel:
1/ Believe in yourself + your intuition
2/ Build your network + allies
3/ Connect with your community + look out for others
4/ Be resilient + own your path!@lolitataub @NoOrdnryCherry #BWiT #BaltimoreWomxnInTech pic.twitter.com/0cumCU0I6I
— michele cunningham (@michelecunning) October 16, 2019
Through these true stories and experiences, panelists put the hard reality out there, but believe that times are changing. Panelists shared the sentiment that while there is always hope that others —read: men at the top — will make changes from their position of power, the most valuable resource to drive change is each other.
In a room spanning generations from current college students to 20-year industry veterans, the collective that is Baltimore Womxn in Tech, shared how they are making change happen.
Alongside Cherry, Jessica Watson, CEO of Points North Studio and BWiT coorganizer, announced the update of the Baltimore Womxn in Tech group’s name, swapping the ‘e’ for an ‘x’ in ‘Womxn.’ Simple and clear, this is an example of adjustments to current practices that can be made to widen the doorways for more diverse groups of people. The Baltimore Womxn in Tech group has always been open to men, women, and allies of all kinds, but with this change explicitly welcomes women and female-identifying technologists. The change enables the group to continue setting the standard, “leading the cause to be more inclusive across the board,” said Watson.