On Women in Technology (and Other Male-Dominated Fields)

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Last month Ramesh and I attended the “SQL Day Poland” conference in the beautiful city of Wroclaw. The conference also organized a “Women in Technology Panel” where I was invited to participate. The discussion was quite lively, touching many topics from work environment down to education and upbringing. I liked that the women almost exclusively shared from their personal experience and did not give theoretical lectures on the topic.

After our return the subject still remained very much in my mind and I was trying to distill one major female issue from the past 10 years I have worked in the IT field.

What was most prominent in my observation of male and female colleagues was the manner in which they would pursue the advancement of their respective careers. I have seen men shamelessly ask for training, promotions and bonuses, while women on the other hand, would think twice or thrice as to whether such demands had merit and would choose an ideal time to approach their managers if at all.

Twenty or thirty years ago it was still possible to work exclusively for one company life-long. People had plenty of time to make a name for themselves. Plenty of time to ponder when to ask for training, a raise in salary or promotion.
Nowadays people stay in one job for two or three years and then move on. Either within the same company if it is big enough (Microsoft, IBM, SAP…) or they move to a different employer altogether. The time to get the most out of our current employment is much shorter now than it used to be in the past, especially in the IT field.
This general acceleration forces us to pursue our goals more aggressively. The term commonly used is “proactivity”, to proactively shape our career and future.

Why is there such a gap in proactivity between men and women?

1. Women often lack awareness of the necessity for proactive behavior, especially when they were brought up conservatively.

2. The fear of rejection: Women (and shy men) might fear rejection. I can share from personal experience that a less attached attitude to the outcome of any proactive step will work to your advantage. Our careers never depend solely on one person. So, if we approach someone with a request and it is denied, we have only lost one option out of many. We can approach others or change our surroundings thereby allowing us access to a new path to reach our goal.

3. The concern of what others might think if we suddenly become proactive. That’s one of my favorite topics. A good friend of mine once said: “Worried about what others might think about you? Relax and don’t flatter yourself! Others are far more concerned about their unpaid bills and constantly nagging partners, about their children’s education and their own retirement plan. How much time do you think is left to think about YOU?” Well, usually not much (unless they’ve got a secret crush).

Joking aside, if I may sum it up: You can gain far more by “shamelessly” approaching people with your requests than you could lose. Looking back, I can say that 75% of my requests were fulfilled. Wherever I hesitated and waited for the other person to approach me the outcome was pretty much the opposite. With passive behavior I was only successful about 25% of the time.

Why not be proactive more frequently? It is fun to come out of one’s shell and make oneself heard! (If you are not quite sure how it feels to make yourself heard I’ll give you a few Flamenco lessons ;o)

Good luck to all of us!

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12 responses »

  1. I like your thoughts about proactivity. However, why did you say that especially women who were brought up in a conservative environment might not be aware of the necessity of proactivity? I was brought up in a conservative family but all of us girls are quite active and successful.

    • Irene, you are right, I meant “conservative” in a more narrow, oldfashioned way. It is true, your family is “conservative” in the sense that they have conservative values, but it is also a family with a long tradition of women at work, which makes them “modern”.

  2. In India I have seen the younger generation of both male and female are now more aggressive and aware. Hence their approach is quite different. They have set goals for themselves and hence they strive towards it and hence have to be aggressive and if they feel they are being sidelined or neglected they jump away.

    The old adage, “A bird in hand is better than two in the bush” is relevent in the job sectin very much in todays world where for one job hundreds of contenders are there. One of my neices dumped the job thinking her qualification is worth enough to get her any job anytime. Time proved her wrong.

    • I have observed the same about Indians. I think that since there are so many contenders the attitude is more proactive from the very beginning. I have learnt a lot from my husband in this regard as well.

  3. Carmen, you are right on the necessity of proactiveness, but I feel it is not enough. What especially irritates me is when I bring up an idea in a team meating and the reaction from others is not very enthusiastic. The following week a male colleague makes the same suggestion, words slightly changed but same thought, and everyone claps. That happened to me twice now.
    I am really wondering: What do I do wrong? I do come out of my shell, but still…

    • Gosia, I can totally understand your frustration, you speak and you are still not being heard. I guess it has to do with the group dynamics in your team. The two colleagues you mentioned most probably have more influence in your team than yourself. This is a complex issue and surely goes beyond the scope of this blog. There is a lot of literature on the topics of group dynamics and influence.

      • Do you really think you can solve these issues by reading books? All important stuff I have learnt I have learnt it from people.

      • I disagree here, Peter, I have learnt a lot of useful things from books as well. Not surprising, after all, books are written by people ;o)

  4. Carmen, I always find in your writing something to think about, something to smile about and some things to question. That to me is excellent writing, and beautifully shared. I am happy you began this blog. Thank you! I have found in my own experience, being proactive, or standing up for myself has at times been very challenging, in the work place certainly, and it also carries into personal relationships. Some would be surprised at that as they see me as a “strong” woman, who was raised by another “strong” single woman who always worked. It has much to do with our confidence in ourselves I believe, and getting to that point where, please pardon the expression, you just don’t give a shit what others think 🙂

    • Thank you for the wonderful compliment, dear Elizabeth. Yes, I, too, see you as a strong woman. Standing up for ourselves is naturally challenging, it needs some guts. On the other hand I see no real alternative for me, either. What could be the alternative? To live the life of an underdog? Not very appealing. To kiss up to others? I’m too proud for that, honestly. Nothing left but the outspoken way of life.

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