March 31, 2017
This week, Charleston Women in Tech, a meetup style group, organized a panel to discuss the male’s perspective of women in tech. The panel consisted of men in leadership positions within tech-focused organizations. At first glance, the panel sounded like the event was designed to be a firing squad, an April Fools Day joke, or even a good reason to get a jumbo sized popcorn. Ultimately, it was about extending an olive branch to local tech leaders in hopes of seeding real change. To give you a few spoilers, nobody said anything outlandish or outright offensive.
Prior to the event there were murmurings and jokes about the panel’s topic such as “we always hear their opinion, why have a panel?” but it quickly became evident that there were other goals for the evening.
To kick things off, Carolyn Finch, the founder of Charleston Women in Tech, set the tone for the panel. For as much as there was a panel of white men in leadership roles in front of a room primarily consisting of women, the audience was encouraged to share their perspectives with the panelists in a candid forum. More than asking questions, it was an opportunity for the women in Charleston’s tech community to voice their concerns and hear how local organizations are tackling issues tied to diversity. But more importantly, the panel was designed to bring attention to relevant issues.
It takes “one little change, one little effort,” said Finch, as she highlighted the importance of the conversation at hand. The general sentiment among the panel was that of genuine care and respect for not just the women in the room, but their peers, colleagues, and in some cases superiors of the past and present. However, as the questions began to roll, the sentiment moved from caring and respect to a mix of being overtly careful and at times slightly oblivious.
You can see a good portion of this panel in a poorly recorded Facebook Live video. The panel consisted of leaders from fairly large or otherwise well established organizations:
- Fred Robinson, Chief Architect of Benefitfocus
- John Mistretta, Exec. VP of HR of Blackbaud
- Marc Murphy, CEO of Atlatl
- Chris Rickborn, COO of BoomTown
- Chad Norman, Chief Marketing Officer of Catch Talent
- Don Taylor, CTO of Boxcar Central
Initially the panel was given a few softball questions: Who is a woman you respect or that inspires you? Why is it important to have women in board or leadership positions? But somewhere between asking if the panelists felt men in tech realized there are gender disparity issues or if discrimination is occurring in the industry, mixed responses started to come out. Some panelists danced around the questions or answered side questions, but two in particular jumped right in. Both Murphy and Rickerborn pointed out that whether gender disparity concerns are realized or not, they do occur.
“I never really witnessed discrimination on what I would call an intentional basis… but I’d say it can happen unintentional,” said Murphy.
He went on to provide an example of how women on a team may be at a disadvantage or feel left out of conversations if the team meets outside of work for an activity like a basketball game or a round of golf.
Unconscious bias is a very real thing, and one of the more prevalent issues tied to it comes down to something as simple as a basic conversation or meeting. Call it mansplaining, ignorance, or micro-aggressions, but women often find themselves being talked over or talked at rather than included.
BoomTown COO Rickerborn suggested that these kinds of situations need to be addressed, but more importantly to bring it to the attention of those who will listen and help make changes.
“If someone came to me and said this is what I am experiencing… you can’t let it exist. You have to pursue it.”
Rickerborn went on to say that you can’t let these types of dynamics go on or they can become part of an organization’s culture.
Blackbaud’s VP of HR, John Mistretta, mirrored Rickerborn’s solution, stating a person should bring this to the attention of mentors, sponsors, or stakeholders within the organization. “Don’t let it continue. Go find someone. If inappropriate, there is someone there to help,” said Mistretta.
Celebrate Today, The Norm Tomorrow
Of the questions asked, a common theme among several panelists was regarding leadership and how someone can climb the ranks within an organization. Atlatl’s Murphy tackled the issue and painted a picture of what should become the norm in the future:
Murphy went on to discuss that after the promotion, the team realized that this was their first female tech lead, which at first surprised them.
“The fact that we were surprised proves the point of why we are here. Later we turned to it, celebrated it, and made sure people knew that she is a leader in our organization. That gives everyone else in the organization a pathway to get there… There may be a time when we don’t need to celebrate it, but until then it helps the younger females coming in to know there is a path to get there,” said Murphy.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, America is in need of more professionals in STEM related fields, one million more than it’s currently set to produce. This comes at a time where the tech industry also faces issues hiring and promoting both women and minorities, which means both of these groups do not need to deal with organizational cultures that do not meet their expectations.
Early on in the discussion, each panelist highlighted how policies are a starting point to ensure an ideal work environment for women in tech, such has having sufficient leave for maternity. These in demand professionals don’t just look at salary, commonly similar amongst job levels, so they then look to benefits and organizational culture. For the companies that do not cater to a balanced playing field, the panel said to look elsewhere.
How Charleston Tech Is Creating Pathways for Women
Conversations and panels are great, but the real work and progress is happening within the organizations that were represented at the meetup. To get more women in tech there were several solutions being offered. From policy changes to placing women in leadership roles, each panelist discussed how they had different initiatives to create a more diverse workforce.
Blackbaud has Camp Blackbaud, other organizations have internal conferences to discuss these issues head on, and others have mentor programs. Fred Robinson, Chief Architect at Benefitfocus, also put an emphasis on education and pursuing what you want.
“Learn every day. Apply yourself. Work hard, and be aggressive. Women are very strong in our organization. Ask me how, or to mentor you, to get you there, or to be heard. Don’t sit back and be quiet,” said Robinson.
Each panelist agreed that exposure to the tech field at a younger age is also important, as is setting a foundation for respect.
“We have a huge responsibility that we teach our children respect. It’s a basic premise,” said Don Taylor, CTO of Boxcar Central.
Rickerborn added that by building good leaders and having a diverse team, hopefully exclusions based on gender, race, or otherwise will be less likely. And for those organizations not creating paths? Taylor suggests looking elsewhere, because opportunities are out there.
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