A Woman in A Man's World

It’s a man’s world, sang James Brown, one of the greatest ever recording artists and a relevant person to quote given I work in the music industry. So when I was asked to be the chair of the opening day of the European Women in Technology Conference in Amsterdam earlier this month, it seemed an appropriate moment to question why, deep into the 21st century, we still seem to be living in the male-dominated world that James Brown sang about back in 1966.

A Woman in A Mans World

First let me explain a little about myself and why this is important to me. I am not a man; I am a woman, I am 41 and I have worked in the communications industry for 17 years. And, while I have experience across many brands, by pure luck and coincidence, I’ve found myself working in technology – an industry dominated by men. My current gig is at Deezer, one of the world’s largest music streaming companies, where I am lucky to work for a brand that I love, in an industry that I love.

To be frank, I’ve worked hard to get where I am and I am proud to be a senior woman in this so-called man’s world. But my progression hasn’t come without challenges, not least that big fat one called the ‘gender bias’. Time and again I’ve come up against that glass ceiling; the ceiling that has come in many forms. It has come in the form of men-only meetings where, when I ask a question I either get ignored or the answer is addressed to the man sat next to me. It has come in the form of boys’ clubs where you need to be able to play golf or poker (which incidentally I can) or talk about stuff that women are not expected to understand, such as the offside rule (I don’t actually get that one but plenty of my female friends and colleagues do). It has come in the form of being paid less than my male counterparts. It has even come in the form of that awful ‘when are you going to have a baby and cost me money’ look that you so often get from male bosses. And the list goes on…

Despite days of wondering why on earth I am striving for the seemingly impossible and why I don’t just quit my job and open a bar in the Caribbean, I’ve generally not let that glass ceiling hold me back. Probably because I am very opinionated, which has only gotten worse with age. Probably because I don’t believe that, just because I’m female, I can’t reach the same dizzy heights that men in their careers can, and do. In fact, in many instances I believe that I can achieve much more. Probably because I’m emotional and I embrace this. Importantly though, not all women are emotional. Furthermore, some men (shock, horror) are emotional and finally, being emotional does not necessarily mean being irrational. In fact, emotional intelligence has a positive impact on the workplace.

Nevertheless, we still need to understand that the perception of ‘being emotional’ can and does cause women problems in business. What else? I don’t back down easily; once I have an idea in my head I’m like a dog with a bone and (given my already explained emotional sense of being) this can sometimes be a very angry dog. I spend a lot of time listening and observing the way other people act, which is why at times I adopt the behaviours – not the beliefs (and this is an important distinction) – of men. This is especially true if this means I can progress at a faster pace and be accepted as an equal. Most of all, though, I spend every day living in fear that I won’t achieve my goals in life, which I am convinced is what pushes me even harder.

So 17 years later here I am, doing well, working hard, almost at the top of my game and still believing that I can and will rule the world. But I am in a minority. Which to me seems crazy! I mean with a global population of 7.5 billion and with more than half of those women, why is this world still predominantly run by men? Common sense and empirical research have shown that companies with mixed senior management teams are far more successful than single-gender boards. The McKinsey Diversity Matters Report in 2016, for instance, revealed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. And that greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in their entire data set: for every 10% increase in gender diversity, earnings rose by 3.5%.

So given this, why is it that women are still not equal? And why, while this is a problem in multiple industries, is the lack of gender diversity particularly prevalent in technology?

Before I stood on stage at the European Women in Technology Conference and presented to 700 interested and talented females, all of whom feel passionately about women in technology, I did some research into the gender gap. Basically, I wanted some real time information regarding how bad the situation really is. I also felt that it was timely to be focusing on this issue and learning more about it, given the current news frenzy regarding harassment in the workplace and the many public cases where people have been called out for mistreating female colleagues in one capacity or another.

To say that I was shocked at what I found, and at how little things have moved on in the last 20 years when I was at school and they recommended that I took cookery as one of my major subjects, (I didn’t, I still can’t cook and most famous chefs seem to be men anyway) is an understatement. That in our seemingly progressive world women still only hold 5% of CEO jobs (Source: S&P 500 list). That 56% of women leave their jobs at the peak of their career – twice the quitting rate of men - and that 30% of tech executives have no women in leadership positions at all (Source: Reuters). This is absolutely bonkers.

This was substantiated by other senior women speakers who joined me at the conference and who, after spending years championing diversity, outlined some worrying statistics. ‘If we continue as we are we won’t reach the 50/50 gender balance for another 35 years’ (Pascale Thorre, Nokia). That’s like going back to when commercial CDs were first launched or when Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger was at number one. ‘Women only hold 10% of positions in cybersecurity, despite there not being enough people to plug the employment gap in this industry’ (Yan Huang, Synopsys). This seems unbelievable given that, by 2021, cyber-crime will have more than tripled the number of unfilled cybersecurity positions putting us all at risk.

I had to question why this is and, so again, I looked at some theories regarding the disparity when it comes to men and women reaching the top in business.

Subjects and insights that came up time and time again included women feeling that they are overlooked when promotional opportunities arise because they are not male. That the impact of wanting to or having a family prevents them from attaining greater seniority in their careers, or from wanting to attain it, as they believe that their family is more important. That there is not enough support in business for women to be able to have children and still have a big career.

Personally I worked through my maternity leave despite having a female boss who fully supported me and who actually said that having a child would make me a more rounded individual (which it did, both mentally and physically). Yet still I felt uncomfortable taking that time out. Other people called out the geek workplace culture that puts women off: the boys’ clubs; the ‘brogrammers’. Ironic given that Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper were both female pioneers in computer programming. That men are more confident when it comes to asking for pay rises and promotions or that they are at least perceived to be more confident. As I said, so many reasons.

So what conclusions did I draw? Predominantly, that it is a combination of one or all of the above that has created that environment where 56% of women quit at the peak of their career. And that this problem is very real and that, more positively, people are starting to recognize this. That some companies are actively driving forward diversity and inclusion programmes as they understand that they will better benefit their business and their employees. Adidas, Shell, Microsoft to name but a few.

What also became clear is that, contrary to perhaps popular belief, gender equality is not a ‘women’s issue’. It is something that impacts us all – politically, economically and socially. And so it requires all of us to make that change. And to make it quickly. I don’t want to be telling my daughter in 10 years’ time that she will have to wait another 25 years before she is considered equal. And I also don’t want to be telling her that ‘It’s a Man’s World’. I would far rather be saying we’re ‘All Together Now’.