Modern Workplace

Challenging generations-old beliefs key to advancing women in technology

Oct 11, 2021

On Wednesday, October 6, 2021, Zscaler hosted the Women in IT Executive Conference​​ – EMEA, inviting a group of women IT executives to share their experiences and insights around transformative empowerment.

The importance of creating diverse work environments

In her opening keynote, Michelle King, academic researcher and former Chief Diversity Officer at Netflix explained the importance of creating an inclusive and diverse environment at work where everyone feels psychologically safe to be themselves. “We need to create an environment where people don’t feel the need to hide aspects of their identity. You deserve a workplace that values you just as you are. Your identity shouldn’t have to be a barrier to overcome,” said King. 

The benefits of inclusivity are numerous and well supported. For example, research shows that the most diverse companies outperform their less diverse peers when it comes to innovation, problem-solving, and increased agility. She pointed out that there are direct relationships between higher rates of diversity and profitability: “We know inclusion and diversity is good for business.” 

Addressing the root cause of the problem

Workplaces were not designed for diversity. The first management theories were put in place in the 1950s when workplaces set the blueprint or prototype for how companies should function. It was in a transactional, hierarchical structure, with separation between managers and employees. A good leader was someone who was dominant, aggressive, assertive, and exclusionary in order to maintain power and tradition. This model set the standard of what “good” looked like for years, not only for the leaders but for the employees as well, who emulated the leaders. As King pointed out, “We lack understanding of the problem we are trying to solve for.”

Research finds that 90% to 95% of organizations still operate in this outdated model, or “success prototype.” Regardless of how many corporate policies are in place to shift the model, if the shared perception is that to be seen as competent, you have to engage in these behaviors, that’s going to create inequality for others. The more you as an individual differ from the standard—in terms of your demographic characteristics and the behaviors you engage in—the more barriers you will encounter as you try to advance in a workplace that systematically devalues difference and defines “standard” as white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, and male. 

What “good” looks like for women in this old-fashioned model is meek, mild, unassuming, caring, democratic, and maternal. These gender standards are associated with likeability. This puts women in a role-conflict position, where they have to decide between being seen as competent or being seen as likable. For minority women, the conflict is even greater, because they will be triggering both gender and race stereotypes. 

Given all this, it’s easy to assume that men who adhere to the “standard” are benefited, but the truth is, it is not without its cost. The standard handcuffs men to conform to a 1950s leadership style that doesn’t serve them today and that increasingly won’t serve them in the future. They are expected to align themselves with a narrow definition of masculinity, and this can lead to high rates of depression and mental health issues. 

Privilege the unprivileged 

Privilege can be defined as the absence of barriers to one’s advancement. The ways one might be privileged include race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, education, immigrant status, physical ability, mental ability, age, and physical appearance or body size. The closer you fit into the standard by default, the more privilege you have. The question is, how do you leverage your privilege to advance others who are less privileged?

There are four keys ways that we can tackle workplace inequality:
1. Policies: Adding in a flexible work or maternity leave policy, for example.
2. Process: Making the policies around hiring, development, reward, and promotion more equitable.
3. Personal beliefs: This is where inequality really lives, in our shared beliefs about what “good” looks like—and it shows up in the practices and behaviors we engage in every day.
4. Acknowledging inequality: One of the biggest barriers is a denial of differences and diverse lived experiences.

The future of leadership

The capabilities that will be needed most, according to studies done at the United Nations, are the types of capabilities that women typically bring, such as adapting to change, managing ambiguity, maintaining resilience, and demonstrating emotional intelligence. The capabilities that men bring—taking risks, demonstrating courage, and managing the social and political aspects of work—will be relatively less important in tackling the challenges that we know are coming our way such as diversification of customers, diversification of talent, technological advancements, and changing jobs. The World Economic Forum says that up to 60% of jobs are going to change in the next three to five years due to technological advances. Leaders need the freedom to display whatever behaviors they require to be effective.

What we can do

Change starts with awareness. It’s critical to learn about the barriers people face and the common lived experiences of inequality. This means listening to podcasts and reading relevant books so as to develop the awareness and understanding to take the right action when it matters most. We all have a role to play in creating an environment that values difference. 

Avoiding roadblocks on the path to success

The second speaker of the day was Hanna Hennig, who led Siemen’s digital transformation journey. She shared some of the keys to her success early in her career. She intentionally aimed for jobs that others perhaps did not want or overlooked. Her motivation was her passion for the potential of technology to improve people’s lives. Although she didn’t fit into the “standard” on many factors due to gender, immigration status, and physical height, nevertheless her experience was not replete with barriers. She created opportunities of her own. Hennig said, “Look out for things where you can excel, show your potential, where you can show results quickly. I was intrigued by turning things around."

Tips on leading a team through transformation

Hennig shared how she empowers a team. First, help the people buy into the why behind a proposed change. Then comes the what. And lastly comes the how. Without understanding the why, there is no sense of urgency for a transformation journey. Then the what and how are about setting clearly defined goals, methodology, and outcomes. 

When it comes to business outcomes, she sees the hierarchy of priorities to be first about making the customer successful, secondly the company, and lastly oneself. If we make the customer and each other successful, she affirms, “then we are successful.” 

In her role leading the move to the cloud at Siemens, she saw a great deal of resistance to change. People were fearful and uncomfortable. But there was a need for the flexibility, speed, and cost reduction that the cloud would provide the company. Hennig brought together a team of young people who were less risk-averse and who were fascinated with the technology and understood its benefits. She then invited non-resistant, experienced colleagues into the process to bring their expertise into the transformation. The outcome was beyond expectation, with 50% to 60% of the infrastructure migrated to the cloud in just one year.

Breaking down barriers on the way to the boardroom

The third session of the day was a panel moderated by Andy Brown, CEO of Sand Hill East. The panel included Zscaler board member Joyce Brocaglia, founder of Alta Associates executive search firm specializing in cybersecurity and founder of the Executive Women’s Forum dedicated to engaging and advancing women leaders in that field. Also participating was Eileen Naughton, former president of Time magazine and, more recently, Google executive who participated in the acquisition of YouTube and helped create the business model. Naughton now sits on the board at Zscaler. The panel discussed what is involved in the role of being a board member and the important difference between mentoring and sponsorship.

Brocaglia highlighted the value of providing a safe space for women to get together and gain strength from each other. She pointed out that there are many opportunities to develop boardroom experience in smaller organizations, non-profits, and advisory boards. “It's the foundational stepping stone that might lead you eventually to that corporate board.” 

When serving on a board, panelists stressed that you should be mindful that it is a very serious commitment. You have a fiduciary duty. You must prepare, show up, and commit your time, energy, and experience to help a company grow and prosper. People often don’t recognize the time commitment involved. There is a duty of care, loyalty, and trust that are essential. We may like the idea of being on a board, but it’s important to understand up front that there are serious legal liabilities and exposure involved. 

If serving on a board one day is one of your goals, start thinking ahead about the actions you’ll need to take to achieve that goal. By planning this roadmap early in your career, you have the chance to course-correct. You can think about the gaps—whether in skillsets, relationships, or knowledge of the company or industry—that you would need to fill in order to gain that first board seat. 

Mentoring versus sponsorship

When asked about the importance of relationship-building to one’s career, Naughton said, "Frankly I think it’s everything." She continued: “Mentoring and sponsorship are two different things. Typically, a sponsor is someone in a position of influence who can vouch for your competency behind the scenes, perhaps taking a risk on you, because they believe in you. These can be some of the highest growth experiences. They may not be on your presumptive three-to-five-year growth path, but by being open to them, you can gain a much broader perspective than by staying on a narrow specialist path for years and years.”

Brown added that he looks for the candidates with the winding road path, because “The winding road has more experience.”

Brocaglia shared that all of her success has been based on relationships: “It’s like a muscle. The more you do it, the stronger you get at it.” She noted that for a lot of people, it doesn’t come naturally, but it’s important to get comfortable with not just seeking out relationships, but nurturing them. Building your brand and reputation as a leader in the industry and having a network makes all the difference.

What and who is next?

In closing, Naughton shared a gem of wisdom in her experience transitioning from an older industry—magazine publishing—to a new one. Her career progression blinded her to the profound change happening in the industry and that she should have moved to the newer media years earlier. She suggests asking yourself, “What are the disruptive forces [in your industry]? Could you transfer the experiences you have had in your current industry into the next industry that is poised for growth? Managing growth is a lot more fun than managing decline.”

Her advice for developing diverse talent in the technology space is to identify the top female talent and really encourage them to move faster, giving them new roles to get more seniority and the opportunity to show their capabilities. "When you have equivalent talent, take a bet on the more diverse talent, because otherwise, you’ll never find your teams diverse. It requires a really conscious effort and commitment, from the very top to six layers down of management."

Managing digital transformation through a pandemic

Petek Ergul, global head of telecommunication services with HSBC, shared her enthusiasm for the exciting times we’re in, looking at the sheer amount of transformation happening and the growth it offers. She sees a future work environment that enables more and more autonomy. She is currently spending a lot of time on the goal of moving towards a more inclusive and diverse culture because she believes diverse teams are smarter. By distributing leadership across the organization, people can make the right decisions. She sees culture as a key innovating factor. 

The pandemic forced her organization to accelerate its digital transformation journey. They had to quickly enable remote work, which entailed making significant investments in remote access VPN firewalls and infrastructure. She points out the importance of moving away from legacy architecture which will become a disadvantage to innovation and growth. She leans on more SaaS-based collaboration tools to enable faster time to market. The pandemic helped her team move with a decisive mindset and fostered better productivity. 

The world needs women leaders

The last speaker of the day was Biljana Kaitovic, CIO of Shell Chemicals and Products. She shared how her upbringing in a war-torn country shaped her into the person she is today. She was able to find the silver lining because it taught her to be brave and make bold moves. In her 12 years at Shell, she has held 11 different roles, which keeps her feeling challenged, interested, and motivated. About 50% of her roles resulted from being “sponsored” versus seeking them out herself. She found that by staying open to taking on new opportunities that were not part of her plan, she could grow quickly, widen her network, and learn a lot more. 

Kaitovic has noticed that in her teams, the men tend to be braver about taking on roles they are not 100% ready for. Women are more likely to decline. Or, if they do take on the role, they suffer from impostor syndrome. She says it is important to raise awareness of these issues. If she believes in women candidates, she points out, they should believe in themselves as well. “Don’t self-select out of something,” she says, “Throw your hat in the ring. We are living in unparalleled moments, with more companies recognizing they need women to lead because they have soft skills, even in highly technical areas where they may not have the technical skills, companies need women to lead.”

When asked, “What would you have said to your younger self?” Kaitovic answered, “Invest in learning, continuous education, be brave and follow your heart, and things usually turn out well if you follow your gut. Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” 

Watch the event on-demand

Read the takeaways from the inaugural event (Americas)