There have been a striking number of articles about women in business and politics in the past six months or so: the lack of women on corporate boards, the successful use of quotas for women on boards in Europe, the low percentage of women in public life in Canada and the U.S., and the low percentage of women in engineering, computer science, and technology.
As a woman retired from a long career in computer science and management, I read these articles with interest, and with more than a little frustration. Some things have changed enormously since I started my own career, but so much has not changed. In the case of the number of women entering the information technology field, things have substantially regressed, despite excellent employment opportunities.
I was blessed in that, while working in a heavily male-oriented workplace, males took the time to mentor me. It never crossed my mind to do anything beyond what I was hired to do. And it was always on my mind that everyone else must know more than I do, because I knew how much I didn’t know. But from time to time, a colleague or a boss would ask me if I had ever considered thus and so. They encouraged me. They gave me advice. It made a difference.
I started working in 1967 and retired in 2010, with a few of the early years taken off when our kids were very small. We all have our own interests, our own set of strengths and weaknesses, our own hopes and dreams, our own paths, and our individual outcomes. But I firmly believe that the world can only be a better place if women — as well as men — are able to fulfill their potential. With that in mind, I’d like to share some lessons I’ve learned over many years.
1. Women need to learn to negotiate for their starting salary.
Earlier this month it was reported that the University of British Columbia would correct a confirmed inequity in the pay of their female professors versus male professors by increasing the salary of each and every female academic at UBC by 2%. Whether or not this was the best way to address the acknowledged discrepancy is open to debate, but the fact remains that a number of independent calculations made it clear that, on average, women were being paid less than their male counterparts regardless of rank, years of experience, or merit. This is not an unusual situation. Several studies have determined that women are less likely than men to negotiate their starting salary. I know that, for myself, it never crossed my mind to question a starting salary. After all, wasn’t it clearly set out on a grid? Well, it turns out that “the grid” doesn’t say that everyone has to start on the first rung. Go figure! When I moved into administration after many years in the trenches, the man I would be reporting to told me that I should be at a higher salary level than was the case and that I should ask him for a re-evaluation. Now that’s what I call mentoring. Subsequently, when I was doing the hiring, it was noticeable that young men would always push to start at the highest possible slot on the grid, which rarely happened with young women. Are men born knowing this??? It turns out that if you don’t ask, you won’t get.
2. Women need to find ways to increase their confidence level in the workplace.
A young (by my standards) male friend of mine, the father of a young daughter and son, recently shared something that he’d heard about differences between boys and girls, which he could recognize in his own kids: generally speaking, boys are low on risk assessment (risk takers) and high on confidence, while girls are high on assessing risk (risk adverse) and low on confidence. My experience suggests that in more cases than not this difference continues beyond childhood. Many women hesitate to try new opportunities that present themselves, including in the workplace, because it may not work out, may interfere with the needs of the rest of their family, or may be too hard. Without realizing it, we look for excuses not to take the risk of the unknown. Many young women decide not to enter engineering or computer science because they only have 80% in high school math, whereas most young men who consider engineering or computer science never stop to think that the 65-70% in their high school math may be a warning sign. Somewhere, there’s got to be a happy medium.
Women, you are good. You have what it takes. Tell yourselves this. Manage your expectation for yourself. Don’t put yourself in situations where you feel truly overwhelmed, stressed, and unhappy, but also don’t avoid possibilities that may have some stress from time to time but which would stretch you in good ways and allow you to make your mark, maybe by helping others. Take advantage of chances to attend professional development workshops; ask your boss to provide such opportunities. If you don’t try it, you’ll never know!
3. Women need to find their voice in having their opinions heard.
I’ve just finished my first pass at a fascinating book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. An interesting irony is that, although few people would suggest that women don’t hold their own in the world of talkers, this is not the case in the workplace, at least when the majority of people present are men. But just as the book Quiet reminds us that the extravert-majority world (in the West, not in Asia) benefits from stopping to listen to what our introvert minority has to contribute, the same holds for most women in the workplace, introverts and extraverts. At meetings, men dominate. I’m not sure that they all realize it, but they can come across as rude, condescending, patronizing, and sometimes off base in their thinking – to each other, not just to you. They’re not always right. Interestingly, I think many men don’t see the environment that way at all – after all, it’s been their environment for a long time – but it can seem that way to women before they’re used to it. Don’t take it personally. Turning this around may be a slow process in some places, but meanwhile, women, make the decision to step up to the plate and participate. Let them know what you think. If you have trouble getting a word in edgewise, keep trying. Slowly, you will be listened to. Before you know it, it will all seem natural, even exciting … hopefully even fun. Your opinion is at least as valuable as the next person and possibly more valuable. But it’s only valuable if it’s heard.
4. Women need to seek out mentors.
As I mentioned at the outset, I was very fortunate that people – men – took me under their wing. If that isn’t happening for you, seek it out. It can be a man or a woman. Find someone you admire and can feel comfortable with. You could ask him or her for advice on how to proceed with the next step in your career, for example. Look to see if your company or organization has a formal or informal mentoring program. Consider joining a networking group. Look for people and groups that are positive rather than negative; it’s easy for a group to spend most of their time complaining about what they don’t like in a workplace and this isn’t constructive. It definitely isn’t positive mentoring. Men seem to learn to network early through sports teams and other guy activities. We women need to work at finding ways to do the same, such as through volunteer work, community groups or professional associations. It is valuable to know people and be known. Who knows, your next opportunity might come from one of those networks.
5. Women need to accept that they can have it all (within reason), just not necessarily all at the same time.
The world seems to keep getting busier and busier, piling stress upon stress. Hopefully, before long we’ll figure out how we got to this point and fix it! This crazy world doesn’t make things easier for women’s career aspirations. But you would be doing yourself and the world a disservice to give up on your dreams, convincing yourself that the stress and disruption to family life just isn’t worth it. It may be that you have to put some things on hold for now. You may not be able to fit in additional training just yet, or be ready to move from part-time to full-time, move from operations to management, or start your own business. Maybe not now. But even if you can’t have it all right away, you can get started. You can make a plan. And share your plan with your partner if you have one; there is no greater support. Between the two of you, you may be able to make it work – in the longer term. I know. My husband encouraged me even when I wasn’t sure I wanted encouragement. And for that I am very grateful.