Obviously, I knew when I wrote my blog post ‘Thoughts on women in leadership – Part I’ that there was more to the story. That’s why I included “Part I” in the title! But I have to admit that I couldn’t have foretold the event that occurred in Canada last week that propelled me to dive into Part II. I’m afraid I’ve discovered more red flags than sage advice this past week in navigating the rough terrain of standing your ground as a woman – at least in the worlds of politics and technology. Hopefully, when I’m ready to tackle Part III I’ll find more encouraging supporting materials. Here’s hoping. We need nurturing, empowering environments in which our most capable women – and men – can thrive and find success in leadership roles. The examples I have been reading about this past week do not fit that definition.
Those readers who live in Canada will know what I am referring to: the resignation of MP Jody Wilson-Raybould from Trudeau’s Cabinet. They will also know that Jody Wilson-Raybould was widely regarded as a smart, capable Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and then moved to Minister of Veterans Affairs in a recent Cabinet shuffle. They will know that Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first indigenous Minister of Justice, brought passion, determination, and solid experience as a prosecutor and as a First Nations’ leader to the position.
Since we don’t have the facts and undoubtedly won’t for some time (although it is interesting that Gerald Butts resigned from the PMO as I started writing this), I’ll leave a discussion of possible government interference, possible role of PMO advisors in overseeing policy and “suggestions” to lawmakers to others. Politics is a complicated, ugly business and we never seem to know the half of it. However, some of the throw-away comments used as various members of government tried to defend the government’s reputation against whatever untoward action or lack thereof might have caused a highly regarded female indigenous cabinet minister to resign give plenty of fodder for a discussion on women in leadership.
The first thing that caught my eye were quotes describing Wilson-Raybould as “difficult” and “sort of in it for herself”. Then there was the rehashing of the explanation that it wasn’t so difficult to get women to run for political office as opposed to keeping them there; it was too nasty and negative for them. These lines put me in mind of having been told not so long ago, in a non-threatening but clearly surprised (male) voice that, “You really say what you’re thinking, don’t you.” Isn’t that what we’re there for when we’re in leadership positions, to provide our very best opinions and advice? Or is it just the alpha males who are supposed to do that? It seems to me it’s too often a no-win situation for women in these positions. Act “like a man” and you’re disparaged for being ‘difficult’ or ‘bossy’; act in a way more in keeping with expectations – deferential, meek and mild – and your views are not heard or dismissed.
I love the twitter defense of Jody Wilson-Raybould given by Wilson-Raybould’s fellow female Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes: “As someone on the inside, who knows Jody, I can tell you that she is fierce, smart, and unapologetic. When women speak up and out, they are always going to be labelled. Go ahead. Label away. We are not going anywhere.”
Maybe we’re not going anywhere in politics, if MP Caesar-Chavannes is correct, but according to a long-read article in the New York Times last week called “The Secret History of Women in Coding”, we’ve practically disappeared from the world of programming and technology – my world – and the article points that unacceptable fact squarely at the feet of sexism.
This comprehensive look at the history of women in computing traces the changes from the early days, when women were very much a part of coding, programming, and developments in the new computing technology (my era), to the 1980s and beyond, when women have become increasingly marginalized. In my neck of the woods we tend to see this concerning decrease in female participation as a continuation of the days when teenage boys learned BASIC in order to program their Commodore-64s and became immersed in computing while still in high school. When they hit university they gravitated to computer science, changing that discipline’s dynamic, culture and level of attraction for young women. We work hard to try to overcome these misperceptions. But this review in the New York Times paints a far more overtly and damaging sexist environment than I have ever experienced. I just hope that the young women in computer science at my university don’t share the upsetting experiences portrayed.
From a 1983 study involving MIT students:
“Women who raised their hands in class were often ignored by professors and talked over by other students. They would be told they weren’t aggressive enough; if they challenged other students or contradicted them, they heard comments like, “You sure are bitchy today – must be your period.” Locker room behaviour (an expression I hope isn’t really true of typical locker room behaviour!) in an MIT computer science classroom; I weep.
Similar experiences were reported by women working in IT in corporate America. The expectations that women can’t be promoted because they can’t manage men, that they wouldn’t be able to work late, or that they just don’t fit in just don’t die. And, of course, as is always the case, when people can choose who they want to hire or promote from within a group, they most often choose the ones they are most comfortable with, those who share similar experiences and similar mindsets. And so the cycle of hiring from the same cookie cutter and accompanying lack of diversity continues.
Two other concerning points stood out for me in this history of women in computing related to hiring and promotion challenges.
“In 2014, a study found that in corporate performance reviews women were considerably more likely than men to receive reviews with negative feedback; men were far more likely to get reviews that had only constructive feedback, with no negative material.”
And, “In a 2016 experiment conducted by the tech recruiting firm Speak With a Geek, 5000 resumes with identical information were submitted to firms. When identifying details were removed from the resumes, 54% of the women received interview offers; when gendered names and other biographical information were given, only 5% of them did.”
How do women – and society as a whole – not despair when the industry that we increasingly rely on for every aspect of our lives remains that discriminatory against women, a full half of the population and with important differences in perspective to bring to design and project management in the world of technology? We can ask the same question for welcoming more well qualified and competent women into management and leadership roles in every sphere.
A recent interview in the Globe and Mail (“Indigenous Academic Affairs executive and medical officer Dr. Marcia Anderson on reclaiming her own identity”), which I highly recommend reading, explores the challenges of racism rather than sexism, but I thought the advice the young indigenous female medical doctor left the readers with is very appropriate for both audiences:
“The best piece of advice I got was to own my own space. Take up your space. You have to know who you are. You have to have an idea of where you want to go, but you have to believe that you’re entitled to the space you’re in now and where you want to go. So take up that space and don’t make yourself small for everyone.”
I hope every woman, regardless of the path you are on and the aspirations you have for yourself, will take that advice to heart.