In celebration of International Women’s Day, EMC Canada hosted its second Women of Impact – Transforming the Face of IT meet up in Toronto last week with a panel featuring the stories of three women who have found success in the IT industry. Organized as a networker, the event was also designed to inspire young women looking to negotiate careers in IT through guidance and positive role reinforcement provided by three female achievers.
In his opening remarks to the crowded Tiff Bell Lightbox hall, EMC Canada managing director Michael Sharun identified the theme of the event as support for “redefining the workplace, and women’s place in it,” adding that though women make up half of the high school enrollment, they are not represented in the IT industry at that same level. The goal of the event, according to Sharun, was to promote networking to address this issue and to work to ensure that women are better represented within the company he represents – a laudable goal, given that women currently make up approximately 15 percent of the EMC workforce, a share that is slightly lower than the low averages for women’s participation in the ICT industry as a whole.
Asked to reflect on “what to be,” or what one should be to encourage career advancement, the three panelists offered highly personal biographical accounts of their own journeys as a vehicle for delivering career tips. Tracey Laurence, VP, IT managed services at Rogers Communications, pointed to family influences as the source of her appreciation for the value of “knowing and learning who you are and what you’re good at” and for the need to leverage skills and contracts. Lynn Lang, consumer products, retail and distribution leader for Canada at Capgemini drew on her former experiences with the startup community to share a “profound” realization: innovation is not about being inventive, rather it requires that one have a point of view, be collaborative and understand what it takes to mobilize people around a concept. A third perspective was offered by Patricia Florissi, VP & global CTO for sales at EMC, who interjected a light tone with her take on necessity, and how it can drive an individual to “become expert” in a subject, “be heard” and “be passionate” – in order that the best work is done, as per Henry Kissinger, who famously sent his aide back to the drawing board several times to revise a document and only when the aide declared he simple could not make it any better, decided to read it.
Well received by an appreciative audience, this sound advice speaks to the capability and career smarts of the individual speakers – and to the potential that women can achieve when the stars align. Patricia Florissi, for example, in the video interview which appears below, demonstrates her deep knowledge of state-of-the-art storage technologies, how they might be applied to address key IT trends such as Big Data analytics and how they might be adopted by different customer segments. But in some respects, the experience of the panelists is exceptional – at least it belies that of the majority of women in the industry. Today, a cult of celebrity is developing around the role of women in IT today, as the career success of stars such as IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty, HP’s CEO Meg Whitman, Xerox’s CEO Ursula Burns and CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer, etc. suggests, or at least is interpreted by those looking for a simple answer, that barriers to women’s participation in IT are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. In the real world, while female enrollment in STEM subjects and participation in ICT have declined considerably since a high point in the 1980s, many of the women who have dipped their toes are, as the author of an LA Times article put it, “leaving the tech industry in droves.” As support for this contention, author Tracey Lien cites a Harvard Business Review study from 2008 which “found that as many as 50 percent of women working in science, engineering and technology will, over time, leave because of hostile work environments,” characterized in part by a “hostile” male culture, a sense of isolation and lack of a clear career path. According to Lien, the 2014 update to the study found that women’s reasons for leaving the technology industry had not changed appreciably.
In light of this reality, the EMC panelists’ response to a question regarding limitations they may have experienced due to gender are telling – and indeed offer the best guidance to address what appeared at the event to be the elephant in the room: women’s experience is different and gender issues have not gone away. While Lang claimed no diversity challenge due to her sense of personal confidence and senior position in the industry, she noted that she is often the single woman in the board room and the “unfortunate circumstance that many women do feel alone in their gender.” Lang’s advice to these women is to just continue to do what they do, examining personal reasons for lack of confidence. Florissi, who, similarly experienced no barriers, attributed her personal drive to parental expectations which made clear that she needed a good profession, and other women’s difficulties to an exaggerated sense of self-awareness: Florissi is simply too busy to count whether she is the only woman at a meeting. However, she did acknowledge that other women may feel differently, and noted the need to build female numbers in IT: “if we don’t do that, we will only have women as outliers and exceptions because the women who don’t feel comfortable will not stay.” For her part, Laurence learned in childhood that there was nothing she couldn’t do or learn and never encountered career obstacles as a result of gender. On the other hand, she has encountered women who have experienced difficulties at the hand of a female supervisor, and enjoined women who have had this problem to focus elsewhere since eventually this type of individual “will either get on the bandwagon or become irrelevant.” Unique women indeed.