Shifting Seats

November is that time of year when I am involved in a fantastic event in Pittsburgh called Red Chair.


It is not a Pittsburgh-only event; it’s an event held in many locations around the country for women in technical fields, STEM fields, and it should be much more active than it is, but it’s a grassroots thing, and it’s taking hold. It takes time to build, it takes momentum and it takes money and dedication, but it’ll get there. The idea is big, and hopefully it will grow. But we struggle. The question is, why ?

There are plenty of smart women, talented women, out there, and the numbers of us are growing, and we are not as timid as we were a generation ago, so that’s all good news. But according to a 2016 survey of 263 tech firms, 18% of those companies said their offices were 25% or less female, and 2% had no women at all ( 2016). Perhaps of the greatest concern in all this is that, according to Fortune Magazine, although “the majority of tech execs in London realize that their firms don’t have a diverse workforce…a full 46% of them don’t think increasing diversity would improve their company’s growth” (Fortune, 2016).

There have been plenty of articles written about this, and lots of research in the field, and yet we still lag behind. I’m no expert, but that won’t prevent me from trying one more time (one hundred more times) from weighing in, from passing along the knowledge of others to try to keep the conversation going. Because keeping the conversation going is the crux of the movement, ladies.

A September, 2013 piece in the Harvard Business Review noted that many CEO’s make gender diversity a priority, choosing to insist on placing women in top positions, trying to guide women to senior positions. That was three years ago, so you would think we’d have seen some results, right? Well, part of the problem with those leaders’ approaches, we’ve found, is that they “don’t address the often fragile process of coming to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader” (Ibarra, 2013). There is a tendency to inadvertently undermine a woman’s trajectory toward leadership when advising her to actively seek a role for which she feels mismatched. According to that same article, “the context must support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood that others will recognize and encourage her efforts.” What this means is that the surrounding employees have to see her as a leader, too. That is not always the case.

how-women-leadWomen who are encouraged to be leaders have to internalize that role and believe that they can be that role. Leadership is an identity, not just a title. Part of what stymies women in escalating toward these roles is the “human tendency to gravitate to people like oneself,” in which case women are lacking in examples of other powerful women (Ibarra, 2013).

The Red Chair event is not just about women in technology, or I wouldn’t have written the last two paragraphs about leadership. Women leaders encourage growth in female staffers. Perhaps they do so no better than their male colleagues, but perhaps they do. The jury’s out, because we lack a breadth of examples, it would seem.

The problem is “that business execs still don’t understand the benefits of having a diverse workforce” (Fortune, 2016). Many organizational structures are, quite simply, designed to fit the lives of men more than they are the lives of women. Consider it – climbing up the career ladder sometimes assumes mobility of place, leadershipwhich then assumes the “trailing spouse” (wife) who can pack up and move along with the new job offer. A wife who has no career can easily pack up with the kids and relocate with little trouble to follow the new promotion opportunity. This work-value is much more difficult if the “trailing spouse” is a man with a career trajectory similar to that of his wife.

These practices did not set out to stifle women, but nevertheless they do. Women tend to steer clear of jobs, opportunities, and even promotions that might require those types of challenges. We even steer clear of those lines of work completely. And gender-biased hiring managers who do not intend to be gender-biased may consider whether a woman will have the mobility or willingness to pursue the opportunities that a job could offer, both in hiring and promotion.

It’s not so clear, and yet it’s all too apparent.

The weird offshoot of this is that the women who DO succeed end up being the exceptions, not the rule.

At Red Chair, I was surrounded by women who moved across the country, their husbands either followed or they had no husbands. They were either supported or they were alone. Either way, they were touted as exceptional. Why not the norm? There were successful men there who were just…successful. There were women who had “executive presence,” as though this was a characteristic that is unusual. Why so? Many of the men stood tall in their business suits, commanding a certain executive presence merely by being in the room, holding a beer.

Fortunately, the keynote speaker, Lenore Blum,truly is a remarkable woman who deserves to be set apart from the rest. Her accomplishments in the field of mathematics are noteworthy by any standard. She teaches at my alma mater and I admire her work on many levels in the technological field. Many women could look to her and be in awe.

But all of the women in the room were successful, and we need to pull many others in to the room with us, every day, day in and day out, to sit with us in the red chairs, technological and otherwise. We must show our male colleagues and our female colleagues that careers from technical writing to product development are as open to us as anyone, and that our presence in the field improves the field overall. That second-generation bias is present, and unfortunate, but present.

Consider which person in your sphere could use a hand. See if you are the hand she needs.





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