Balance can be a tricky thing. So too is responsibility. Increasingly, there is a certain pressure on women in business to bare your soul, to let everyone know your tools and tricks, to send the elevator back down, send it back up and magically orbit it around in circles. Like that will fix it. It won’t.
Don’t get me wrong, there is huge value in these stories: because we can learn valuable lessons from women who have been there and done that. We should never underestimate the power of female role models. But in my view, it is only one part of the solution.
At our it@cork Women in Tech lunch before summer, Aisling Keegan, Vice President and General Manager at Dell EMC took the brave step of telling her honest story, warts and all. It was incredibly powerful. She gave a wonderful piece of advice that we shouldn’t be afraid to “open our kimonos” and be “our authentic selves”.
I have reflected on that since. For me it means that sometimes we have to bring our whole self to the table. Otherwise how do we achieve? How do we truly empathise? How do we lead if we hide a piece of ourselves away? Up until about 5 years ago, I think my kimono was well and truly closed! There was “corporate” Caroline and “private” Caroline and they rarely met, I am not sure they even recognised each other sometimes. It was only in recent years when my voluntary interests ramped up that I recognised the value of bringing your whole self to the table. It tapped into a different side of my being. I was involved in so much, professionally and personally, that my capabilities were being stretched and I needed that “whole of self” approach.
When we set about creating I Wish, a huge driver for me was my then 1 year old daughter. As a new mum, wondering what she would end up doing in life, I couldn’t believe that the uptake of women in STEM was so low. How could I have been so blind to this? I worried for her future. I could see through my work with it@cork just how important STEM was and will be. Technology is by far the largest IDA supported sector in Cork, and predicted to grow further. The world economic forum predicts that the top 15 economies in the world will lose 5 million jobs in the next 5 years through advances in technology and automation; and that these losses will fall disproportionately on women as women are not taking up jobs in the new economies created by technology/STEM.
So I look at my daughter and I worry. All I want for her is equal opportunity of choice, to be a computer programmer or a nurse, to be an engineer or a ballerina, to have a real choice and not be limited by what society thinks she should be. I tapped into that sentiment on my own journey, my other self; and while it has not been without its challenges, the last few years have been an incredibly empowering and rewarding experience because I brought my whole self to the table.
So Aisling’s advice resonated with me. It resonated with most of the audience too given their thunderous applause. It’s just a shame that there were no men there to hear it. Not one. And that’s the pity. What really struck me that day is that Aisling’s searing honesty, and story of grit, hard work and determination would be powerful to any audience, male or female.
My personal view, and you don’t have to agree with this, is that one of the greatest challenges women have in business is often around inclusion – there are businesses with infrastructures and leadership teams largely built by men, many with male cultures. This is often unconscious. You can have all the diversity policies in the world, but without inclusion, diversity will never stick. That is why tone from the top is very important and I commend those male and female leaders who do stick their necks out there to talk about this issue, and most importantly to take action.
But we cannot necessarily place all of the blame on industry either. There is no easy fix or magic bullet. We have pipeline issues in the school system. There are not enough girls taking up STEM courses in colleges – in technology less than 20% of first time entrants into computer science in our universities are women, a figure that has flat-lined in the last 10 years. Teachers simply do not have enough support in schools to fully engage in the STEM activities that are out there which is why we need to mandate these programmes into the secondary school curriculum; to give every girl an equal choice and chance. Even for young children toys, clothes, shoes are becoming increasingly gendered. Think about the rows of pink and blue toys in the toy stores these days. Do these send the right gendered messages at such a young age?
That is why we all need to work together; men and women: in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces. This is a “whole of society” issue and we must address it together. We all have responsibility.
Our next Women in Tech lunch is on 14 September and I am looking forward to hearing from Trish Long, VP and GM of Disney Studios Ireland. There is huge value in the story of these amazing female role models. Lessons that men and women can learn from. I hope to see many of you there; and in the spirit of this blog, men are very welcome. As I said, without inclusion, diversity will never stick.