Women in technology who work in male-dominated business environments should "lean in" with humor, empathy, and confidence, an all-female panel told a diverse audience at the annual Innotech convention Wednesday.
Though they noted some progress, the three speakers suggested they often found it easier to adapt to, rather than expect immediate change from, the organizations where they work. The term "lean in" was coined by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer for Facebook, in her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which described how women should strive to adapt to male-dominated work environments.
"Changing a culture is like trying to stop a tidal wave," said panelist Debra Innocenti, partner at Innocenti-Jones, a local internet and cyber security law firm.
One sure-fire way to part the seas? Golf.
Lisa Bazley, vice president for information resources at the University of the Incarnate Word, described serving on a board and learning, after the fact, that critical discussions about a board issue had taken place on a golf green without her. Her all-male board colleagues hadn't thought to invite her, she said, because they assumed she didn't golf.
Bazley actually has played golf, she said, “but you don’t have to learn to play golf to be a good CIO."
Bazley joined Innocenti and Jo Ana Alvarado, director of information technology services at the San Antonio Housing Authority, on the panel to discuss the Bro Code: Addressing the Issue of Gender Diversity in Tech.
Innocenti described how the masculine culture, or "bro code," permeating today's tech industry organically grew from human nature.
"It’s not always about gender," she said. "People are so insecure about keeping their jobs that they will surround themselves with people that won’t threaten them.”
"It’s a fundamental, benign human impulse to surround yourself with people like you," Innocenti explained.
However, what some may consider a benign human impulse has real economic consequences for women. According to American Community Survey estimates, women in computer, engineering, and science occupations on average made 15.4 percent less than men in Bexar County in 2016. Nationally, women earn 77.9 cents for every $1 men earn. Recent data from the popular job-search website Hired found that men are offered higher salaries than women for the same job at the same company 63 percent of the time.
All three panelists described difficulties fitting into a culture that did not represent them, while simultaneously navigating the emotions and actions of male colleagues who perceived them as threatening.
"For me, you try to go along to get along," said Alvarado, who opted for finding ways to fit into company culture, even if it was male dominated.
“I think you have to know who you are and what you want. You have to have that foundation in order to navigate this," Innocenti said. "If you don’t know who you are, and what you want, you can’t be authentic.”
Bazley described a time in her career when being her authentic self was considered a barrier to advancement, when an executive coach was hired to improve her effectiveness in the workplace.
"We paid $1,400 to a woman who came highly recommended. The first thing that she said to me was, 'Lisa, I can see why you appear intimidating to your male counterparts,'" Bazley said. She recalled how the coach suggested she take up less space by refraining from gesturing with her hands and softening her voice when she spoke – a story that drew laughter and disbelief from the audience.
"I don’t think this would happen in today’s world," Bazley said.
Some audience members voiced concern over the differences between the world the panelists described, and what younger generations of women in technology face today.
One young woman in the audience asked how she could overcome animosity she faced from her coworkers based on the perception that she had been hired to fill a diversity quota, rather than being hired for her own merit.
"How do I deal with that?" she asked the panel.
Attendee Omar Quimbaya, president of local cyber security education program CyberDEF Dojo, said he looks to a future where gender is less relevant in shaping personal bias than behaviors and actions online.
"It's very easy for us to jump online and find out a lot of information about people," Quimbaya said, "So it might be less about, 'This is my gender,' or 'This is my sexuality,' or 'This is my belief'...and more about, 'These are things that I say online' ... now people have multiple avenues by which [they] can attack you or support you.
"In this panel you have more older, experienced women," he said, "but there's also a younger generation of women coming into the workforce and they're going to deal with ... new challenges in organizations with cultures that are more amenable to diversity."
With new challenges emerging, women continue to struggle with getting ahead in technology organizations that view them as fundamentally different.
"What advice would you give to leaders who don’t see a problem?" the moderator asked at the end of the panel.
Lisa Bazley did not hesitate to respond as she addressed the audience:
“Open your eyes,” she said.