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Compete Like a Man, Lead Like a Woman

Yesterday morning, I attended Drupal GovDays 2013 at the National Institutes of Health campus. While I have limited web design and coding experience, I found the conference valuable in that it showcased the power of technology in bringing people together to discuss leading practices and new tools. The depth and breadth of the speaker topics and workshops was incredible, ranging from how to use multilingual tools to community development on the Open Web.

The session, Recruiting and Retaining Talent – by women, for men: what we need to know to keep women in the tech workforce, was packed with great information for both employers and professionals regarding how to build a diverse tech workforce. It was led by Tracy Betts, CEO of Balance Interactive.

Context: Recruiting and retaining women in technology careers

  • Women hold 56% of all professional jobs in the U.S., but only 24% of all jobs in technology.
  • 56% of women in technology leave at the mid-level point (10-20 years) in their careers, which is double the rate of men.

Cultural Theory

Psychologist Dr. Geert Hofstede developed five dimensions of culture, including one that defines masculinity referring to how much a society adheres to and values traditional male and female roles/traits. In populations with high MAS scores, men are expected to be the provider and maintain assertive and tough traits. In places with low MAS scores, the roles are blurred, with men and women working together across professions exhibiting traits across gender traditions.

The U.S. is considered a “masculine society” with a score of 62. Norms related to this indicate we “live to work” and maintain a “winner take all” perspective.

So, does that mean that the U.S. is unfriendly to women?

Not necessarily. But it does mean that we can do more to embrace social and professional qualities across gender norms and across sectors, especially those in technology and management.

The Crux of the Matter: Leadership

A Harvard Business Review article suggested that, although there are fewer women in leadership positions, survey data revealed that women rated higher in overall leadership effectiveness.

The quote below nicely sums up the value of all this information. Basically, the issue is not centered on simply getting more women in some professionals and more men in others. This is an issue of leadership.

Control is a mirage. The most effective leaders right now – men and women – are those who embrace traits once considered feminine: Empathy. Vulnerability. Humility. Inclusiveness. Generosity. Balance. Patience.

– Leigh Buchanan

With all this information in mind, the speakers talked about what can be done to forge ahead.

Tips for Employers

  • Design a culture of equal competition
    • This means addressing biases and normalizing approaches to interviewing, performance review and promotions.
  • Embrace feminine management traits, not (necessarily) female managers
    • It’s not about quotas!
  • Create opportunities for growth
    • For example, the Air Force implemented a mentorship program to support a number of initiatives, such as female-to-female mentoring.

Tips for Professionals – Develop [traditionally gender-specific] qualities to your advantage.

Don’t be afraid to compete like a man. For example, be:

  • Decisive
  • Resilient
  • Confident (but not proud)

Don’t forget to lead like a woman

  • Plan ahead
  • Be reasonable
  • Be communicative


What do you think?

What are your agency’s challenges in recruiting and retention?

How has your agency made strides in building workplace diversity?


For those curious, here are:

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Andrew Krzmarzick

As I mentioned in my newsletter write-up of this piece, I was in Paris a couple years ago presenting on “6 Competencies of a Gov 2.0 Leader” when a French blogger took me to task, saying my traits were all “feminine.” At first, I disagreed, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was probably right. Your post confirms his thinking.

I also find the work of Hanna Rosin to be intriguing. Check out her article titled, “The End of Men.”

Dannielle Blumenthal

I was at the Drupal conference too. I haven’t written about the gender issues I saw there, partly because I wanted to focus on some other topics and partly because talking about difference can be offensive.

Here are a couple of observations. They are meant only to inform and to spur further discussion.

1) Drupal conference – setting – an all-day coding project

The purpose was to help build the Drupal module where open gov content would be housed. I walked in and sat down at the conference table. The entire group was male and they were talking in tech terms that went over my head. It reminded me of when there is sports talk; I don’t get that either, but I do understand that there is an appreciation for the way technical stuff is a kind of social glue. Also, there is an elegance to coming up with a great code solution and there seemed to be a lot of interest in that.

In any case, after asking a few questions I realized they were only in the early stages and that writing a README file wasn’t going to help. So I offered to write a blog post, which I left and did.

Just before this, though, another woman walked in to the room. She asked (meekly, not just humbly) if the seat opposite me was taken and someone said no, please sit down. After a couple of minutes she stood up and announced that she was leaving because the discussion was “too advanced for me.” The project leader tried to stop her and said, “Really, stay, everyone is welcome, no matter what your level.” Then the person sitting next to him said, “Yes, stay, I’m not technical” and I chimed in and said the same. But she left anyway.

Lesson learned – women need to walk into the room armed with some technical expertise. It’s not enough to rely on courtesy. Also, we are uncomfortable being bold and jumping in to unfamiliar waters. We would be more comfortable if more tech literate.

2) Another occasion – lunch with friends

A group of friends, all female, took me to lunch because I am moving from one agency to another. They literally dragged me out because normally I like to eat at the government food court where I can get a baked potato for $2.15 and be done with it. In any case. it was a special treat and they were very excited to do this for me.

We went to the restaurant and the service was terrible. We did not get a choice of seat but were buried in a high-traffic area where the wait staff walked past us – rather than outside when there were plenty of seats. We waited a long time for the food, and then it was cold; they brought it back a couple of times and it still wasn’t right; and when they finally brought us the bill, it was wrong. I had a great time with my friends anyway, but the way we were being treated wasn’t right. I said to them, “Let’s complain, this is ridiculous” but they did not want to “make trouble.” We ended up complaining anyway, but I noticed that my friends were reluctant to speak up even though the meal was not cheap.

Lesson learned – women should be more comfortable standing up for themselves -there is something in our social conditioning holding us back.

3) Another example – major technology projects

Over many, many years I have learned that people who run technology projects, usually male, often tend to overcomplicate them so as to mystify the audience. There are two reasons for this.

First, there is a financial incentive. When the audience is mystified they tend to be more willing to fork over money or power because they see themselves as somewhat helpless. I

Second, there is a tendency for technical people to stay within the technical jargon rather than to speak in business terms.

Although men dominate technology, it’s not true that all men do the above two things. For example my husband Andy is a technologist and has that vision of simplification and customer-centricity that is so desperately needed to be efficient and effective.

But unfortunately the dominant interaction I see is between knowledgeable male technologists and women who are at an information disadvantage. Women tend to be able to understand the bottom line and the bigger picture but are not so much carried away by the code.

When women ask the tough questions, the men tend to shush those questions up as irrelevant or due to ignorance.

Lesson learned – women have to be tough enough to stand up when something seems “wrong.” The more you actually know tech the more confident you can be doing that.

* All opinions my own.

Dannielle Blumenthal

I wanted to add that in 2 of the 3 instances below the women involved were also minorities –African-American and Asian — and this adds another dimension to the conversation. It’s not just about gender but also race, ethnicity, culture, class, religion, even geographical location and how all of these work together.

The main thing I would tell women is to listen to that little inner voice and follow what it tells you. We are all able to learn quite a bit but if we shut ourselves down before we even get out of the gate, how can we get anywhere?

Andrew Krzmarzick

Dannielle – To your point about male-dominated tech, we hosted a Code for America Brigade meeting in Durham last night. Out of 20 people in the room, one was a woman. We had a great diversity in terms of organizations (city, county, non-profits, developers, start-ups, etc.) as well as knowledge (some tech, some not)…but not along the lines of gender (or race, for that matter). Interesting dynamics and gets to some sensitive issues about how actively you recruit for diversity, but these are firsthand accounts of present reality – and it’s good for us to ask the question, “are we okay with this?”

Dannielle Blumenthal

Yes, agree. Without women in tech we would not have Grace Hopper and COBOL. Or the tech investor and philanthropist Esther Dyson and EDVentures. Just a few examples.

In the U.S. at least women stay away from tech, which costs them (us) money and participation in the future of democracy. Wikipedia has a few solid reasons:

1 – Computers can be viewed in different ways and men tend to focus on the mastery of the machine whereas women tend to relate them to a broader context. Of course neither is better, but when you teach computer science in an isolated way then you are effectively turning women away.

2 – This one is obvious, but the image of the technologist is stereotypically male and females tend to gravitate toward feminine gender roles. (We see these stereotypes literally everywhere.)

3 – For the women who do venture toward technology, classroom practices biased toward the male gender (for example weeding people out based on rivalry) can be uncomfortable not to mention outright comments either inside the classroom or out.

4 – Women in tech are less likely to feel that their opinions are valued than women in non-tech jobs.

Interestingly in other countries women tend to gravitate toward technology because:

1 – The pay is good (Malaysia, India)

2 – The work environment is perceived as safer (Malaysia, India)

3 – Social marketing is deliberately aimed at making technology gender-neutral (Scotland) (Canadian research shows that women tend to think they don’t have programming skills)

4 – It increases marriageability (India)

I think it’s great that the Air Force and others are trying to bring women into tech. A great organization in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area is Women in Technology. But it has to start young and it’s really about confidence. We don’t realize how much those little criticisms hurt, but they do hurt and children quickly learn to adapt and protect themselves by doing whatever society praises them for.

Kathryn David

Thanks so much for posting this Kim. I hope one day we can move past the idea that male= favorable trait while female= weak/unfavorable trait. I’m glad you addressed the silliness behind that dichotomy. I agree with you that employers need to create a culture that eliminates gender bias, but I would also add that parents need to raise their daughters and sons in a way that encourages them to be assertive, pursue leadership roles, etc. without changing their methods based on their child’s gender. If all of this begins early enough and employers are made aware of these issues through posts like yours, we can work toward fundamental change.

Kim Truong

Thank you all for adding to the discussion. There’s certainly many societal factors at play and you’ve highlighted a lot of the important ones, such as education, upbringing, incentives, etc.

With regards to young daughters, I came across an engineering toy geared towards girls that was featured in a few media circles – it’s called Goldieblox. The story behind it is great.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology is also a great resource for reports.