Women in tech: the patriarchy problem
Women in tech are severely underrepresented. We spoke to three women who started their own cyber-businesses in the UK, and then got help from a cyber-specific business accelerator program called Cyber Runway, run by a company called Plexal.
Women in tech: the pipeline problem
We asked Clare Ryan, CEO at ITUS Secure Technology, Sarah Knowles, CEO at Shift Key Cyber, and Melissa Chambers, CEO at Sitehop, for their views on the current world of cyber – and the industry’s attitudes towards women in tech.
In Part 1 of this article, the cyber-founders explored the situation with what they called “the pipeline” – the constricted numbers of girls and young women coming into tech in the first place, because so many are dissuaded against such technical pathways, despite having as much aptitude as boys and young men.
That has led to a situation where, for instance, when hiring engineers, they are faced with 100 male applicants and one woman – meaning the odds are stacked against every single woman trying to break into the industry.
At the end of Part 1, the founders had started to talk about the realities of patriarchal behavior patterns within the industry.
Belonging at the top.
I’ve worked really, really hard to get to where I am. And I’ve been in the environment where it was me and 50 male engineers, and I got shunned. I wasn’t part of the boys’ club. I had to work twice as hard. And of course, I worked twice as hard – which meant I rose through the ranks quicker than the boys did.
So now I’m here, I’m not afraid to say I belong here.
It sounds like the boys’ clubs were trying to impose Imposter Syndrome on you from the outside – “You’re not part of this, you’re not part of us.”
Very much so. You see it when you’re the only woman on the team. Your opinions get overlooked, you’ve got to be twice as good to get half the recognition. You have to put yourself above the parapet to be noticed.
It doesn’t always work out, though. I left my last job because of a situation where I’d had startup experience, I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t put in the senior role that I should have been in, but I was like, “Fine, you’ll see that what I can do.”
And then I was told to train the person above me. And I was like, “Okay…”
So it finally got to point where there was a big team meeting and the whole team was there – it was all men and me. And literally just as I was saying “This is what we need to do, this is the approach we need to take, and this is why,” he just shut me down. I mean, absolutely just talked over me, spoke really poorly to me.
And when I elevated it to a (female) director, she basically just told me to suck it up.
At that point, I decided I was out.
“What’s that, you say? No no, you suck it up, I’m out of here.”
Yeah – I knew I didn’t deserve to be treated that way. I knew what I was doing, but companies are going to lose women if they keep treating us like that.
Result – now you have your own startup!
I worked at a large organization, I was the most experienced person, more or less told that there was going to be a managerial role. It was mine, I just needed to demonstrate that I could do the work, build the team, and so on. So I did all of that, ready for the promotions to be announced.
And then they put a guy in ahead of me who was less experienced.
I left shortly after that.
It doesn’t get much more obvious than that.
I read somewhere that companies that are led by women are tending to be more profitable, right? And I suppose it’s because we have a different perspective, or a different approach. But men, especially men of my age or older, look at that different approach as a weakness.
They look at it as me not being strong, because I’m considerate, or because I’m happy to take advice and weigh all the options and not come in like “It has to be this way, and I’m in charge,” that’s a weakness.
So I’m finding even now, I’m having to step back from my natural personality of “We’re all in this together,” and be Mean Melissa, and say, “This is the way it is, and this is why.” I don’t like being put in that position.
Different means wrong.
Maybe being considerate doesn’t compute with the male majority’s understanding of the business norm. They’re used to a very male kind of strength, rather than consideration and teamwork. And if it’s not something they recognize in themselves, it computes as “Wrong”?
It’s different, so it can’t be right, yeah. People gravitate to what they know, that’s why there’s a boys’ club. Yeah. You do business with people that you know, which is why women lead groups now, women VCs, women’s C-level support groups, we’re seeing more and more of those, and they’re going to be really powerful. The boys’d better watch out!
There’s a quote that says “When you’re used to privilege, equality looks like oppression.”
I think today that there’s a perception, particularly when you’re women in tech and when you’re female tech founders, that you’re only there because someone needed a female to check the box in the quarter. So therefore, you aren’t good enough. You’re just making sure the equality element is satisfied.
So you’re never seen as deserving of your place, and it’s never acknowledged that you fought hard to get here, or that you face the same challenges, or more challenges.
Again, we spoke to a US VP of Engineering who said exactly that, that there’s that perception from some male colleagues that, “Oh, that’s why you’re here. And that’s the only reason you could possibly be here.”
The invisible woman.
I think it’s still quite a challenge, some of the attitudes towards women in tech and female tech founders. For instance, I have a male co-founder, and I’ve had the experience where people will only talk to him.
Or if they’re looking for information about something, they don’t believe that I could answer the question. You know, it’s an automatic given that it’s an easier conversation to have with a man.
The Fallacy of Automatic Masculine Authority?
Exactly. And it’s not just clients.
I went to speak to an angel investor on my own. My co-founder asked if he should join me, and I said no, because it would give us a second meeting, move us along the funding pipeline.
These people had heard me pitch before, so they knew it was me who was CEO, and we did a follow-up call, in which three men joined the meeting.
The very first question they asked me was whether my male co-founder would be joining us. And when I said no, the meeting just changed tone, and they shut us down. No funding.
I was really annoyed that their first question was whether he was going to join us, given that I am the majority shareholder, but I just thought, if they can’t see the benefit of me in the company, why would they want to invest anyway?
I don’t think it’s going to be an easy thing to change those attitudes towards women in tech, and especially female tech founders, I really don’t.
I think it’s going to take some time to change.
In Part 3 of this article, we’ll cover the need for women in tech to self-advocate, support one another, and mentor the new generation – on top of doing their job (which men rarely have to do). And we’ll cover the experience of our founders on the Cyber Runway accelerator.
28 September 2023
28 September 2023