When we think of women in technology our minds often jump to the emblems, such as Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg. The women in between – those leaders beyond early stage startups but not yet at the large corporation level – don’t have a readily available platform. Like many middle children, those women in the competitive entrepreneurial space share the struggles of their siblings, but often go without attention or support.
Despite their popularity and mass awareness, startups and major corporations are actually the minority. Most technology companies fall in the midsize range, which means that a sizable percentage of female technology executives are in the process of growing companies. Leading a business through the development stages is a crucial point for both a company and an executive’s career. As businesses scale up there are growing pains that the leadership teams must face. Women in the C-suite encounter a unique set of opportunities and challenges as they lead their teams through this phase.
Stuck in the Middle
While large corporations have established a name for themselves, and the popularity of the startup culture gives early stage businesses a certain level of publicity, growing tech companies lack clout. The midsize market is saturated, and without the legacy or novelty factor, executives have to grind to grow in this stage.
It’s challenging for females to enter into the appropriate circles when the majority of networking happens in a male-dominated environment. I often receive an obvious tone of surprise or see a flicker of shock on someone’s face when I’m introduced by title. Women lack some of the credibility that comes with comradery developed on the golf course, which can make stepping into these strong negotiating positions more challenging.
The reality is that there simply are not enough women in tech. Yes, the number of girls pursuing STEM degrees is increasing and in many circles the leaders in tech are actively encouraging women at the table. However, the number is still highly disproportionate, which means that it can be a struggle for many women to find mentors or role models as they’re navigating their way to, or through, the C-suite. Because most companies spend a significant amount of time in the middle, at one point or another many of women will find themselves in the position of growing a company. We do a disservice to our industry if we don’t broaden the discussion and shine the light on the not-so-glamourous, but ever-important, struggles that woman face throughout this stage.
Why does the middle matter?
Women’s conferences and organizations are great opportunities for female tech leaders to gather, grow and support one another. However, these are often not driving opportunities for women in mid-size companies. The costs of the best events can be exponential, well outside of the realm of the budgets that growing companies set aside for personal development and continued education, and any stipends or assistance is reserved for students or startups. Some of the most valuable and prestigious groups are also invite only; excluding execs if their companies are not a certain size.
Women in startups can learn from the growing company executive, and so can the corporate executive. The middle matters because they have realities to share that will keep the corporate perspectives fresh.
Since many women will find themselves in this space at some point in their career, it’s crucial that we remain open-minded and inclusive, fostering a culture of encouragement and teamwork. These partnerships can happen through networking events, career mentoring or simply by removing some of the barriers to women’s events. Increasing the numbers of women in tech is only half of the battle. Retention is equally important. Women who feel like they have a support network are much more likely to stay in the industry and continue growing these mid-size businesses.
When young women ask for advice on how to navigate the challenges of being a woman growing a technology company, I tell them four things:
- Build a strong network of executive relationships across genders and company sizes.
Operating within a silo is not effective. Yes, women need to gather around one another to provide support. And yes, learning from those in your current position or who have grown their company to a larger size is beneficial. But a strong network is comprised of people across companies, genders, ages and even industries. Male executives can be some of the best allies for a woman in tech, so do not alienate them. Also, don’t forget your peers and those in the early growth stages as you strive to gain valuable insight from those before you. You’re always one step ahead of someone else, so be willing to share your wisdom as well.
- Invest in your thought leadership.
Your personal brand is priceless. Take time to cultivate it. You won’t become a go-to source unless you’re an established expert in the field. The time and money invested in contributed articles, interviews and speaking opportunities will come back ten-fold as the business continues to grow. Meanwhile, take time to identify a handful of thought leaders that you admire and respect. Follow them and glean all you can from their strategies.
- Be nice. Think of everyone as an ally with good intentions.
Men in the C-suite are not the enemy, nor are women working toward the same goal. The ripple effects of tearing one another down as you reach for the top will stretch farther than you know. A downside to the limited number of female executives in our industry is that word travels quickly. You never know what contact or lead could be the perfect partner in the future, so be careful not to burn a bridge by creating the reputation of a mean girl.
- Have fierce conversations.
Be bold. Whether that means proudly sharing your passions and innovations, or standing up for yourself by challenging the way things have always been done, don’t be afraid to have the tough conversations. There’s no room for timidity and fear at the top, especially not for women in leadership. Know when to talk, and when to listen, and be authentic in how you choose to use your voice.
We don’t give the women building technology companies enough credit or opportunity to share the stage. On top of being a female in such a male-dominated industry, this level of business is especially difficult without the safety and protection of corporate culture. Yet, women are doing amazing things in executive roles at growing companies – just look at the things that women like Brooks Bell and Kate Watts are doing. If women in tech can rally around one another, we can ensure that the voices of the majority of the gender minority get heard. And they have a lot of really valuable things to say.
Written by Stephanie Trunzo.