This was a week of extremes for me. Seven customer visits in a whirlwind trip to Europe. It was exhilarating, as every one of them was impressed with how Tasktop is innovating. But there was something missing. Women. There was not a single woman in any of the meetings I attended. Disheartening. Then, my 10-year old daughter chose a woman on my team as her role model to write about for her school project. Back to exhilarated. And now, on the airplane for the long trip home, reflecting on this roller coaster of emotions, I just realized something that can help girls and women, especially women in technology. We need “role model ladders”. And you can help. Let me explain.
What is a role model ladder? As Albert Schweitzer once said “Example is leadership.” Basically, people need their role models to be attainable examples of what they can be. That means role models need to be similar enough, or close enough in age, to help someone imagine the path that lets them “be” like that role model. Sure, heroes are great, but our role models need to be closer to who we are. For example, my 10-year old daughter needs to be able to look up to someone who is just starting out in a career – because she can imagine that. And that person, the person who is just starting out in her career, needs to have someone to model who has say, 10-15 years of experience. And that woman in turn needs to see a female in a significant management position. Each rung in the ladder is quite important – and if you are missing a rung in your organization, it severely limits the likelihood of creating a thriving female cohort in your organization.
So how can we create these ladders in the technology industry? Here’s how Tasktop is doing it. One of our three founders, our Chief Science Officer, is female. She, very early on as the company began growing proactively, talked about and reminded Mik, our CEO, that in order to foster a great and collaborative workplace in tech you need to actively recruit and retain women. She knew that in technology women don’t come knocking on your door. You have to find them. Mik took this to heart and he found, well, me ;). I didn’t find Tasktop, Tasktop found me. Then it was my turn. As my team began to grow, I had hundreds of resumes cross my desk…but no women. So, I contacted a nearby university and found, you guessed it, a female professor in the information systems department. She actively reached out to talented women in her program and encouraged them to apply. And that is how we hired the woman my 10 year old daughter has chosen as her role model for her school project. Now that is quite a ladder! And, our Senior Director of Engineering took a look at his management team, and recognizing that they were all men, consciously sought out a talented female engineering manager. He just built what is likely one of the hardest rungs in the ladder–because women engineers have a strong tendency to move out of engineering entirely as they progress in their careers. But now all of the co-ops in our engineering group see a clear path. And that will undoubtedly make a difference for our company.
This week, while on these customer visits, I did notice there were some women in the development bullpens. But if all they see is men attending the “important meetings,” the ladder will be broken. You can change that in your company. There is really no magic to it. Simply look at the women in your company’s organizational chart to see where you are missing rungs in your ladder. Then focus on those areas. Be specific. Cultivate a woman to fill the middle management role in IT, or a senior engineering role. And make sure your culture and environment are inclusive, so that when you expend this energy and find a great woman, their contributions are welcome and they will stay and grow with your organization. It will take effort and you may need to get creative about how you find and cultivate talented women – and creating an inviting culture where women want to stay also requires creativity and perseverance. But it is worth it.
It is only through small but intentional steps that we can change things. Tasktop is doing it. Your company can too. And, I guarantee that if your daughter comes home and says that she is writing about someone in your ladder, you’ll feel exhilarated and hopeful about the future.
*Originally published on Code Like a Girl.