People across the world are celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD) today with the message of #ChooseToChallenge. As the theme of WID in 2021, #ChooseToChallenge encourages everyone to challenge inequalities and biases they encounter in order to create a more inclusive and just world.
We spoke to 11 female leaders in the technology industry to learn what this year’s theme means to them and what they’re doing to change our society for the better. Read their thoughts below:
Svenja de Vos, chief technology officer, Leaseweb Global:
“If we as women cannot express our enthusiasm for a career in the industry, how can we expect more women to be involved? As the staggering talent gap shows, the technology industry is in desperate need of workers with the right knowledge and skills. In order to keep a balanced range of talent in the sector, we must all do our best to secure the interest of people considering a career in the field.
It is of the utmost importance that we remind younger generations that tech is not just reserved for the geeks among us. That’s why it is key to expose children to the basics of coding through their education. Coding and programming require a certain level of accuracy, are used to secure our daily lives and provide solutions for many of today’s biggest problems – children should be prepared to further this field.
In addition to making young people more enthusiastic about tech, it is important we teach them that women are successful in the scientific realm. At the moment, being a female manager in the tech world is considered ‘abnormal.’
Even from an early age, we have all been told that boys have more talent for STEM subjects than girls. Think about it, how often have you heard that boys are better at math and girls are better in English? Beyond that, boys traditionally play with cars, LEGOS and robots, while girls are expected to play with dolls. These societally ingrained images of male and female stick with people for their entire life, impacting every industry and the direction that young men and women take when it comes to their careers. Therefore, it is not very surprising that girls ultimately opt out of the STEM subjects.”
Michelle Fitzgerald, director of demand gen and events, Plutora:
“#ChooseToChallenge being the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day has made me reflect on challenges that I’ve faced throughout my career, and how I have addressed them. I find that my biggest ongoing challenge has been making the time to invest in myself, both professionally and personally. Taking time to advance skill sets, learn new things and to just recharge tends to take a back seat in the fast-paced world we’re living in. This year, making it a priority to set aside time has improved my balance and allowed for growth.
Another challenge that I see myself and other women in tech trying to overcome is finding connections. Working remotely during a pandemic has really put a spotlight on the benefits we get from engaging with our colleagues in-person. Without being able to travel into an office or grab a casual lunch, we’ve had to get creative in how we build and maintain our relationships.
This year, I would encourage women to set aside the time to connect with others, especially other women in their field. One great way to do that is to take on a mentorship role while also seeking a mentor for themselves. Having great mentors throughout my career has really helped shape my journey. I have learned so much from others’ experiences and have valued their encouragement to challenge myself. Mentorship is extremely important for growth and those connections are so valuable.
At the end of the day, it comes down investing in yourself and connecting with others. Develop the skills you need to get to where you want to be. Then trust in your intuition but be open to asking for help and insight when you need it.”
Gina O’Reilly, COO, Nitro:
“The undeniable impact of women in the workforce has definitely taken a hit as a result of the pandemic, as many are struggling to juggle full-time jobs on both the work and home fronts and finding it impossible to strike a healthy balance between the two during these unprecedented times. In fact, it was reported by The National Women’s Law Center that 100% of the jobs lost in December in the US were all positions held by women, which is a shocking stat in and of itself.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. For me, this starts with women themselves looking within and then companies at large working to constantly challenge the status quo, particularly when it comes to promoting and supporting a more equitable workplace for all. I’ve always believed in championing diversity of thought and contribution across the board, regardless of race or gender, as it’s that diversity of voices that leads to stronger decision making, more collaborative and productive work environments, and ultimately, better business results.
We must all be diligent in nurturing an environment in which women, particularly those juggling the demands of both career and family, can thrive and grow. In the tech industry, achieving this environment doesn’t come without its challenges. There are simply not enough women pursuing a career in this space, particularly in the engineering field. Making progress here has to again start from within. Companies need to invest in programs that promote STEM roles to women and ensure we have sufficient gender diversity in our talent pipelines, which might require just looking that bit harder.
I also believe strong mentoring can be another key way to attract more women into tech roles — and this responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on successful women. Diversity in business has proven to benefit everyone, and I’ve seen great things happen when male leaders are also involved in, and passionate about, the growth and mentorship of female colleagues (and vice versa).
Today, businesses of all shapes and sizes can #ChoosetoChallenge their organizations with this common goal in mind. Women are constantly having to work to break the proverbial glass ceiling and it’s our job as employers to not only make that less challenging, but work on eliminating it altogether.”
Yumi Nishiyama, director, global service partner alliances, Exabeam:
“I have a long history of being the only woman in a room full of men. I was a strong swimmer in high school, and our school had an impressive all-male water polo team. I really wanted to be a part of it and tried out, despite the gender restrictions…and I made it! This was the first major barrier-breaking move I made, and it taught me that if you know your strengths and can collaborate with all types of people, your future is limitless. I took this philosophy with me into college then my career when I decided to break into the predominantly-male cybersecurity industry 21 years ago. While it was terrifying at first, just like my first water polo practice, I loved the idea of innovating each and every day. So I worked tirelessly to forge my own path, networked with people at all levels and of all backgrounds, and quickly gained respect from my peers and rose up the ranks.
In my more than two decades in the industry, I’ve seen vast improvements in the number of women at the table, especially where I am now at Exabeam. It’s a two-way street, plain and simple. Women must fight to be heard, but men must also listen and give them equal opportunity. The #MeToo movement was a major catalyst in Silicon Valley in recent years — a critical reminder to treat every colleague, regardless of gender, with the same levels of respect. It also helped reinforce the idea that you must jump to support your colleagues when they are being discriminated against, or are in danger, even if it puts your own career at risk. While there’s much work to be done, it’s been refreshing to see more females on advisory boards, leadership pages on tech company websites and on industry panels. This International Women’s Day, I want to tell aspiring technology professionals to stick to their guns, follow their passion and find a company with people who appreciate their talents rather than stifle them. It might be them in the spotlight next!”
Annemie Vanoosterhout, release and project manager, Datadobi:
“The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, ‘Choose to Challenge,’ means two things to me: there’s a challenge for organizations as well as individuals to bring change. First, both women and men must challenge their work environments to make room for people of all genders, races, and backgrounds. As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, organizations have the opportunity to turn remote work into an advantage. Adding flexible hours that allow working from home can benefit women in particular who are balancing job responsibilities and families, and open up more opportunities for them in tech.
However, the responsibility is not on organizations alone. Women also must challenge themselves to move beyond what they think, or maybe what others think, they can do. In my career, I had one or two occasions when my supervisor didn’t see me as a good fit for the next level up and I was passed over for another candidate. I used the opportunity to work with the new manager to excel where I could contribute the most. Not being accepted right away doesn’t mean you can’t push the boundaries and show people what you are capable of. You just sometimes have to accept that people aren’t caught up with you yet.
A recent article I read said that women try to take on too much of the burden, and that we try to change the world. Of course we do! If not us, who? But the reality is we shouldn’t be expected to do it alone.”
Madelene Campos, software developer at BrightGauge, a ConnectWise solution:
“I first started in the tech industry about five years ago, when I made a career change from being a professional musician to software development. During this time, I’ve noticed that the amazing women I’ve had a chance to work with all tend to perform at a very high level. They are extremely thorough, detail-orientated and give 100%.
In many industries, not just in tech, being taken seriously due to gender perception continues to feel like an issue. We often need to ‘prove ourselves’ more than men to show what we’re capable of. To help address this, organizations need to work with their HR teams to ensure that their employees, regardless of gender, are receiving equal pay and benefits.
We need to encourage more women to consider opting for a career in tech. Joining a support group that is inclusive and can give advice is a great way to get one’s foot in the door. There are many organizations that focus and support underrepresented groups in tech, such as PyLadies and RailsGirls. Even if women don’t want to code, there are so many other opportunities within tech. It’s important to understand that no one is born with tech skills. Learning how to solve problems, think critically and, at the very least, grow an awareness of what is happening in the tooling we use on a daily basis, is definitely worth the time and effort.”
Darine Fayed, general counsel and DPO, Pathwire:
“On International Women’s Day, we as a society must challenge the notion that the tech industry and other STEM fields are a ‘man’s world.’ Young women who are still in school and determining what the path ahead looks like must be reminded that they are more than capable of becoming excellent engineers, developers and data scientists. To make this happen, universities and tech companies must open up education and job opportunities for women to pave the way for a career in tech.
Women should feel more empowered to break glass ceilings and challenge themselves to push past stereotypes. With gender disparities in the tech industry being more of an open conversation now than in the past, it is now up to companies to foster an environment where women are welcome and supported. By making a concerted effort to combat unconscious biases that women should pursue other careers and opening up opportunities for girls and young women, we could be having a very different conversation in International Women’s Days to come.”
Sofia Kauffman, chief people officer, Zerto:
“International Women’s Day is hugely important because it celebrates the trailblazers who first started breaking down gender inequality barriers and set the way for many more women to navigate this landscape. It shines a light on where we’ve come from, but more importantly it helps us to see what’s on the path ahead.
The tech industry is founded on innovation, and that can only occur when there is diversity throughout and a willingness to leave comfort zones. Women offer a fresh perspective on problem solving, and that’s exactly what the tech industry is all about. Without diversity of perspective, we risk missing out on delivering the best solutions possible.
To those women who want to enter the tech industry: be yourself unapologetically. There is a perception among women that they need to prove themselves. Don’t do that. Be who you are because it inspires trust in those around you. You bring something to the table that no one else does. Learn from others, listen to their experiences, and heed their advice—but never stop being your true authentic self. It got you this far, and it will take you wherever you want to go.
Never let someone diminish your hard work and success. It can eat away at people and cause many to doubt themselves. Ignore the outside voices and keep doing your thing. There are always going to be naysayers and detractors. Find the people that build you up, and if none exist, build yourself up. You’re worth it.”
Samina Subedar, vice president of marketing, StorCentric:
“Many industries, such as high tech, have traditionally been dominated by men. Yet, it is one in which I have built my career, and I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the men and women that judged me not by my gender, but rather my abilities, actions and attitude.
I would offer that as we look towards this year’s International Women’s Day, we ask ourselves what we can do to help our female colleagues to be judged likewise. Not only is it the right thing to do, but another advantage of supporting and championing a female colleague — perhaps bringing their talents to the attention of senior management — is that it also positions you as an identifier and cultivator of talent within your organization. Which, it has been my experience, is almost always overwhelmingly appreciated (and many times, rewarded).
When it gets right down to it, diversity of any kind within an organization is really the smart thing to do — it brings unique perspectives together, which leads to increased innovation and enhanced problem solving, which in turn without fail, positively impacts the bottom line.”
Ali Knapp, president, Wisetail:
“The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911, but 110 years later, women still face many inequalities everyday. It’s widely known that men outnumber women in the technology industry, but what’s more alarming is the inequality in the gender pay gap: in 2020, women made $0.81 for every dollar a man made.
Just like any business challenge, I choose to focus on our controllables. At Wisetail, that’s hiring based on talent and creating an environment to develop motivated talent. With this approach, we’ve grown a nearly 50/50 workforce. We didn’t accomplish this with a mandate or a gender-focused goal in mind; we got to this point by looking for the best, most qualified, hardest working people we could find. We look beyond the physical characteristics to see the value and experience of an individual and what they will bring to help us evolve and progress as a company.
On this International Women’s Day, I want to encourage all companies to tackle the uncomfortable realities of human existence while also pursuing the talented individuals that can take your company to the next level. By focusing on a person’s talent rather than what they look like or what they believe, you will naturally create a diverse, progressive and successful team.”
Nicole Sahin, founder and CEO, Globalization Partners:
“This year’s International Women’s Day theme—choose to challenge—perfectly captures the social changes and feelings we have witnessed over the last year. Despite the immense difficulties people across the world have faced due to the pandemic, more people than ever have come together to vie for equality and inclusion of all kinds. Choosing to challenge reminds us that we all must play a role to help create a more equal world.
This past year, it was fantastic to see women championing in all walks of life. Amanda Gorman, a young 22 year old, became the first poet to speak at a U.S. presidential inauguration, using her beautiful words to inspire people around the world. Whitney Wolfe Herd recently became the youngest self-made billionaire and youngest female CEO to ever take a company public. Dr. Özlem Türeci, together with her husband, is the brains behind the Pfzier COVID-19 vaccine.
It is so important that together we champion and celebrate the achievements of others—we still have a long way to go in creating a more equal world, but together is the only way we will get there. I feel incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by an executive team, which includes strong female leaders of a business, where everyone advocates for equality and inclusion.”