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How female tech leaders can build successful careers

Female tech leader standing at head of conference table

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Caroline Sands, partner and head of the CIO and technology officers practice at Odgers Berndtson, offers approaches for building a successful tech career.

Caroline is a partner and head of the CIO & technology officers practice at Odgers Berndtson

Caroline is a partner and head of the CIO & technology officers practice at Odgers Berndtson. She began her career in executive search in 2000 and has since developed a niche in the appointment of senior IT management executives, with a particular focus on cyber security. Prior to joining Odgers Berndtson, Caroline operated in executive search within the IT services and management consultancy arena where she recruited senior managers through to partner level.

DESPITE THE EFFORTS OF MANY COMPANIES WITHIN THE INDUSTRY, TECHNOLOGY STILL SUFFERS FROM AN ACUTE GENDER IMBALANCE.

So much so, that just 52 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men – a statistic worse than the workforce average, where there are 86 female managers for every 100 male ones.  

In such an environment, women may face biases and stereotypes, have limited networking opportunities, and suffer from a sense of non-inclusion and discrimination. Unsurprisingly, this creates significant challenges for women who want to build careers in tech.  

But it doesn’t make it impossible. Successful women tech leaders overcome the gender imbalance of their field and excel using a variety of approaches. These include learning how to self-promote, finding mentors and sponsors, and developing core leadership traits.   

SELF-PROMOTION AND OVERCOMING IMPOSTER SYNDROME  

Women are far more likely to undervalue their own skills and be self-depreciating over self-promoting, relying on recognition rather than advertising their achievements. Sadly, management systems are still by and large geared to confidence and visible self-assurance. It means an inability to self-promote is a critical barrier to career progression.   

Easy techniques for indirect self-promotion include keeping a track record of accomplishments, ensuring you bring one idea to every team meeting, and requesting feedback on work. The latter often leads to constructive sessions in which self-promotion is a natural part of the conversation.  

Developing a personal brand is another step women at every level in their careers can take. This might mean creating a portfolio or website, leveraging social media to showcase work, and attending networking events. Not only are these a more subtle form of self-promotion, but they also help to build self-confidence.  

Imposter syndrome, closely linked to an inability to self-promote, is far more likely to affect women than men. It can hinder career progression and make work itself less enjoyable. Overcoming this is about reframing negative mindsets and self-talk. Rather than focusing on the things you can’t do, instead build a list of the things you can do. It’s an exercise in identifying strengths and accomplishments, and working at articulating them in a clear and compelling way.  

MENTORING AND SPONSORSHIP  

Mentors and sponsors are essential for women who want to progress in the tech industry, particularly for those who want to move from managerial to more senior positions. 

Mentors help women broach discussions about salary and progression, challenge biases and expectations, and improve self-promotion. Invaluable for developing self-confidence, a good mentor will know how to draw out a person’s strengths and help them stablish self-worth in their achievements. For those settling into a new role or organisation, a mentor can also help navigate the culture, the politics, and develop relationships. 

Sponsorship is arguably even more important for women in tech. Sponsors are advocates – managers or leaders who ‘put in a good word’ to the right people. They help identify ways of stepping up, making the sponsee aware of opportunities as they become available, connect the sponsee with the right people, outline the skills and training they might need, and coach them on building their profile.  

Finding a mentor or a sponsor is simply a case of asking people you admire and respect. Even if there isn’t a formal scheme within an organisation, most leaders are open to the idea of becoming one. And if there’s no one within the organisation, using networking events and LinkedIn to find someone can be just as beneficial. Ideally, this person is within the same field of technology, in a role the mentee wants to aspire to. 

ESSENTIAL LEADERSHIP TRAITS WOMEN IN TECH NEED 

Skills like communication, agility, resilience, and strategic thinking are mainstays of the leadership paradigm, applying to all industries and sizes of organisation. These are core abilities which anyone aspiring to build a successful career needs.  

For women progressing through the modern tech industry, other leadership traits are also essential. Affiliation, altruism, and sense of purpose are expected by employees and looked for by companies. Affiliation and altruistic leadership means behaving as a guide rather than a hero and standing within the group and not above it. Leaders high in these traits demonstrate a willingness to work with a team rather than simply delegating orders and want to have an impact beyond simply making money. Linked closely is sense of purpose; stakeholders now want to see leaders who care about societal issues and can drive value for everyone in the organisation, not just shareholders.  

Creative problem solving, embracing disruption, and an ability to challenge the status quo are also very much in demand. As the tech industry enters an era on the verge of unprecedented AI development, organisations will seek out individuals who can generate innovative solutions, break from old ways of working, and capitalise on what will be huge changes.  

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