Ada Lovelace Day is October 14, BTW—mark your calendar!
In my role as Gilt’s tech evangelist (if you’re asking, “what’s a tech evangelist?”—it’s a common question—here’s a start), I prefer to find speaking gigs for the other members of the team. Public speaking doesn’t terrify me (anymore), and often it’s a lot of fun—but it’s more rewarding to watch one of my colleagues get attention (and receive follow-up speaking invites) than to be in the spotlight.
Recently, however, I’ve taken advantage of two opportunities to appear on tech-related panels: One at the Nixon Peabody law firm’s office in NYC, and another at the Interop conference/expo, which closed in NYC last Friday. The Nixon Peabody event was a recap of sorts of the previous weekend’s Code the Deal hackathon, and focused on legal tech. Although I earned a law degree a few years ago, I’ve never practiced and don’t really know much about transactional law other than that it involves a lot of “whereas”’s. However, I do know many lawyers who aren’t entirely ecstatic about their workplace environments. So I evangelized the progressive ideas about work culture implemented at technology companies like Gilt.
As Gilt cofounder/CTO Michael Bryzek has publicly discussed many times, our team culture is built upon a foundation of trust, autonomy, empowerment, and flexibility. These principles challenge the entrenched workplace norms you’ll find in many companies, including law firms: micromanaging, defining leadership by job title/hierarchies, showing preferential treatment to “star players" (instead of focusing on overall innovation and output from the entire team), and knee-jerk risk aversion (in contrast to trusting smart and capable people to take smart risks). Yet they could work perfectly well in any industry, including—maybe even especially—law. Like tech, law is heavily populated by very logical and educated people who know how to creatively problem-solve.
Some might suggest that “entrenched workplace norms” include hiring and workplace practices that hinder women from advancing in their careers. This brings me to my next recent public speaking experience, at Interop. As we all know, women are lagging behind in the tech sector, too. Lemelson-MIT Prizewinner Sangeeta N. Bhatia neatly summarizes the current trend in this September 2014 article for MIT Technology Review:
“Girls choose engineering less often and drop out of engineering disproportionately (the so-called “leaky pipeline”).
“The percentage of women computer science majors peaked 30 years ago.
“The higher I climb, the fewer other women there are at the table with me.”
So that our companies are successful, we need to ensure that the ratio of women to men in tech becomes more balanced. There’s much work to do to boost the numbers—and it’s not going to be easy, given that this sort of thing still happens at mainstream tech events, and women applicants for tech jobs are often told that they’re “just not a culture fit.” Women who speak up and think for themselves are treated negatively in their performance reviews, while their male peers are praised for exhibiting the same behaviors. For these and other reasons, women-in-tech panels remain important. They enable women and girls to learn from other women how to circumnavigate—or at minimum, prepare for—these potential barriers to success.
As Gilt’s tech evangelist, I was able to inform the girls at Interop that I work for a company headed by a woman CEO. I was able to state that, of five Gilt cofounders, two were women. I discussed with other panelists some of the other perks of being a woman at Gilt:
my first manager—a man—supported my career development and helped me build my leadership skills; other men at Gilt, in tech and out, have done the same for me and other women
my current manager is a woman
Some of my male colleagues have suggested that we hold more women-in-tech events
other male colleagues routinely condemn outside-the-company displays of sexism (often with a “facepalm” emoticon, but occasionally with more forceful language)
we have a Gilt tech women’s group that’s open to men, and supported by men
In my two-plus years at Gilt, I’ve witnessed male colleagues praising women. I’ve heard male tech execs encourage women on their teams to take advantage of career-building opportunities. And I’ve watched most of male colleagues demonstrate one or more of the behaviors represented on this “Top 10 Ways To Be a Male Advocate for Technical Women” list. Sure, our tech team has room for improvement: For example, it would be great to achieve or surpass the 50-50 gender ratio. Stats aside, I’m grateful to arrive at the office every morning knowing that I can expect to be respected and treated as an equal.
One of the questions our Interop panel moderator asked us concerned the phrase “act like a man”—advice she’d recently heard a woman executive share. Should women strive to “act like a man” in order to succeed? I’d say no. Neither sex has a monopoly on any of the characteristics commonly associated with business world success—ambition, brilliance, toughness, etc. Better, I think, to focus on “acting like a human.” All humans have the capacity to practice open-mindedness, self-respect, and respect for others, while still making shrewd business decisions. The frequent displays of such qualities at Gilt tech, I’d say, are what really make our culture healthy for women—and in turn, healthy for everyone.
Does having a woman CEO affect Gilt’s work culture? Someone asked me this question recently, and I don’t think it’s that simple. After all, not every woman CEO would tell the New York Times that she doesn’t need a personal office. Having leaders who display humility sets a tone for the rest of the team, and that obviously does affect our work culture.
This brings me back to trust and autonomy, two values I mentioned earlier as fundamental to Gilt tech’s culture. We manifest these two values in a variety of ways, but one of the most important for building an open and accepting culture involves our hiring practices. We hire people at all levels of the organization who can be trusted to act responsibly, reasonably, and respectfully. People who already reflect our values will help our team maintain them as we grow.
"There are important skills for succeeding in tech beyond the technical — and realizing that doesn’t mean lowering standards," writes journalist Ann Friedman in a recent article about women in tech. “Turns out that valuing these skills doesn’t just attract women, it also draws in a different sort of male employee.” Friedman quotes Kellan Elliott-McCrea, the CTO of Etsy:
“The men who come into our organization who are excited about the fact that we have diversity as a goal are generally the people who are better at listening, they’re better at group learning, they’re better at collaboration, they’re better at communication, they’re particularly the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads…[t]hese people are hard to find, and when you can find them, they’re awesome.”
A work culture that champions decency and respect in addition to creativity and talent is a great culture to evangelize. And it’s something that any company can create for itself without endangering growth, competitiveness, or the bottom line. Without the stress, discouragement and low morale caused by toxic workplace factors like exclusion, discrimination and micro-management, employees are freed up to be creative and productive. Why wouldn’t anyone evangelize that?