Overcoming Gender Stereotypes In Tech

Problems run deeper in organizations than a survey of top executives would indicate.


Gender inequality in the workplace is more complex and deep-rooted than most studies have shown, and efforts to address those issues are only scratching the surface.

The problem runs deeper than just moving women into upper management. It extends all the way through organizations in ways that aren’t always obvious.

“I’ve been talking to senior women in engineering and junior women in engineering, and sadly there is a big divide,” said Alessandra Costa, vice president of world technical organization at Cadence. “Some of the senior women that have ‘made it’ don’t see the issue anymore. They think, ‘I never felt singled out, I never felt talked down to, and all this movement is artificially introducing a problem for women.’ My answer to them is it doesn’t matter how they feel. If they looked around, they would see not everybody feels that way. There’s this meek approach to career. Some female engineers don’t even think about their career. The challenge is really to bridge the divide. Leave the man on the side. It’s not even male versus female. It’s senior women versus junior women, and there is a big divide. Of course, I encourage people to speak up, but it’s a process, and the lack of role models in management and in prominent positions does not help.”

To address this divide, Mentor, under the Siemens umbrella, has started a formalized mentoring program that matches up mentors and mentees who can work well together, noted Karen Donlan, account director at the company. “The program is focused on encouraging that ongoing relationship. It’s not about women, and it’s not about men. It’s about people who need a little help. I’m energized because I’m one of those more senior women, and I am encouraged to meet with more people.”

Here, change definitely starts from the top down. “I have a CEO who is a woman [Sundari Mitra, CEO of NetSpeed], and that’s the first time that has ever happened for me,” said Dawn Maxon, former senior hardware designer from NetSpeed. (NetSpeed has since been bought by Intel), “I do find that changes the tone of the entire company. It’s very empowering to have a role model who is a woman, and it’s the first time in 28 years that that has happened. She is an outspoken, nurturing, kind person who is also really sharp and driven.”

Maxon isn’t sure whether the current situation with gender inequality will actually change without some concerted effort. “We need to, at a very early age, really encourage little girls to go into STEM fields because initially a lot of little girls do—it’s like 50/50—but then our culture discourages them. [North American] culture is so ingrained that even little girls will cold shoulder another little girl because they think she’s not being girlish and not fitting in the box.”

Costa agreed this starts very early. “It’s important to identify the delusion that gender equality would happen organically,” she said. “Some environments are so skewed. The more homogeneous an environment is, the more it pulls from the same type of people. That’s why at Cadence we put in place several programs. Some of them are corporate-level programs, but there are also customized programs for sales or women in technical field operations, which is my organization. For example, in North America or for women in R&D, there are different needs, but (hopefully) the same outcome, and part of it is pulling more women to the work environment. It’s very easy to find women engineers.”

The frustrations are especially pronounced when it comes to trying to put forth ideas in the academic environment or the workplace, said Afsaneh Behdad, group director of R&D for physical verification at Synopsys. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s not just that I’m a woman. I’m a Middle Eastern woman, and that has become worse and worse over the years as far as perception. When I first came to the U.S., I attended the University of Michigan in engineering school. The building where I was taking all my classes didn’t have a bathroom for women, so I had to ask one of the guys to keep watch. There were many, many challenges for women back then, and today, and there will be challenges continuing. Part of the solution is taking away the challenges. The University of Michigan now has a women’s bathroom. Things have really improved in many ways since 40 years ago, but we’re not there yet so we have to just continue on that path. We cannot shy away from the problems or the challenges. We just have to work our way through them, and at the same time try to remove some of the obstacles. From within ourselves we have to have the strength to work through it.”

(L-R) Afsaneh Behdad, Group Director of R&D for Physical Verification at Synopsys; Maheen Hamid, CFO at Breker Verification; Dawn Maxon, Senior Hardware Designer at NetSpeed (now Intel); Ann Steffora Mutschler, Executive Editor/EDA at Semiconductor Engineering; Alessandra Costa, Vice President of World Technical Organization at Cadence; and Karen Donlan, Account Director at Mentor, A Siemens Business

Behdad also often sees more issues between women than between men and women, “which is why supporting our own structure or our own community in some ways is a very positive thing. I do agree with mentorship, and helping whatever the person’s gender is — whoever needs the extra help to go with them.”

Bigger companies have bigger sample sets, a lack of diversity in the workplace more glaring and, perhaps, political and social stigmas more prevalent than at entrepreneurial startups where the focus is on success and not gender, reminded Maheen Hamid, co-founder and CFO of Breker Verification Systems. “Often, smaller companies have different corporate cultures and hiring policies, such as hiring based on merit
as opposed to trying to meet diversity goals.”

The answer may be by changing corporate cultures through language and mindset, she asserted. “Women in all disciplines have the responsibility to articulate their value proposition and boundaries, and stick to them with conviction, which is certainly not an easy task. It can come through changing pre-conceived notions around the ceiling for women’s capabilities. Women can break through them by building their own
brand and credibility. Where there is a lack of formal programs, women need to maintain their growth mindset and continue to push for personal development however they can.”

Costa stressed that culture plays a big role, contrasting her native Italy from the United States. “(In Italy) you cannot promote yourself, because promoting yourself feels really low class. So if you are the top expert in your field, and they ask, ‘Do you know this field?’, you say, ‘I think I can manage.’ Understatement is the rule. Now just shift the conversation to American culture. It’s all about, ‘You have to have a story line PR for yourself.’ Working on that, and especially for women, is somehow artificial because you have to put these concepts in their minds. But there needs to be a conscious effort to make it happen. Some of it is leadership programs and mentoring. I think it’s fundamental.”

She noted that much of this shows up when you really start measuring progress. “Companies are very afraid of measuring, because there is also a legal aspect to measuring. You are measuring how many women you have, but also does the percentage carry in management and higher management? If you look at the director level and above, is that the same percentage that you have at the base? More times than not, is not the same thing.”

Mentor’s Donlan added that it is a similar picture when it comes to salary. “As saleforce.com CEO Mark Benioff said during an interview with 60 Minutes, if Salesforce has a salary gap, everybody else probably does too. His challenge to corporate America was to find out about this being a real statistic, and it can be measured grade by grade. During the interview, Leslie Stahl asked about companies that say it’s too hard to measure, and Benioff said, ‘It’s not that hard. They have this data, they just don’t want to see it.’”

Even within EDA, the gender statistics are disappointing, she said. “[Mentor’s HR team] did release the gender statistics, and they’re disappointing, but Mentor was basically the same as Cadence, the same as Synopsys, the same as, shockingly, companies that are the darlings, like Facebook and Google. We’re not appreciably different. Even companies like Intel that have a lot of programs and initiatives, they were also in the same ballpark.”

The solution? It’s not entirely clear, but given that Donlan has observed a lack of women in mid-level positions, there should be some focus on retention for this millennial generation. “It wasn’t friendly enough for them to get the policies to help them or to have the advancement opportunities, and they’re the ones that dropped out. The younger ones—that hasn’t hit them yet. And people like us, we muscled through it and found solutions, and we got childcare and whatever we needed to make our lives work and settled on rewarding careers. But the risk of not having the middle class is a big problem. We need to make sure that these folks don’t drop out.”

While the issues continue to be mulled over, and worked on, there are definitely tangibles for the younger generation to keep in mind.

Donlan said it’s important not to be afraid of criticism and failure, and no one should take it personally. For example, from a past boss, she got some really hard lessons. “I went home and stewed on them for weeks and months, and maybe his delivery was not awesome, but the lessons behind them were. I’m grateful that I got those lessons. If you are getting criticism, and it is valid, look within yourself to see whether it’s real or whether you can discount it as sour grapes or discrimination. Embrace it and be grateful to those people who are helping you by giving feedback. Grow thicker skin and learn to embrace criticism naturally.”

Behdad agreed. “It’s not so much gender-specific. I see it as any human being should. How much do we invest in ourselves to refine who we are? Many people within my own organization, who got really limited with their career, are people who don’t take feedback and didn’t work within themselves to move to the next level or try to refine the problem.”

Still, many people don’t think about these things, and avoid career planning, Costa said. “If you do some groundwork right now, then you’re going to be ahead of the game later on, but the biggest limiter is that they don’t think they can. It’s the mindset of limited resources available, and so what we try to do in mentoring programs at work is really encourage them to think ‘plenty.’ Let everybody else be concerned about the limited resources. Let somebody else be concerned about the ‘cannot.’ Think about, ‘You can.'”

The key here is support. “It boils down to how to support each other,” Costa said. “It’s important to create a support system for us, but also those more junior people. At the same time, I still see examples of women who are fighting each other more frequently because of competition. Embrace the mindset of plenty instead of scarcity. Let’s get to 50/50 [gender split in the workforce]. Then we start fighting each other.”


Bernard says:

Good article Ann and good to see more depth and complexity emerging in analysis of the problem!

Ann Steffora Mutschler says:

Thank you, Bernard!

MARCUS says:

The big question is WHY it is needed to encourage more women to go into STEM fields.

Aileen Smith says:

Hi Ann – sorry I missed you when you were in the UK a few weeks ago. Good article and a very important topic. I’d love to see (and am willing to help produce) a series of articles studying the piece-parts of this problem as it is multi-faceted. The number of women studying STEM subjects and entering these careers is too low to begin with. And this is compounded by very high in-career attrition levels for a number of reasons. There is a lot being done already by various organisations to help the entry problem (girls can code etc.) and attrition problems (e.g. mentoring) but perhaps it would be useful to pull together a list of what’s happening to give people an understanding of what resources they can tap into, and what is considered best practice?

Ann Steffora Mutschler says:

That sounds fantastic, Aileen. I was sorry to have missed you as well! Let’s connect on email about this.

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