Women in Digital Leadership

By Emily Peck March 29, 2021

As the tech industry grows, women are making up a larger percentage of the workforce than ever before – but much work remains to be done. While equitable participation across the industry as a whole is a laudable benchmark, it’s not enough. Representation in every job category and at all levels of seniority remains a challenge. Fortunately, there are programs in place, and as their success in helping women achieve positions of leadership grows, so too does the opportunity to kick off a virtuous cycle.

To explore what can be done to shape stronger pathways for women in tech, BrainStation brought together a stellar lineup of women in positions of digital leadership at the following prominent global companies: Verizon, Mastercard, Harry’s Labs, The Space Foundation, Pymetrics, and Instacart. As part of BrainStation’s Digital Leadership Event Series, our panelists weighed in on the importance of the initiatives already in place, issues that still need to be confronted, and what can women do as individuals to advance themselves and others in their careers.

You can watch the full panel discussion here:

Mentorship Is the Key to Bridging the First Step

The transition into management can be an especially difficult one for women – an early inequality that can impact women’s careers over the long term. Shelli Brunswick, Chief Operating Officer at The Space Foundation, explains, “As you’re looking to make that first step on the ladder to being a leader, finding a mentor, a champion, and a coach can be critical..”. She also emphasizes the importance of paying it forward, saying that “once you have a mentor, always remember that you can be a mentor to and help the next generation behind you.”

Often, finding a mentor begins with networking. As Vice President of Product Innovation at Verizon Sanyogita Shamsunder says, “Be open, be collaborative, communicate, go talk to others about their projects and show genuine interest in their work. And get help. The first person that you approach may not may not be open or receptive, but don’t give up. Keep talking to people, both men and women, junior to you, senior to you – it doesn’t matter. We need to communicate. There’s no substitute for that.”

But besides being open to all networking opportunities, what can we do to find mentors – especially the right ones? To start with, it can’t hurt to ask. “You should always be looking for people that you have an affinity with, who really believe in you, and who are willing to go to bat for you when times are tough,” says Frida Polli, CEO & Co-founder of A.I.-powered recruitment platform Pymetrics. “You definitely need to be reaching out to those folks…Just continually be looking for folks that appreciate and believe in what you’re doing.”

Still, approaching a possible mentor can be intimidating. As Tehmina Haider, Vice President and Head of Harry’s Labs at Harry’s Inc., says, “When you ask someone to be a mentor, you’re asking them for their time. The more senior they are, the more precious their time is. So it is a big ask, [but] most leaders actually enjoy seeing other people grow; that’s why they became leaders.” And overcoming your reluctance to approach mentors will pay off: “You need folks who can supplement you in different ways, to have that diversity. Women, because they tend to identify with other women, do often reach out to a female mentor, but you want your mentors to have different points of view than you do. And that’s where pushing for those male mentors is really, really important. So take that leap.

Vice President of Digital & Cybersecurity Solutions at Mastercard Sukhmani Dev concurs, and emphasizes that finding a mentor is sometimes a question of timing. “Things happen organically as you grow forward. I find that [potential mentors] need to have a sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, and have seen you in action…If I really enjoyed working with a boss of mine, and then I’m changing roles or they’re changing roles, I may ask them, ‘Let’s continue the dialogue.’ It was more of a formal ask when I was more junior…but [where I am now], you just call them up when you have a question.”

Darrah Joy-Clay, Account Director of CPG Brands at Instacart, encourages women to ask for what they need. “As I’ve grown in my role, I find that the negotiations become a lot more complex. And when I’m going through a negotiation, of course I consult my female mentors. But it’s my male mentors who really give me that extra level of confidence, and re-emphasize not to be shy or fearful of making an ask of what I’m deserving of, or what I need to be happy and fulfill my role.”

Support Isn’t Just a Relationship – It’s Also a Culture

Advocating for yourself is important – but so is advocating for each other. How can companies help to support their female employees and foster a culture that supports women? Several panelists mentioned how important it is to carve out space for women to speak, to encourage them to speak, and to draw attention to their contributions and successes, which can get overlooked in environments structured around male authority. As always, mentorship is important. But even the way we provide day-to-day feedback can help, though criticism can be hard to receive – and to give.

As Haider explains, delivering criticism is about “making sure that the women on your team understand that the feedback that you’re giving them, even if it’s sometimes not that great to hear, is coming from a place of really caring about them. And that’s really hard, as a leader. Giving difficult feedback is not the easiest thing to do, but you’ve got to invest in it, and you’ve got to make sure that folks understand why it’s actually an indication of how much you care.”

For Joy-Clay, that’s aided by an environment where leadership is able to be transparent and talk about their own successes and failures without fear of judgment. “When I share my journey to leadership and I’m transparent with my teams, they can identify and relate with some of the experiences that I’ve had,” she says. “Several mentors of mine who have, one, shared their personal journey with me. But secondly, they’ve exposed me to communities and to rooms and to opportunities that I may not have been in before…and that exposure, I think, is a huge opportunity for leaders and mentees.”

Policies Need to Acknowledge There Are Many Paths

While cultivating a supportive environment may seem like an enigmatic exercise, it ultimately comes down to the policies a company puts in place. As Shamsunder says, “One of the first things that we have to do to create programs [to support women] is to recognize that there is an inequality.” This often starts with highlighting the different ways that people contribute to the company – including people with different levels of educational attainment, people in different locations.

There are many paths to STEM, and overlooking some in favor of others is detrimental to employees following unorthodox paths, which often includes women. At Mastercard, Dev explains, “We have a particular program that [assists] women who want to change their careers midway through – nurturing that and helping them explore different areas, explore technological areas.”

Spreading opportunity around isn’t as simple as promoting women up the corporate ladder. And it doesn’t happen by accident. At The Space Foundation, Brunswick says, they take a multi-pronged approach specifically designed to tackle the problem from different angles: raising awareness of careers in STEM, providing more people with access and training, helping to connect potential STEM workers to opportunity, and finally, mentoring to encourage equity in leadership. “Our goal at the Space Foundation is to highlight all those career paths. And we would say it’s about diversity and inclusion, but those underrepresented groups could be rural communities or inner cities, as well as regions of the world.” Matching protégés to mentors is an important step, but it’s just one of many; promoting more women into digital leadership roles in STEM means nurturing an entire talent pipeline that begins with reaching out to girls early in their education and letting them know that they can find a place in STEM.

And more women in STEM is good not only for women: “What we’ve learned is when women around the world are empowered to be entrepreneurs, they elevate not only themselves but their families and their communities as well,” Polli says. “It’s valuable to our entire world and ecosystem to empower women, to provide them the financing and support them in becoming entrepreneurs.”

Confidence Can Be a Greater Obstacle Than Competence

Confidence looks different in different people, and in situations with a gender imbalance, women may be at a disadvantage. Here, leadership can help to rebalance the scales, for example, by specifically calling on younger talent to speak up. “Leaders have a key role to play. If you’re on a table where you have young talent and they’re not speaking up, it’s your responsibility to pause and ask them for their point of view, create a space that they feel comfortable in…We can just take two minutes out of our time as leaders to convey that to younger talent. You’ll make them that much more comfortable and confident going forward and feel like their voice is appreciated,” Dev says.

For that younger talent, learning to overcome fear  takes practice. “One [strategy] is to give more time and attention to your emotional skills, in terms of developing yourself and your emotional responses to rejection, to negative consequences,” Joy-Clay advises. “If we develop that muscle, that emotional response will be less fearful of what the consequences are on the other end.” This becomes ever easier the more willing leadership is to make space for failure and drop the expectation of perfection. “We have to start speaking more about our failures,” Joy-Clay continues. “If we talk more broadly about the mistakes we’ve made, the failures we’ve had, that would empower more young female leaders to not be afraid to fail, and not be afraid to be their authentic selves in the workplace.”

To Polli, it’s less a question of having confidence and more about how men and women project their confidence differently. “What it means to look confident is actually a very male image,” she says, explaining that what may seem like a lack of confidence is actually a decision not to project overconfidence. The solution is “more about having enough women in positions of leadership that can present an alternative image of what confidence looks like, rather than everyone feeling like, ‘I need to fit the mold of male confidence.’”

On one hand, Haider says, “It’s about pushing women to be confident, be bold, and really demonstrate that confidence externally. But it’s also about changing the metrics that we have around what confidence is, so that the way women show up also feels resonant.”

(This article was last updated in January 2022.)

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