elizabeth tobey
Aug 5, 2015 · 8 min read

Thoughts from a female leader in a
male-dominated industry

I am a director at a large tech company. I’m also a woman, so I’m a minority in this industry. Having worked in tech my entire life, I’m used to being one of the only women in a room. Since moving into a leadership role several years ago, that lonely position as the lone woman has become more pronounced. I’m happy to say that this is slowly changing over time, and more women are joining leadership teams. I’m proud to be part of that movement. I want to do everything in my power to be a force of good that helps qualified women move into leadership positions in all fields and departments.

Today, I want to talk about the challenges of being a good woman leader.

What the hell is a “good woman leader”?

You’ve got the whooooole world, in your haaaaand.

In the past half dozen years, there’s been a huge uptick in awareness around women’s issues in business (and specifically in the tech industry.) This has lead to change for the better, as well as some significant ugliness. Since graduating college in 2004, I’ve been part of that metamorphosis. A decade ago, there’s no way I would have written this article, let alone reflected on my interactions with my team in an effort to be a good leader as a woman in tech.

So what the hell do I mean when I say “good woman leader”? The phrase is so clunky that I almost feel like I should giggle or snicker. It’s laden with the history of this movement and carrying the baggage of social justice warriors, feminists, gamergate, men’s rights activists, and all the other things that are happening around the notion of women’s rights and equality in the workplace.

Why do stock images of female leaders so often have semi-crazy eyes?

First and foremost: my job at my company and for my department is to be a strong, intelligent, and effective leader. It is my responsibility to be the diplomat between my team and others in the company and clear the paths that allow my team it excel at their jobs and for my department to get shit done and get it done well. Second: as a woman, I have a responsibility to be a strong, intelligent, and effective leader so that I can help other women find ways to excel in their roles and, if they so choose, become leaders in their own right. Like it or not, I’m a minority and part of a very heated movement to help better the lives of half of the population. I may not be be a major figurehead for this struggle, but I am in a position where I can help further the cause in ways I think are honorable and help better the tech industry for everyone, no matter their gender. That’s a huge responsibility, and I take it very seriously.

Walk the walk, talk the talk, and own up to it when you don’t do one or both of these things properly

I don’t personally know a single person who would stand up and say “I’m sexist.” I know those folks exist, but I’m fortunate enough to not live in a world where that’s ever been a reality in my workplace. That being said, I have absolutely worked with people and in workplaces where sexism existed, sometimes overtly, oftentimes covertly. It’s the subtle sexism that is often the nastiest stuff to deal with: a person proclaims they are feminist and for gender equality, then gives the feedback to a woman that she’s “too nice and too friendly” when, in fact, she’s acting exactly like her male counterparts who receive no such criticism. We see these kinds of things happening in the workplace, and we talk about them more now, but there’s a huge reluctance to call a spade a spade and actually broach that subject with the person who is doing something sexist. “Sexist” is a very ugly thing to call a person. There isn’t really a way to kindly say, “hey, you’re being kind of sexist right now.” Once that word comes into the conversation, we’re at threat level TIME TO LAUNCH THE NUCLEAR MISSILES and all rational thought gets drowned out by defensiveness.

So while I’m still finding a way to have those conversations without them becoming complete and utter shitshows, I’m taking it upon myself to walk the walk and talk the talk. I’m trying to be a level headed and objective feminist who can look critically at her own actions and course correct when I’ve done something wrong. Usually, this means I end up asking friends, coworkers, and mentors about situations where I’m unsure of my actions or the actions of others. It’s important that these people trust me and know that they can be brutally honest with me and feel safe to say “no, you did that wrong” or “that’s not okay” and I’m not too proud to tell you I have gotten into several screaming matches with my best friend when he’s gotten defensive or angry about serious issues that we didn’t agree on. Yet, he’s an integral part of making me a better leader and a better woman, so despite the times I’ve told him to fuck himself (and had to take it back) or we’ve had to walk in silence on a time out during a trip out for coffee, I cannot thank him enough for helping me be better at practicing what I preach and not being too proud to change my viewpoint when my viewpoint is wrong or bad.

The interesting interaction

This article isn’t all about philosophy and hypothetical situations: I just had a very specific interaction with my team that made me ask a coworker “HOW DO I WOMAN PROPERLY FOR STUFF?”

My department had three job openings that were recently filled: two are individual contributor roles and the other is a manager position. During my weekly team meeting, I announced that we had filled these roles and describe the folks we hired.

Sidebar before we go on to explain my department’s structure: my team is comprised of fifteen people in two offices, located in two states. In one office, there are eight people: six men and two women. In the other office, we have three people: one man and two women. While we have folks in different locations, we are one cohesive department. We just happen to work in two different states.

Okay, back to the story of my team meeting.

All the new hires are in the office with the smaller team, and all of the new hires are women.

At the end of the team meeting, I hung up with the other office (I sit in headquarters with the smaller team) and began chatting a bit more about the new hires. As an aside, I noted in a light tone that we hired all females to my male employee saying something like, “yeah, sorry about that — they’re all gals this time!” and he replied (with a smile) , “yeah, I noticed it was all women. I’m the only guy here — there’s no one to talk sports with! It’s all lipstick and stuff.”

The meeting adjourned and I headed to my desk, frowning as I turned the interaction over in my head.

I’d fucked it up.

I hadn’t been a good woman leader.

Why did I feel the need to point out that I’d hired all woman? Gender wasn’t a factor in the people we interviewed and my final decision on who to hire was weighted through the feedback given to me by the rest of the hiring committee (in case of bias of any kind of my part — always a good hiring check-and-balance system.)

Why did I feel the need to say sorry, even as a joke?

If that situation had been gender flipped, would it have happened at all?

Would a male boss point out to the only woman in the office that he had hired three men, apologize, and the woman joke back, “I noticed that. There’s no one to talk lipstick with! It’s all sports and stuff.”

I can only speak from my own personal experience, but I used to be the only female on an all-male team, and that conversation wouldn’t have happened in a million years. In fact, in those instances, hiring a woman was the only time something would be notable, and in many instances that would only happen in my own head. As the only woman on a team, I’ve never said to my boss, “oh, awesome, you hired a woman!”

Where do we go from here?

Ruth Bader Ginsberg made headlines when she answered the question “When do you think there will be enough women on the Supreme Court?”

She said, “When there are nine.”

Ginsberg has repeatedly stated (although not always in the same way as this quote): “And I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Hello. Let me lead you. I promise I don’t bite.

Right now, we live in a reality where many industries, including tech, are male dominated industries. No one raises a question when we continue the status quo, but that does not mean that the status quo should remain the status quo, or that a change to it needs to be explained, joked about, or even mentioned. If there is no reason to talk about hiring men, the same should hold when hiring women.

I often feel like I’m walking a tightrope as I navigate these issues. It’s sometimes exhausting to analyze your actions and decisions from all the regular business angles. Then go back and layer on top the fact that I’m a woman leader, but I believe it’s necessary and beneficial for myself, my team, my company, my industry, and the movement I want to help move forward to be able to give women a better place to work and more opportunities to lead. And if I’m going to be true to that mandate, I have to be honest when I don’t do things in the best way. By sharing this, hopefully we can start a conversation that will help both men and women leaders communicate more efficiently and productively with teams that are not gender balanced. By sharing this, I hope I’m also breaking down the notion that we have to be right all the time, that we’re infallible.

We’re not. I’m not. You’re not. No one is.

The way to get out of this mess it to own up to that, share the good, share the bad, drop the defensive bullshit, and learn from each other.

If you liked this story, please hit the ❤ button below — and let me know if you have something else you’d like me to write about. You can also tweet to me @dahanese with questions or comments.

elizabeth tobey

Written by

East coaster with a secret SF love affair. I enjoy juxtaposing things. Also: Cheese and tiny dachshunds.

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