“Did you earn it, or are you just filling a quota?”

Jan 28, 2020 · 4 min read

A technology company insider takes a hard look at quota filling in the industry.

I admit, I’ve had the thought about my own success, sitting around a conference table being congratulated by fellow executives on my latest promotion. You hope you were chosen because you are smart and good at your job. Or am I in this seat so that that they could check a box?

The faces of technology companies in 2020 are not diverse. You’ll see men, lots of white men. Me? I’m a woman, non-white, over 40. I tick all the boxes. Well, almost all. If only I were a lesbian, but as they say, no one is perfect.

Promotions in the technology world are not a level playing field, there is a push to show diversity and inclusion. Sometimes women are pulled up the ranks to hit mandated HR and corporate diversity goals. But who gets those spots?

Sometimes the person promoted is a woman who’s not disruptive and can be counted on to toe the company line. She’s a yes-woman who won’t rock the boat or get any big ideas about change; she can be easily manipulated and mostly she’s just grateful to be there. I’m not just talking about senior managers or VPs. I have seen CEOs of major technology companies who clearly were not up to the task — and everyone in the room knew it.

In other cases the chosen one is a woman or minority who hasn’t quite made it, and maybe isn’t the most qualified candidate for a job, but gets the spot anyway. Yes, they were promoted prematurely, but the good news is that with hard work you can learn the ropes, seizing a currently undeserved opportunity, and you can get yourself there. I can think back on my own career where I got a job that I might not have been ready for but I watched, learned, worked hard and was completely qualified by the time I moved on to my next position.

I don’t mean to discredit all female tech executives. Some of them made it to the top through their diligence, intelligence and ambition. They were every bit as good as good as the men, but they got hardened as they rose through the ranks. Often they had to behave like a man to be accepted; dropping F-bombs or laughing along at jokes that left them uncomfortable. Being feminine or thinking like a woman was not what brought them to the top. One female tech CEO was referred to as “a man in a wig” by one of her fellow C-suite executives, and sadly, I think he may have even meant it as a compliment.

When women behave like men companies are missing out on what females can bring to the table. The creative thinking, ability to multitask, empathize and relate to half the population are all valuable skills that can enhance a corporate culture and contribute to the bottom line. A 2018 McKinsey study showed that gender diversity on executive teams is strongly correlated with profitability. Women who act just like men in the workplace may be technically getting the job done, but they could be so much more.

On a more personal note, it’s just no fun to be constantly surrounded by dudes and always have your guard up. I have played that game and it is exhausting. It’s human nature to want to be part of a community. Recently I moved to a new technology company with a radically different culture than the male-dominated big tech businesses where I’ve built my career. I feel myself changing, and I can’t tell you what a relief it is to work with women again. Women are different than men, and while we may not bring the single-mindedness that many men bring to the workplace, we instead offer brains that are skilled at multitasking and considering alternate solutions and paths, juggling interpersonal relationships and deftly navigating office politics.

So is the tech world changing? Yes, but very, very slowly. The shift has moved at a glacial pace during my decades in the industry. It may be another two generations before female executives are accepted both as executives AND as women. Right now the senior echelons of established technology companies are filled with grey-haired men who are just hanging on, an old boys club if you will, and one that resists change.

Just check out Crunchbase and you’ll see a similar male-dominated story at startups. Many startups suffer from a pervasive ‘bro culture’ that feels toxic. Meanwhile studies show that women-led startups have an average ROI 35% higher than male-led startups yet according to Forbes magazine, only 2.2% of investor funding last year went to women-led startups. How could this be? Turns out most venture capitalists are bros too.

Ultimately all business decisions — be they in venture capital, established technology or startups — are about money, and research indicates that not only is including women in upper management is good for women, it’s also good for business. Women-led startups outperform male-led startups in nearly every meaningful metric. There’s a strong correlation between above-average diversity on a management team and innovation revenue. And currently more women under the age of 35 are running successful startups compared to men of the same age.

The technology world is changing, so hang in there. And about those quota fillers? The good thing about quotas is that sometimes they can make a difference, and change the conversation around companies. Women at the executive levels throughout a company, and not just in marketing and HR, can steer the hiring and promotion of women. The next generations will do better — the future generations of female leaders are out there, waiting to be developed. And maybe they won’t ever have to wonder if they are just filling a quota when they get there.

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