When Swarna Kuruganti worked for the company that invented the Post-It Note, as the only Indian woman, “most of the time I was the last person recognized in a meeting,” she said.
Kuruganti revealed this hard truth during a Women in Technology panel event hosted by Ellevate Network and IHS Markit on Oct. 10, which brought together dozens of professionals eager to hear about challenges that still exist for women in the workplace — and how to overcome them.
According to statistics compiled by The National Center for Women and Information Technology, 26 percent of computing jobs in 2018 were held by women, and women comprised just 20 percent of Fortune 500 Chief Information Officer positions. The numbers were much lower for women of color. And in terms of entrepreneurship, according to a 2017 TechCrunch article, just 17 percent of startups had a female founder.
Kuruganti, a technology entrepreneur who is now assistant vice president of GenPact, a global professional services firm, joined fellow panelists Sari Granat of IHS Markit, an information services company, and Jacqueline Smalls of Black Girls Code to share their experiences. The event was moderated by Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate, which offers female-oriented professional resources and networking events.
Here’s what they recommended for women building careers in tech.
1. Avoid self-sabotage
When talking about challenges, Granat, who is executive vice president and general counsel of IHS Markit, said women can sometimes interfere with their own success.
“We do this to ourselves a little bit — women will go for a job when they’re 100 percent sure they’re qualified, and men do so when they’re 60 percent sure,” she said.
Smalls, vice president of programs at Black Girls Code, said she thinks many women have the necessary qualifications to get the job they want — they’re just not being given the chance.
“Many women have the skills, but they’re not being hired or supported,” she said, adding that many girls who go through the program want to pursue STEM fields, but opportunities dwindle as they get to college and beyond.
To combat this issue, Smalls said the organization is starting an ambassador program that tracks participants’ progress in STEM fields at age 17 and older.
2. Find an advocate
All of the panelists emphasized the importance of mentorship, coaching and advocacy to ensure diverse voices are heard.
“If you’re in a meeting and you’re the person in power, it’s so important to reiterate and say, ‘I love this idea,’” said Kuruganti. “If there is an opportunity someone can benefit from, speaking up is so important to make sure you’re opening the door for someone else.”
Granat suggested “reverse mentoring” — approaching a boss who is open to hearing feedback “about how they hold meetings or how they talk to people in meetings.”
“Everyone has a role to play to improve our working lives,” she said.
3. Stay focused on the long game
In order to close the gender and diversity gap in tech and other fields, the panelists agreed that companies have to both act swiftly and lay the groundwork for institutional change.
“It’s a combination of bold moves and long-term, programmatic change,” said Granat, adding that IHS Markit is currently looking for new female board members.
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Smalls said companies should consider bringing in an expert to expedite shifts in recruitment and systems in place.
“Look at hiring practices — who is in your leadership?” Smalls said. “An external eye can challenge you, and then you can move faster in bringing about change.”
The women agreed that taking risks has been crucial to get to where they are now in their careers, and they wished they had heard that advice when they were younger.
“I’ve been fired, I’ve been moved, I’ve taken roles beneath my qualifications,” Granat said. “Careers are really long. You have to be open and willing to take risks, and know you have potential. Of course, as a girl, I had no idea.”