7 leadership tips for women tech executives

Female executives are unfairly held to a different standard than men in the workplace and are judged not only on their competence, skills and experience but on their appearance and even their speech patterns. Here, four female IT executives weigh in on how to address and overcome these challenges.

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Leadership Tips for Female Tech Executives

The first 90 days of every executive's tenure at a new company is fraught with potential pitfalls, but - as unfair as it is -- female executives are held to a different, stricter standard in the workplace. Women execs must not only prove their competence, but are judged on their personalities, appearance and even their speech patterns in a way few male executives are.

"Female executives face the challenge of presenting themselves accurately in their first 90 days on the job. They need to balance proving both their competence and skill set with showing their true work persona. Male executives are judged first and foremost on how they do a job, and perhaps secondarily on their office demeanor and appearance. Women are immediately judged on both, and therefore need to set goals around performance in both areas," says Danielle Tate, founder and CEO of MissNowMrs.com, an online name change service.

In 2013, women made up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, but held fewer than 14 percent of the Fortune 500 executive officer positions and fewer than 17 percent of the Fortune 500 board Seats, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in the workplace.

To address this issue in the long-term, much work is being done to recruit women into IT and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and many companies and nonprofit organizations exist to help middle-school, high school and college girls and women get involved in STEM careers,. But to help you today, CIO.com asked female executives to weigh in on how female executives can address these challenges and overcome these obstacles.

Female Tech Executives - Avoid Being Too Nice
Avoid Being Too Nice

Women are often raised and socialized to be "people pleasers;" and learn to focus first on the needs of others instead of themselves, according to Penny Locey, vice president at Keystone Associates, a career management consulting firm. That can negatively impact their ability to gain respect in the workplace.

"Many women, even those in senior roles, default to people-pleasing mode when they take a new position, which can undermine their power in an executive position. They're concerned about winning the approval and respect of their peers, superiors and direct reports, so they may hesitate to take a tough stand for fear of appearing dictatorial or overly controlling. Their natural warmth and empathy, when overused, may result in their being labeled 'too nice,' which, in most business settings, is code for 'indecisive,' 'tentative' or 'unassertive,'" says Locey.

Instead, Locey says, women should focus their behaviors on earning the respect of their reports and teams rather than on simply being liked, even if their decisions aren't applauded by everyone.

"Obviously, you don't want to be a dictator or make harsh decisions arbitrarily, but you need to establish early on that you are firm but fair - that you won't back down from tough choices and that will help your peers and reports develop respect for you and your role. Otherwise, you risk losing any power you might have," says Locey.

Make sure you're looking objectively at your habits and behavior and try to modify those that dilute your influence, says Stephanie Daniel, senior vice president at Keystone Associates. For example, in an effort to be viewed as accommodating and thoughtful in meetings, do you do any of the following:

  • Tend to wait to offer your insights and ideas until everyone else has spoken?
  • Soften your voice or apologize for expressing an unpopular view For example, saying, "I'm sorry, but I don't think…" or "You probably won't agree with me on this, but…"?
  • Do your declarative statements sometimes end in a question mark? For example, 'I think that the customer will be pleased with our proposal, don't you?'

And pay attention to your body language, too, says Daniel. Your body language and how you use eye contact could subconsciously be projecting the wrong message.

  • In a group, are you inclined to focus your attention on just one person? Or, do you scan the room to ensure that your message is being heard by all participants?
  • Are you more likely to sit in the chair that is farthest away from the conversation; an unconscious signal that you're not interested in or don't feel qualified to participate in discussions?

Subtle changes in your approach will make a significant difference over time and you will see a shift in the way people relate to you, notes Daniel. "The qualities that make you an engaged and collaborative leader will remain intact; your image as a decisive and confident leader will be strengthened, and the "too nice" moniker that's been attached to you will become a thing of the past," says Daniel.

Female Tech Executives - Consider Power, Not Just Affiliation and Achievement
Consider Power, Not Just Affiliation and Achievement

Whether it comes naturally to you or not, to succeed in a new role, you need to quickly assess who has the informal power in an organization as well as the formal power; who is in favor and who is not; which ideas and values are important to the company and which are not.

"At first, many people will try to befriend you, and you need to get off on the right foot with everyone, of course, but who you align with shows a lot about the type of leader you will be and how much respect you'll earn," says Locey. Maintain a professional distance while you build alliances and get a sense of how the company fits with your own mission, culture and values.

"Watch who defers to whom, who is included and excluded from meetings and whose views are solicited. You don't need to be rude or be cold and icy to those who aren't 'in favor,' but you should know who holds the power in the organization so you can fit yourself within that power structure," says Locey. Because power is often bestowed upon those who do what matters most to those already in power, study what behaviors or achievements are rewarded and aim to replicate those types of "wins" early on, Locey says.

"If your role comes with power through your title or scope, make sure you are included in all the meetings and communications you should be, too. Often, female execs will stay quiet far longer than they should. Don't be demur - speak up in meetings where your voice would be expected," says Daniel.

Female Tech Executives - Consider Power, Not Just Affiliation and Achievement
Attend to Your Own Goals

By 90 days in, you will have more work than you can do; you will be focused on deliverables and you will likely have put on the back burner why it is you took the position as it relates to your career goals. Make sure you're taking time to review your personal goals for this new position and, if necessary, reexamine your game plan.

"Assess if you are gaining the skills and knowledge that you came here to get [and] that you are in a position to obtain the right visibility, boost your reputation and maintain your network. If you are off target to achieve your game plan, you should re-engage with peers, superiors, your team and other stakeholders to strengthen relationships, open the lines of communication and implement action plans to support execution of key achievements," says Daniel.

Female Tech Executives - Stand Behind Your Values
Stand Behind Your Values

Women's socialization as empathetic, nurturing, accessible and approachable caregivers in the workplace can be a huge asset, and if you're this type of leader, by all means, use that to your advantage, says Emily He, CMO at Saba Software.

"Women leaders with these traits have a lot of advantages managing Gen-Y and Gen-Z. When millennials talk about what they want in a manager, these qualities are often at the top of their lists -- so if you have it, use it. People - not just women - with these traits make better managers because of their empathy, open communication, frequent feedback and the fact that they're very approachable and accessible, "says He.

Regardless of whether you consider yourself to have these traits, in the workplace you have to be clear on the values you hold. "Talk is cheap and women are judged much more harshly. Therefore, it's doubly important to make our actions reflect our words. You must define what's important to you and make that come through in every interaction you have and every decision you make," says He.

Female Tech Executives - Be Approachable and Venture Beyond the Confines of Your Office
Be Approachable and Venture Beyond the Confines of Your Office

If you're not the extroverted, nurturing, approachable type, that's absolutely acceptable -- just understand that your personality could be perceived as "standoffishness," so you must make an extra effort to connect with your peers, your teams and your superiors outside of the formal confines of meetings, according to Locey.

"As you're trying to build alliances and gauge the power structure in your new position, remember that you must actively engage with your colleagues. Most employees want to be seen and noticed by executive staff, and something as simple as a brief, informal check-in with you can help build your image as an approachable and accessible leader while not diminishing your authority or power," says Locey.

"If you are spending too much time in your office, make it part of your daily routine to be accessible, open and part of the team by being visible to employees - go to the lunch room, walk over to employee's desk to have a conversation instead of sending an email, walk through the cubicles, and listen or make small talk," says Locey.

Female Tech Executives - Don't be Afraid to Confront Bias If/When You See It
Don't be Afraid to Confront Bias If/When You See It

In some workplaces, the "boys club" still exists, and as a female executive, you'll need to tackle it head-on if you encounter bias. From "sins of omission" like not being invited to an executive golf outing or to a team dinner because it's assumed you must get home to your family, or being excluded when male executives continue conversations in the men's room, biases and exclusion is something all female execs must deal with, according to Locey.

"You don't have to be accusatory, but make sure to point out that, because of your role, you need to be present when decisions are made. Blame it on being 'the new kid' if you must to take the sting out of it, but you have to confront the issue and make sure others in leadership know it's not acceptable," Locey says.

Daniel advises not allowing any incidents to publicly rattle you, but to deal with it afterwards in a private setting. In many cases, it's easily resolved and perpetrators didn't even realize how their language, actions or their humor was perceived.

"If I encounter an insult or a slight, I typically will not engage with that person publically until we've finished what we're trying to accomplish but in private, I will not shy away from saying out loud, 'I'm going to be very plain, this is what I saw and this is how I was impacted and how it also impacts all the other women here at the company when they see this happening.' Often, that will put a stop to it," says Daniel.

Female Tech Executives - Rome Wasn't Built in a Day
Remember That 'Rome Wasn't Built in a Day, But They Were Laying Bricks Every Hour'

Use the first 30 to 90 days to assess risks and opportunities and to map out a plan for the future, knowing that you'll make adjustments to the goals you set and plans you made based on your observations. While earning quick wins early on will be essential to your immediate success, it is your longer-term strategy and vision that will ultimately make a greater impact, Locey says.

Remember that the male-dominated corporate culture is changing. The IT industry is becoming more aware of its biases and is opening up to change, diversity and inclusion. As a female executive, you can effect change by building rapport, earning trust and gaining credibility with every encounter you have.

"It's about creating those connections, earning trust and respect one person at a time. It can seem really daunting to think about changing the overall attitude of the entire company, much less the entire industry, so focus on what you can do, in your role, with every person you work with. Build change from the ground up," says He.