By Sabeen Ali – I’m a CEO, and I happen to be female, too.
Every so often I read articles about what it’s like being a woman in tech or a female-in-charge and there’s always a common tone: “It’s hard, but it’s not too hard.” In an attempt to avoid sounding like we’re complaining, weak or even slightly biased in our opinions, we tend to compromise on the fact that being a female CEO is tough. It comes back into the news when situations like this arise. (My organization, AngelHack, will be continuing to work with Techweek so that we can start and have a conversation about women in the tech industry and how they are viewed and treated honestly and openly.)
Want to work well with women? Learn what success means to them.
We’re competing in a race to be considered equal, treated fairly, given the same recognition as our male counterparts, but we’re falling behind. There are a lot of reasons this is happening but, ultimately, this “race” we’re in isn’t for us. Even if we get equal pay, equal rights and crack the glass ceiling, there will still be too many factors in our lives that prevent us from being truly equal.
But guess what? It’s OK. It’s time we took a different approach and started collaborating with our male counterparts and, most important, our female peers to understand first what it’s like to be a female CEO and second how we define success. Because it’s not the same for all of us.
The tech industry has a massive gender gap, especially at the C-level. We’ve talked repeatedly about challenges women in tech, and especially female CEOs, face in the boardroom, while networking and in other professional settings.
WELCOME TO MY WORLD
At AngelHack, whose workforce is more than 50 percent female, we deal with these challenges daily. Just recently, after an AngelHack event, a representative from a major tech company approached me and two colleagues, one of whom was male and an intern. The rep kept asking questions of the male intern. It was as though his brain wouldn’t let him recognize that the responses were coming not from the person he was staring intently at but from his two female colleagues.
Is it really that big of a leap to think that, just maybe, the male in the group might not be the boss, let alone the most experienced person available?
So here’s the first step in understanding what it’s like to be a female CEO: Listen. Just listen to the person who’s talking, even if it’s not the person you want to be talking to. Who knows, we might just surprise you.
Is it really that big of a leap to think that, just maybe, the male in the group might not be the boss?
Let’s take this a step further and talk about the challenges in our personal lives. I’m the only CEO in my group of friends. When I’m with them, my mind sometimes wanders to that marketing strategy meeting on Monday morning. It’s not the most interesting thing to bring up with a bunch of women whose lives aren’t work. But who am I kidding? My work isn’t my life, either. Yeah, I said it.
I love my company, but I love my family more. This is tough for female entrepreneurs to admit. Why? There is this notion that our “competitors” – men – live and breathe work. This assumption is perpetuated every time a female CEO prioritizes family over work. Want to work well with women? Learn what success means to them.
As CEOs, we know firsthand that our work becomes our life. But what if you already have a family life? What if a meeting with Google is just as important to you as attending your child’s soccer game? Do you choose? Should you have to? I make that choice every day, and so do many other women. It’s important to understand that there is a constant dichotomy between our roles, but that it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s respect the fact that we all have complex lives. I can be firm without being a bitch. I can reserve my opinion and not be clueless. I can be a mom and be a CEO.
HERE’S HOW TO DO IT DIFFERENTLY
Here’s a wild notion: Let’s stop the race, ladies, because we’re not just racing against men, we’re racing against each other. That is unacceptable. There’s a widespread phenomenon called the “cat fight syndrome” where women just can’t let other women around them succeed. I see how tempting this is; I may even let myself entertain it a bit. But then I consciously fight against it. I surround myself with unbelievably talented women in my organization, I train them and teach them everything I know, I push them to create stretch goals, I support them through their successes and guide them through their failures.
This, unfortunately, is not the norm. It’s like wearing beige to one of P. Diddy’s white parties. But we fight the norm because we have something to prove. We’ve proven ourselves to be the best at what we do, not just here in the U.S. but globally. The world has no choice but to accept that the leaders of the largest startup ecosystem in the world are all women. These are the types of things we can accomplish if we work together. My question to other female CEOs: Wouldn’t you like to do the same? Can we wear beige and not judge each other for doing so?
I can be firm without being a bitch. I can reserve my opinion and not be clueless. I can be a mom and be a CEO.
I have to give recognition to the men on our team – they are truly men who listen, who seek to understand and accept that their boss isn’t a white male. These are the same men who look bewildered when the tech rep keeps talking to them while their boss struggles to gain the attention of the audience. These are the men who ask tough questions of other men and are the bridge between assumptions and understanding. Include them in your discussions. They are your most valuable allies.
We face huge challenges as female CEOs, but these challenges are not insurmountable. To overcome them, however, we need to stop pulling each other down and start pulling each other together.
Sabeen Ali is co-founder, president and CEO of San Francisco-based AngelHack a startup ecosystem that provides coding programs, hackathons and the Hackcelerator program, which showcases budding companies to investors.