The glaring gender disparity in the technology sector is apparent, but many leaders are working hard to bridge this gap and push the agenda on workplace diversity. Three female leaders – Karina Kirk, Mary Hunter and Marianne Woldbye Tholin – from Columbus, a listed IT services and consulting company, discuss their career journeys and what women in tech means to them.
Interview from Chief Executive Officer Magazine
How did you end up in the tech space?
Karina Kirk (KK): The tech space has been part of my career path from the very beginning, as being part of true business transformation and being able to make an impact fascinates me. I experienced my first ERP systems and change management projects when I joined Andersen Consulting in 1996 (now Accenture) right out of business school.
Mary Hunter(MH): I was trying to become an accountant and I took what I thought would be an interim job supporting accounting software for IT companies, I never looked back. I enjoyed the consulting side of the business and fast developed a passion for helping companies maximise their use of technology to bring the greatest rewards.
Marianne Woldbye Tholin (MWT): I have had a big interest in natural sciences ever since childhood. For a long time I believed I would end up a medical doctor. After giving up that route, I realised that a combination of leadership and a new technology area was what could give me a head start for a career that would allow me to build business-based opportunities created by technology advances. At that point, IT and genetics were the two new big things in tech. And IT seemed a great choice; I never regretted it
What inspires you as a female leader in the technology space?
MWT: I am inspired by the speed of development in technology. It resonates with my passion for learning new things and finding innovate applications for technology. My focus has always been on what technology is capable of doing for human beings, rather than on the technology itself.
KK: What inspires me is how great customer experiences and enterprise value is driven by digitalisation and IT-enabled business transformation. I am also inspired by the visionary mindset of the people, the approach to design and innovation as well as the competences and drive to fulfil future dreams of how we are going to live our lives and how businesses will prosper.
MH: I love being really successful in a man’s world because even though sometimes it feels like women have to work twice as hard as men, seeing the impact of hard work and passion is immensely rewarding. Every day I am inspired by my colleagues, my peers and my employees, who take risks, deliver results, overcome challenges and nurture each other. All of this, along with the knowledge that technology has the potential to change the world and I am playing my part to achieve this, is immensely inspiring.
" The technology space is already suffering from a skill shortage, and without bringing women into the sector and developing them, that gap is only going to get worse and we will be missing out. "– Marianne Woldbye Tholin
As a woman in technology, what barriers have you encountered and how have you pushed past them?
MWT: I have experienced a few obvious barriers but havelearned that barriers may be subtle and unconscious, which makes them more difficult to address. On the other hand, being a minority also gives you advantages. You stick out and get noticed. That is a massive opportunity.
MH: I have had experiences where I haven’t been given the same opportunities as my male colleagues and have had to work harder to prove my worth, often taking the jobs no one wanted. I also haven’t been given the same title and recognition as my counterparts, and I proved my worth through consistent results and determination before demanding the title and sticking up for what I believed was rightfully mine.
KK: I have learned that equality of opportunity is not necessarily a given but the outcome of unconscious biases and culture as well as the perception of women “not leaning in enough” in the workplace. I have always tried to set my own goals in life and define what really matters to me; looking for people to work with who were dedicated to building talent and sponsoring development.
What piece of advice would you give other industry leaders about bridging the gender gap?
MH: Ultimately, we all need a diverse team that looks at things differently and brings different experiences and angles to the table in order to deliver more innovative ideas and results. It is critical that we have women of all ages – and different cultures for that matter – across the business to push boundaries and input new ideas, because it has been shown that businesses that embrace diversity and drive it are more competitive and more successful.
KK: Stop talking and start acting. Set your objectives for gender equality and start asking yourself what you can do as a leader today and tomorrow to change the culture from within. Start looking for talent potential, results delivered and how impact is created with a different lens. And most importantly, start hiring and promoting talented women now
MWT: Take the extra effort to always look out for well-qualified women. We tend to recruit in our own image, so bridging the gender gap needs extra attention. We see this happening with many tech companies setting themselves targets on gender distribution, as well as other diversity parameters. The technology space is already suffering from a skills shortage, and without bringing women into the sector and developing them, that gap
is only going to get worse and we will be missing out.
What does the new, inclusive technological landscape look like to you?
MWT: The inclusive landscape in technology has the same characteristics as in most industries. It is about extending diversity on all crucial parameters: gender, age, cultural background, for example. The need to move forward in this direction, especially on gender equality in tech industries,is accentuated by the speed of the development and fight for talent.
KK: Today, most people understand that diversity and inclusion are key determinants of organisational success, meaning equal representation of men and women. This is in all industries, not only within the technology space. However, with the pace of the technology industry there is an urgent need for realising the potential of having a diverse workforce, and therefore we must be relentless in our efforts to diversify the current and next generation of technologists.
MH: Equal representation for men, women and all cultures (multiethnic); diversity across the business. We definitely need more females represented at the board level, and more widely represented in leadership roles (more than just those you typically see in HR, finance and marketing,). With this in place, the technology space will have a more balanced, innovative perspective that supports the workforce, and drives change faster and more effectively
What does the future hold for women in technology?
MWT: The same opportunity it holds for men. With that said, the speed of innovation and growth in many technology areas drives companies to dip into the total talent pool. They need to engage in extending that talent pool at a faster speed than ever and getting the ratio of women in the pool growing is supporting that objective.
KK: I see a lot of opportunities for women in tech because the talent is needed and the attention on the gender gap is there. In Columbus, we actively work towards increasing the proportion of women at management level when hiring externally and internally for open positions.
MH: There is a huge opportunity in the technology sector for women. There is demand, there is a skills shortage, and women have an opportunity to seize it and excel in an industry they might have traditionally feared. Most importantly, the technology sector provides women with unique, flexible opportunities to retrain, come back after children, or start a different career path. Smart, passionate women can and will succeed.
" I see a lot of opportunities for women in tech because the talent is needed and the attention on the gender gap is there." – Karina Kirk
Why is it so important to recruit and retain females in leadership positions?
KK: I believe that diversity in the broader definition – gender, nationality, age, competences, personal profile, and so on – is key for creativity and innovation. Studies also show that diversity leads to improved bottom line and enterprise value, and my own experience is also that diversity creates superior innovative customer experiences, business value and a better
MWT: Diversity tends to result in better solutions to problems because the potential ideas have been massaged through different perspectives and priorities. This is certainly true for gender diversity; which is why we, both male and female leaders, need to continue to go the extra mile for females in technology.
MH: McKinsey have reported that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. However, recruiting women needs to start even before you have open roles. It starts with nurturing girls in school through STEM initiatives, so you have females aware of the opportunities and available to recruit.