CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- How can women in IT be leaders in their workplaces?
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Single out the female gender for anything and the specter of sexism rears its anxious head. Would you ask that of a man? Would you say that about a man?
In a keynote talk at the EmTech08 emerging technologies conference at MIT this week, Atefeh Riazi stepped in where few men dare to tread these days.
Riazi, CIO at New York-based ad agency Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Inc., dissected the ways in which women in IT are stereotyped in the workplace and offered some advice. The hard reality: Women who are IT managers battle workplace branding on two fronts -- as women and as the IT geek who inspires fear and loathing in business colleagues. To become leaders in their workplaces, women in IT (male readers, a lot of what follows will work for you, too) must understand and manage how they're perceived.
Showing snippets of her company's ad campaigns for powerhouses like IBM and God (more on that in a moment), Riazi asked audience members to think of their workplace selves like a brand. Not just about selling soap or salad dressing, branding is about the "core of who we are and the experience we have with others," she said. Just as a bad brand image can get in the way of a product ("Big Blue" perceived as too big to work with most companies), a bad personal brand can undermine a career.
"Even God has a brand problem," said Riazi, referring to her agency's controversial 2001 "God campaign" for a group of Christian churches in Singapore. Charged with changing an image among congregants of God as a vengeful, distant deity, the firm created a series of ads rebranding omnipotence as an affable and witty presence with lines like, "I'm here," "Please don't drink and drive -- you're not ready to meet me now," and "Nietzsche is dead."
Walk in your customer's shoes
The first step in managing your brand is understanding one's environment, Riazi said. IT managers persist in believing their work is about deploying hardware and software when, in fact, the job is about deploying change. CIOs are selling change to people who often don't want it, Riazi said.
"When we do make drastic changes, people wonder what is happening to them," she said. When the IT department issues a directive, you can smell the fear. </ p>
Rather than focusing on the technology, good IT leaders will home in on how the technology affects their customers. It can take a generation for people to adapt to new ways of working.
Engineers by education and nature are logical and "hate disorder," said Riazi, an electrical engineer by training. But, she contended, reason is rarely a motive for making decisions.
Customers' decisions are colored by their past emotional experiences, triggered by circumstances and driven by subconscious beliefs. CIOs must know their audience, she said, offering a tidbit for consideration: 10% of Americans believe Elvis is dead; 90% are not sure. And this tidbit: 50% of technology investments do not pay off. For many CFOs and CEOs, the CIO -- who, after all, oversees a huge capital budget -- is "the incarnation of Satan," Riazi said.
"The secret I have learned is to keep the guys who are uncertain away from the guys who hate you," she said. Asking the question, "Who did I p--s off?" is a good way to keep current.
CIOs also need to understand that the art of persuasion, unlike logical ability and awareness, is "downright irrational." IT people often have no idea that what they are saying provokes anxiety in the people they're trying to persuade. IT managers should be striving for a brand that evokes positive feelings.
The feminine mystique
Alas, as if the biases against IT managers weren't enough to overcome, women face additional hurdles in the workplace, simply because they are more familiar with male leadership styles. The angry woman boss is a persistent stereotype. Three out of four women say they would rather work for a man than a woman. "These are the cultural messages that we get of who we are," Riazi said.
In her 25 years in the business -- including some rough-and-tumble times implementing the MetroCard for New York City Transit -- Riazi said she has learned that intellect and expertise "gets you in the door," but emotional intelligence helps you succeed.
She said she has learned not to communicate when upset, because "I am perceived the wrong way." Men like to report ideas; women like to have rapport with the people to whom they're selling ideas. Riazi said she stopped using the expression, "I feel that…" after a boss admonished her with, "You are an engineer. You don't feel, you believe."
But she has also learned to reject female prescriptions foisted on her -- such as learning "to be modest and not ask for more money or staff." Or that it is impolite to cut people off. "If I did not do that at times, I would not have been heard. These are preconceived notions that do not work for us," she said. After being told by a superior to never wear red lipstick, "I only wear red since that time." More useful was the advice she got from a mentor on the necessity of speaking up in a meeting within the first five minutes, "even if it is only raising your hand" to say you're going to the bathroom, she said.
In what was perhaps her most controversial observation, Riazi cautioned the audience, which was filled with mostly women, that no matter what leadership style they adopt, they would be wise to "not violate the gender rule" of female as nurturer. Women must be aggressive for their team but remember that "hope and fear move people … and in tough times it is fear of survival that really moves people."
Finally, IT managers must realize that winning in the workplace is a lot like playing Monopoly. "We believe the game is played on the board, but the game of Monopoly is actually played off the board … when you negotiate," she said. On the board is only where you move the pieces.
The talk, which went for a little more than 30 minutes, appeared to have a powerful effect on women in the audience.
Ellen Greene, a systems engineer who works in the global positioning system office at Bedford, Mass.-based The Mitre Corp., said she is at a crossroads in her young career, on the cusp of moving into "something a little more taxing." She said she was attending the conference's Women in Technology session because there were few women at her company and she was hoping for some perspective from women in other industries facing similar issues.
"I'm choosing between a technical and managerial path and being pulled in a lot of directions," said Greene, who earned a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from Dartmouth College and has done graduate work in computer science. One of her dilemmas is how to reconcile additional responsibility at work with what she "wants to do with the rest of my life."
"Boy, did this hit home!" she said. "It stuck many, many chords -- all the ways in which women are perceived differently from men and how poorly it affects us sometimes.
"I do a lot of close work with military … They are used to having women as bosses in technology, so sometimes you see an odd reversal of roles sometimes," including looking to her for leadership and answers, she added.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer