Women in technology: Why women communicate differently from men

An advocate of women in technology explores whether men and women are intrinsically different when it comes to IT aptitude.

Carolyn Leighton is the founder, CEO and chairman of Women in Technology International, or WITI, which, with some 2 million members (men and women) worldwide, bills itself as the leading trade association for tech-savvy women. Its mission? "To empower women worldwide to achieve unimagined possibilities and transformations through technology leadership and economic prosperity." That's a tall order today, even with the spectacular success...

of women like Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, IBM's Virginia Rometty and Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman. Back in 1989, when WITI took root -- and when social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook were more than a decade away -- connecting technology women took some brass.

Carolyn LeightonCarolyn Leighton,
founder and CEO, WITI

SearchCIO-MidMarket.com News Director Linda Tucci recently spoke with Leighton about the cultural and economic politics of women in technology. In this first of a two-part interview, Leighton talks about WITI's founding and takes on the question of whether women and men are intrinsically different when it comes to an aptitude for IT.

Tell us what it was like in 1989 when you founded WITI.

Carolyn Leighton: When I started a company, Criterion Research, whose clients took me into aerospace and technology companies, I had very little awareness of issues that were confronting women in corporate environments. At the time I would call myself pretty unconscious about women's issues. NOW[the National Organization for Women] was very active, and when feminist issues were being brought in a very public way through the TV, I would see a bunch of women -- as I heard it -- screaming into cameras with a great deal of anger about women's issues. At the time, my response in my head was, "Oh, my goodness, this is going to set us back even further," because it is just going to perpetuate the stereotype that men certainly held at the time, that we were, as women, emotional, hysterical and all the words I used to hear growing up about women -- and that it was going to make it even more difficult for women in the workplace.

Then, as I started working with these companies and developing relations with women who worked for these companies, they started opening up to me and sharing a great deal of frustration over what they were experiencing in those work environments. The more stories I heard, I realized that there were serious, shared issues among some of the most amazing, well-educated, intelligent, gifted women I had ever met! And I felt this was ridiculous and such a loss for all of us. It was a loss for the companies who were employing them, for the women who were feeling the frustration, for everyone who could benefit from these women realizing their full potential, and who were being stopped from doing so. That was my real motivation that started the whole process about thinking about WITI.

At the time all of this was going on, I was working very closely with Hewlett-Packard Labs. I was so impressed with the fact that at that time, in the '80s, Hewlett-Packard Labs would form teams of people with very different backgrounds. A team could consist of a teacher, a mathematician, a biologist, a salesperson. Those were the groups that would look at new product ideas and development -- the thinking being [that] if they look at a product from completely different perspectives, they were much more likely to develop a product that would address features and issues important to their market. At the time, no one I knew was doing this, and I have always felt that was what made Hewlett-Packard so successful back then: They were so advanced in the way they looked at true diversity.

We may not even be consciously aware of how it has impacted the way we see ourselves, but I am sure it does impact all of us.

Carolyn Leighton,
CEO, Women in Technology International

So, as I thought about how I could help these women who were confiding in me, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to create a network of women who were working in every aspect of technology and were sharing their perspectives and solutions with each other?" The thought was this would give these women who felt so stuck a competitive edge. When they were competing with the men on a project, their ability to get to quick solutions because of their network would outweigh the old-boy network and would give them a jump-start. That was the whole idea behind WITI.

What were some of the complaints and concerns of women in technology back in the '80s?

Leighton: The running theme was that whenever they were in meetings, they were, as professional technical women then, always in the minority. And worse, they were just treated in dismissive ways and their suggestions were completely ignored. If [those suggestions] were repeated by men in the group, those same ideas would be taken seriously. When a promotion was available, most of the time it went to one of the golf buddies. The women felt as if they had no way to crack through to the next level they wanted to get to.

This bias against women, of course, is not good, but given your long experience in this field, do you think there are any intrinsic differences between men and women in terms of aptitude for doing various parts of the IT mission?

Leighton: That's an interesting question, because in the '80s, the overriding theme tended to be [that] women are the same as men in terms of personalities and capabilities. I used to tell people, "No, we're totally different." I grew up in a laboratory of six girls and five boys, and my daily experience with my brothers and sisters just highlighted how different we were. So, I have always felt -- and since then, of course, there has been a lot of gender research -- that we're in general very different. Of course, we all know that we all incorporate similarities: Some women are much more aligned with the male model, and some men are much more aligned with the female model. But in general, we see that women intrinsically are multitaskers -- we're collaborators.

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We know women who are fiercely competitive, but my experience is that the majority of us are more collaborative than competitive. We tend to look at whole systems and to be willing to take risks -- and again, there are some women and some men completely averse to risk. I hate to generalize too much, but if you get any group of men and women together and look at our communications, women tend to hear things so differently. And that is why having a group of both male and female and different cultures and different backgrounds is so critical to find the best solutions. It really isn't a matter of right or wrong: It is just a matter of bridging the differences and leveraging them that makes us all more powerful.

You hinted at something I'd like to pursue. Do you find there are differences between men and women in wanting to control something? Might that be part of the problem of women reaching top positions of power?

Leighton: I tend to interpret the world psychologically. My experience is that the level of control that people require has little to do with their gender and more to do with our background and early childhood experiences. So, no, I do not see that as a gender difference at all.

However, the one issue that touches that -- that is a big gender issue -- is that maybe one of the reasons we're still seeing so few women at the very head of major corporations is the fact that for decades women have been socialized to believe that women can succeed in the No. 2 role. The messages are so subtle in so many ways. I remember about 10 years or so ago turning on the TV and seeing a vision of Laura Bush standing next to George Bush and looking at him [and] smiling and saying nothing. I was thinking, this is a classic example -- just think of how powerful that image is on women and on young girls. My belief was that Laura was much smarter than George -- but that wasn't the issue! He was the president. He had the title. She just sort of stood there smiling sweetly, and I thought, I bet I've seen these images all my life and so have other women. We may not even be consciously aware of how it has impacted the way we see ourselves, but I am sure it does impact all of us.

We recently had the image of the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paying homage to the people who died in Libya, and Clinton extending her hand in solidarity to the president.

Leighton: And thank goodness for Hillary Clinton, who I see as one of the most courageous women in the world. How many women -- I certainly would not -- would have the courage to take on the role she has? Hillary has fought for the issues she believed in since her early 20s.

In part two, Leighton talks with SearchCIO-Midmarket's Tucci about why technology women need to change their attitudes about money, and how the pervasiveness of IT is a very good thing for the female gender.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, News Director. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket and on Facebook.

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