A Few Women of Note
A distinct memory I have is from my teenage years, some 15-20ish years ago. That’s the iPod to iPhone launch era if you’re looking for a quick reference. I was watching the news and for the first time in my life I saw a woman present the sports highlights. Despite being a child of the 90s, where casual sexism was rife, I managed to adopt the mindset of “girls can do anything boys can do except become priests”, (I grew up in a very catholic community); mostly because I was surrounded by strong women, and the girls in my very limited social circle tended to be orders of magnitude better than the boys I knew at almost everything school-related. Still, when faced with a female sports presenter for the first time, my burgeoning feminist self didn’t think “that’s cool” or respond with classic teenage indifference. Instead I thought “that’s strange that she’s doing that section, women don’t play sports”. Of course I knew this wasn’t true. For starters this was something I did weekly. My childhood had also coincided with the peak of Sonia O’Sullivan’s career, one of Ireland’s most successful athletes, ever. I knew that not only could women play sports, they could win Olympic medals. Yet, sport in my mind was associated with men. It was male Gaelic football players' names that dominated the radio stations. It was men I saw playing soccer on TV every weekend. Heck, even the cartoon sports-beings I saw on my cereal boxes were male. Sonia was literally one of the best in the world, but she was only one person. Her singular presence, no matter how excellent her achievements, couldn't penetrate the dominant narrative that had filtered through the leading sports institutions and media, to the school yard. My younger self had received the message. Sports was for boys.
I grew up to become a Woman in Tech™, an industry where women are significantly underrepresented. If I were as impressionable as I was in my youth, I may be inclined to believe the current dominant narrative demonstrated through VC funding, leadership positions, and who gets recognised in the upper echelons of Tech Twitter, that tech is just for men (and a certain subset of men at that if we’re being honest). Luckily I’m not that silly. Tech as an industry has its faults but overall I’m bullish on its ability to positively impact the world. For everyone to benefit from that impact we need to ensure all sections of society are represented at the decision making table.
As International Women’s Day is almost upon us, I wanted to contribute in some small way to enhancing representation, by highlighting a few inspirational women*.
(*Note: My suggestions are quite Ireland-UK-US-centric as these regions make up the bulk of my cultural references. They are also lacking in diversity, something I’m actively looking to change. If you have any recommendations please add them in the comments below!)
The OG Tech Leader
Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley fled to the UK from Nazi Germany as a child. Her girls' school didn’t teach maths, so she took classes at the local boys school instead. This led her to being able to pursue a career in technology. On entering the work-force she was legislatively barred from many roles due to her gender. Undeterred, she founded a remote tech company that exclusively hired female programmers in 1962. Her company was responsible for programming the black box for the Concorde. Its software standards were adopted by NATO. The company eventually went public, valued at $3 billion. She has dedicated most of her later years to philanthropy. You can read more about her story here.
This story is a great reminder that the status quo isn’t fixed and certainly isn’t always right.
There is no shortage of women content creators, but I do find that we’re generally underrepresented in the more “serious” genres such as tech, business and politics. For example, Lex Friedman, chart-topper of the “serious” podcast genre, has interviewed women in a grand total of 17 of his last 100 episodes. The content we consume informs our views. It informs our perception of whose voices are worth listening to and what those voices sound like. It infiltrates our behaviours in meetings, our hiring decisions and our assessment on who has the “executive presence” to lead. (Don’t get me started on that last one). Below are a few women who have interesting things to say about “serious” matters.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of NessLabs, whose science based productivity newsletter has 50,000+ subscribers. She’s a nice antidote to the hustle porn bros who tend to dominate this sector.
Jennifer Kim, a people and talent leader in tech who provides advice and a no-BS, honest assessment of all things hiring and people related (unlike a lot of the other VC generated nonsense out there). Genuinely insightful. Depressingly accurate.
Gerisha Nadaraju, product operations leader and one of the few female podcast hosts in the product space. Season 3 of the awesome The Product Ops podcast is launching soon.
Dr. Julie Gurner, executive coach and Substacker, whose advice I usually find incredibly actionable. She is one of the few women I’ve come across who unashamedly promotes ambition. We need more of that.
Julia Gillard, Australia’s former Prime Minister, who delivered her infamous misogyny speech over 10 years ago. She now hosts a podcast focused on gender issues.
Elizabeth Day, a writer and podcaster, who is one of the best interviewers I’ve come across. Highly recommend checking out her two podcasts How to Fail and Best Friend Therapy. The episode on who gets to express anger (hint: not women) resonated a bit too much…
Nearly every woman I know, including myself, has experienced sexism at work. These are high-performing women, working in progressive tech companies, who still face barriers based on their gender. The behaviour is often insidious and overlooked. Everyone is in a position to help change this dynamic.
Below are interesting reads to mull over while stuffing yourself with the company sponsored pink cupcakes that always seem to make an appearance in the office on International Women’s Day. (For the record, I do always enjoy the cupcakes…)