Do Women in Tech Need to Get Better at Bluster?

Leading women in tech on the industry’s gender imbalance

Women in technology don’t lack smarts, solid ideas, sharp management skills, or any of the other ingredients needed to succeed in a competitive industry.

But here’s one talent that might be helpful to hone: self-promotion.

At a Glamour magazine-sponsored panel Tuesday, moderated by longtime tech reporter and co-executive editor of AllThingsD, Kara Swisher, leading women from Google, Microsoft, Zynga, and bitly talked about why they don’t have more company in technology.

The hour-long conversation drew out a range of deep-rooted social challenges: the hyper-competitive, and often dry, way computer science is taught; how young girls are socialized to think about math and science; and how the primarily male venture capital community selects startups to fund.

But it also carried one key message for the women in the industry: Don’t worry about failing; just get your idea out.

“The advice I would give is actually something I learned from studying science and math, which is that  science is really about failing—all the time,” said Hilary Mason, chief scientist for the startup bitly. “You come up with ideas, you try things and they don’t work most of the time. So you really have to get comfortable with experimenting, failing, and not take it as a reflection on yourself, or how good you are at what you’re doing.”

One of the audience members, Kathryn Minshew of the website The Daily Muse, raised a question about the amount of “bluster” among men in the industry. When she started to ask whether women need to “get more comfortable being . . . aggressive,” Swisher jumped in to finish the question with “liars, yes” (much to the amusement of the audience).

Kidding aside, Swisher said, “dudes in Silicon Valley” do seem to have no trouble playing the game and picking up the inside lingo of pumped-up valuations and venture capitalist name-dropping.

Referencing her own daughter, Julie Larson-Green, corporate vice president of program management for Windows at Microsoft, said young girls are being steered away from science and math as early as fourth grade. Despite showing an early aptitude for problem solving, Larson-Green said that by the time she reached high school, her daughter told her that careers in technology were “really for boys. And I said, ‘Hello! I’m your mother.'”

Mason also emphasized the need to encourage more young women to pursue computer science, not only as a major, but "as a piece of what they take to whatever it is they do."

Beyond education and how girls perceive careers in technology, Larson-Green said that until recently tech leaders have “promoted in their own image”—which, in a world of mostly white males, has yielded more mostly white males at the tops of companies.

“That familiarity breeds comfort,”  said Larson-Green, but added, “As you try to impact more people’s worlds, that diversity becomes more and more important as people are more willing to try out different ways of doing things and different thought patterns.”

The venture capitalist world, in particular, the panelists said is a “club” with its own language and culture, but without many women.

Kati London, director of product for Zynga, said part of the problem is that aside from building the confidence to pitch their ideas and raise money, women may not have access to the VC community or feel like they don’t have the right vocabulary to get their ideas across.

But, she said, she feels fortunate to be connected to that world and has seen the numbers shift a bit more in women’s favor over the past five years.

“I think we can overcome those hurdles,” she said. “We’re on the right track.”

Stacy Brown-Philpot, director of Google-owned and operated properties, said that part of the solution is for women to partner with those who are in the most connected communities instead of going it alone.

“We’ve got to infiltrate . . . Find people in that network who can be part of your team,” she said. “This is the way the world works today, and you’ve got to learn how to operate in it as you [try to change it].”