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Trailblazing Women Share Tips on Leadership Principles & Tackling Tech’s Gender Gap

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Did you know that women make up only 28% of professionals in the tech industry? 

What’s more, the percentage of women in tech leadership roles is trending down in recent years. 

Undoubtedly, the tech industry still has a long way to go in leveling the playing field for women. But women executives are resolute in their commitment to break barriers.

At Current 2023: The Next Generation of Kafka Summit, a panel of trailblazing women in tech shared their experiences and advice on navigating careers, empowering leadership, and inspiring futures. 

The audience got to hear from Denise Hemmert, VP of Enterprise Enablement Services at Cardinal Health, Joey Fowler, Senior Director of Technical Services at Denny’s, Mona Chadha, Director of Infrastructure Partnerships at AWS, Sharmey Shah, AVP, Sales-East at Confluent, and Shruti Modi, Director of Data Platform at Penske Transportation Solutions. The panel was moderated by our very own CMO Stephanie Buscemi.

From practical tips such as finding a mentor to words of encouragement for future women-in-tech entrants and leaders, here’s what panelists had to say.

Be authentic, kind, and focus on cognitive diversity

When women are empowered to lead, everyone benefits. In fact, decades of studies show women leaders help drive productivity, collaboration, organizational dedication, and fairness.

“And as we go through our careers, we start to form certain guiding leadership principles. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about where you worked, but how you are remembered and what you are remembered for,” Buscemi said.

So what are some of these guiding leadership principles?

Great leaders bring their authentic self to work, Fowler said, creating a better work environment and experiences for your team and those around them.

It’s also important to lean into the inherent characteristics of a woman, she added.

“Don’t shy away from it or change things about yourself,” Fowler said. “Being who you are brings a unique perspective to the table. Be empathetic, nurturing, introspective, and be willing to listen—all of which comes naturally to women and help us be great leaders.”

And as one builds things as a leader, remember that it’s about teamwork and collaboration—and not about one individual, Chadha said. 

“It’s not about you, but the people that you bring with you, your team: when they are successful, you are successful,” she said. “That elevates everyone. It ultimately creates a legacy, and that’s the lasting impression people will have of you.”

Above all, it’s important to treat one another with kindness and respect, Shah said. 

“And it’s OK to be vulnerable, consider it a superpower,” she added. 

It fosters an environment of trust, encourages personal growth, and improves decision-making.

What’s more, it’s important to focus on creating strong teams with cognitive diversity, Shah added. Teams with cognitive diversity bring together people with contrasting ideas, backgrounds, and leadership styles—ultimately, driving better results and more innovation.

“Physical diversity is important, but prioritize building a team of individuals that think differently. The idea is that the strongest teams bring different ideas to the table … and the other diversity factors will align accordingly,” Shah said.

“What we have done at AWS is look at recruiting as a strategy to bring that diversity of thought to our team, to show that in terms of the team we build out and show that as an example of success,” Chadha said.

Make a greater impact with mentorships, ERGs, and trainings

Female mentorship in tech fosters more than technical skills. It can close gender gaps in leadership positions and inspire young women to join the tech workforce.

Mentorship provides a sense of community. It can not only aid in professional development, creating support systems, and navigating difficult situations—but can also help those starting out build confidence in their decisions.  

"It is critical that women cultivate not only mentors but also sponsors,” said Buscemi. “Mentors share knowledge and provide guidance, but the sponsor provides access to opportunities at work, and/or acts as advocates for career advancement.”

Hemmert, a big advocate of mentorship, shared how mentors can help mentees build confidence and overcome self-doubt.

“One time, a young lady came into my office with a job recommendation printed out and ten qualifications circled and crossed out,” she said. “She was hesitant about applying for the position because she didn’t meet all the qualifications. I talked her through it and she went ahead and applied for the job. She’s doing amazing, and today she is one of my managers. I am really proud of her.”

According to Buscemi, mentors are best when they come from different areas so you get a rounded set of feedback and learning, and the sponsors are best when they have seen you in action, making a meaningful impact, so they can advocate for you with conviction.

And in the journey toward making an impact, it’s also important to openly share the challenges women encounter and talk about how they triumph over them, Modi said. 

“To truly make a difference, the obvious starting point is reaching out to girls in middle and high school and showcase the various opportunities tech has to offer. This early exposure can ignite interest and set the stage for a more inclusive tech industry,” she said.

Apart from creating different avenues and support systems to encourage young women to get into tech (be it hosting women in tech programs, creating book clubs, or organizing career fairs), leveraging existing organizations around diversity and inclusion within the company (think employee resource groups) can be instrumental in bringing women in tech together in a safe, supportive environment where they can have open conversations and feel comfortable sharing their experiences, panelists agreed.

“It’s also important to be more visible, vocal, and available as leaders, and focus on funding education, training, and enablement for women—and making those free and available globally, as accessibility is key to success,” Chadha said.

Identify your safe people and allies

It’s also important to find “your safe places and safe people,” Fowler said. 

“These are people you can have real conversations with. These are people who you can be one hundred percent honest with and have tough conversations with,” she said. 

“Those are people who you can be vulnerable with and you are also giving them permission to check you. They can be a person who can say, ‘You’re overthinking it, get out of your own head’ or ‘You’ve got something that’s really valid, let me help brainstorm on how to deal with it,’” Buscemi said.

Tackling tech’s gender gap also requires seeking support from allies.

By giving voice and value to systematically disadvantaged groups, allyship can empower women to rise through the leadership ranks and also help deliver significant business outcomes.

While anyone and everyone can be an ally, male allies who understand the importance of fostering an inclusive and equitable workplace culture can help break down the barriers women face at work.

“Identify those male allies we can bring along with us, so it’s not just women at the table talking about it,” Fowler said. 

“We are not going to solve this problem if we are going to make this an us vs. them issue. Men are allies and we have to work together if we want to close the tech gender gap,” Buscemi said.

Allies’ active support and endorsement of gender equality initiatives can be powerful for dismantling barriers and cultivating inclusive environments. By joining the cause, and through their collaboration and advocacy, men can contribute significantly to leveling the playing field and fostering a more equitable industry. 

Missed out on Current 2023? Watch the keynotes from day one and day two on demand.

  • Mekhala Roy is a senior writer on the Brand Marketing team at Confluent. Prior to Confluent, Mekhala has worked in the cybersecurity industry—and also spent several years working as a tech journalist.

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