Learning from Women Who’ve Made It to the Top in Tech
Women leaders in technology reveal what companies—and women themselves—can do to expand gender diversity in tech leadership.
Neveen Awad, the leader of BCG’s Detroit office, has spent the past few years researching gender diversity in technology. She talks about her own tech journey, the insights women can bring to tech, how paternity leave can be for a boon for women in leadership—and more.
Neveen Awad, the daughter of an engineer, learned early in life “how fun it was to make machines do something.” The only woman pursuing a computer science major in her graduating class at college and later a PhD, Neveen eventually realized that she did not want to spend her days coding. Now head of BCG’s Detroit office and leader of the firm’s Women in Technology initiative in North America, Neveen shares insights from her upcoming research on the impact of COVID on women in tech. She talks about why the first and second promotion for women are so critical, how paternity leave can actually be for a boon for women in leadership—and more.
Neveen Awad is a managing director and partner at BCG who leads the Women in Technology initiative in North America and is an active sponsor of the firm’s Women@BCG and Women in Digital initiatives. Neveen is also the office leader for BCG's Detroit office. Prior to joining BCG, Neveen Awad was an Assistant Professor of Information systems at Wayne State University. She has a degree in computer science and a PhD.
GEORGIE FROST: Businesses and organizations have been working toward greater gender diversity for decades. Some are moving faster than others. Women account for just 16% of senior-level tech jobs and 10% of executive positions. So why is an industry that looks so far ahead falling so far behind? Has anything been learned from the way we've been working during the pandemic that could change all that? I'm Georgie Frost, and this is The So What from BCG.
NEVEEN AWAD: What happens is oftentimes women get dissuaded and frustrated by having to convince, challenge, and repeat the concept of where they see the future going multiple times before it's taken seriously.
GEORGIE: Today, I'm talking to Neveen Awad, a core member of the Technology Advantage practice and leadership team at BCG. Neveen also leads the Women in Technology Initiative in North America.
NEVEEN: When I graduated with a degree in computer science, I was the only woman in my graduating class. I originally got involved because I grew up in a house where my dad was an engineer, and he always had these early computers, and I thought they were so cool. He was always in front of them. So I wanted to understand these devices that he was really obsessed with.
Then when I got to college, I mean, I think it was a mix of I didn't really like memorizing and so I thought I wanted be a doctor, but I didn't like biology. Then I started understanding how fun it was to make a machine do something. Put together a bunch of code that really made no sense to lots of people, but that actually structurally broke down a problem into a way that you could sort things, you could figure out patterns.
Honestly, to this day,
Or you'd walk in and people would be talking about things that you were just totally uninterested in. I always kind of felt like, "OK, well, it's OK. I'm different, but that's fine because I like what I'm doing, and I have the people that are like me outside of this role." But it did, I will say, when I first graduated college, I didn't want to just become a programmer.
And a lot of the males who graduated with me just wanted to go work for Microsoft and develop Microsoft Word or...well, there was no Google at the time, but I'm sure they would've loved to go to Google. But that wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to be at the interface of the technology and communication because I felt like I was uniquely positioned at that place. And maybe I was, or maybe there was a part of me that was like, "I don't know. Do I want to be sitting in rooms with a bunch of males just grinding away at computers for the rest of my life?" Maybe not.
GEORGIE: I'm curious, Neveen, how that feeling has continued as your career has gone on and what you've seen from the experiences of other women as well. Because we do from the outside, speaking for myself here, no offense intended of course, we have this view of those who work in tech as a lot of guys in dark rooms playing with computers. It's interesting you say that as someone from the inside. Do women have a different role then? Are we advertising those roles enough? Are we employing our own bias here by even suggesting that?
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NEVEEN: Yeah. Now, some of the most innovative people in the field are women and you see what they do and you see that there's so much more to it than the technology.
What's very critical for any organization that wants a diverse leadership board is to see that there are different ways of getting from point A to point B, and for enabling those different ways to occur. So that once you get to leadership, which is point B, there's people that got there from lots of different trajectories and then therefore see different paths forward for the organization.
The companies that have the most diverse leadership do that the best, and then therefore they're more economically resilient. They see better profits. There's been research that their margins are higher.
GEORGIE: I'd suggest it's more than a shame. [LAUGHTER] When you think about the industry that you work in, perhaps like no other, is shaping our future in our society. We hear a lot about inbuilt biases in creating technology such as AI. Is that a legitimate concern?
NEVEEN: I think if you look at the places where people have been really successful on changing society, like how we search, how we take car rides, how we buy things, it's been a lot of men that have charted those.
There's a lot of flip side to technology in terms of, yeah, there's wonderfulness of connectedness, etc., and progression, but if we were seeing all this stuff about the Facebook whistleblower and everything else where if things are handled incorrectly, there's a real downside to humanity. That's where the checks and balances, the different thoughts, the different ways of like what this could mean is very important if we're actually going to further our society right.
GEORGIE: And not to the exclusion of a big sway to society.
GEORGIE: It brings to mind a book called Invisible Women that looks at the gender data gap. This world literally built by men for men. How the absence of sex disaggregated data in things like medical research, in transport, indeed in the size of our mobile phones is having a real-world impact on women, sometimes tragically so. Are we in danger of repeating this with AI, with machine learning, the metaverse even, that inbuilt bias? Or will it be so good, the technology, that it will learn not to be biased?
NEVEEN: Well, you hope it will learn not to be biased for sure.
So both last year and this year, we've done research with women leaders in tech. So over 1,000 minority and nonminority, senior, mid-level manager, women in tech, and there were just so many fascinating things that came about. A really clear difference of perspective for the senior women and how much agency they felt in terms of whether it meant rebalancing what was important to them in a job they took, whether it meant switching jobs because they just didn't want to be in a big organization and they knew they could get something at a small organization, and whether it meant just taking some time off for a period of time.
Middle-manager women felt much less agency in that. However, they felt much more value came to them from being in an environment where everyone was remote and so it was all balanced. So now you come back to the question you had asked me about the impact of making sure that men, women, everyone have similar impact in terms of how technology is used for the future, how it's used for society.
One of the things that's so important for organizations to figure out is how to create environments where there really is equal agency and equal voice. What that comes down to honestly, one, is making it very clear that differences are celebrated, not squashed [LAUGHS], which sounds so basic. But if you actually look at how every type of large-scale organization is run, it's often the case that there are few very key paths to success.
How do we create more paths to success that are just as quick but allow different levels of engagement? That's kind of one. By doing that now,
The last thing I would say is that the other thing that's super important is how do you get access early? Not everyone wants to be in STEM or it's we're not getting the diversity. We're definitely not getting diversity in tech that's racial, and we're getting more gender diversity, but there's an opportunity for more. So why is that when you look across our early systems, everything from like the Lego programming to building the robot. And you analyze the bulk of the people on those different teams, they do skew to non-minority boys. And so how do we encourage everyone?
I think the ability to recognize patterns in life is an incredibly valuable thing for any job, especially as you become more senior.
GEORGIE: I'm interested to go a bit more into this research that you did, but because you did it in the two years that we've been obviously having the pandemic and the impact that that's had. You talked about things like paths to leadership. What will those paths to leadership look like when we don't even know what the world of work is going to look like? It feels like someone's ripped up the rule books, thrown it in the air and waiting for the pieces to land. They may all land together as they were, maybe go back to normal and everyone back in the office, etc. But I sense that's not going to be the case. So how do we navigate this "new normal" to the benefit of women?
NEVEEN: The first way we navigate it is to acknowledge that we don't have the playbook of what it looks like in the future and to try and just say, oh, in April, we're going to go back to what we looked like in January of 2019 is clearly not optimal for anyone. We also, the second way we navigate it is to say what the future of work looks like for Georgie may be different than the future of work for Neveen may be different than the future of work for Jack, etc. And as organizations, we have to figure out kind of what our parameters are of what we think needs to be, you know: these are how we want the team to work together, but then we don't necessarily dictate what that means for each individual person. So that may mean for some people being completely back all the time. That may be for some people hybrid and that might not actually affect productivity by any stretch and that now the teams have learned really how to work across these different environments.
The third way that we go back is we acknowledge that there's a couple of things that are very clear in terms of trajectory of diverse leadership. One is
GEORGIE: Do you mean bringing in that promotion quite soon? Is that what you're suggesting or is there something else to it? You have a big promotion, have more responsibility?
NEVEEN: Exactly. OK. You've done this job for a year, even if it's not officially, like you went from level seven to level six, like is it that you take on something, you take on managing a part of the team where you hadn't been before?
GEORGIE: Don't leave someone languishing.
GEORGIE: So if you are a business leader listening to this podcast, because you don't have to be in tech, this is across the board in terms of diversity, but what can you learn from this?
NEVEEN: Yeah. I mean, it's a great question. One thing that we didn't talk about and I know everyone knows, but just the research really shows is that women have borne greater number of hours of the ecosystem of the household than men. And actually for minority women, for non-Caucasian women, what that has looked like has been different. It's been kids and family versus just kids, for example. So that creates different types of pulls. So why do I say that?
As an organization, as an employer, understanding that and understanding that that's part of the reason you have to create different work models, different paths to success, different journeys through the organization is because actually those people can bring in a very valuable perspective that may be different than someone else's perspective and therefore will make you a more effective organization is really critical.
So with that as context, key lessons for organizations moving forward. So one is in the vein of the ecosystem. People like men, women, everyone, are looking for work life balance. And what that balance means is very different for everybody. That's why creating different ways for people to take step-backs in careers and making it more normalized.
Second thing is that there's been a lot of learnings around the value when you're in the middle of your career of feeling equal voice and equal space. So how do you structure interactions, meetings, your operating model, etc., so that you make sure that you're giving equal voice, equal space, same manager attention, same manager and coaching and guidance across your entire set of mid-level and junior people, because that's actually really important in their career trajectory. The third thing, just kind of thinking again on like the value that the manager plays.
The fourth thing would be, as you look at your work models, as you look at like what it means to come in and then advance, look at how much you enable people to chart their own course, how much that's encouraged, how much there are examples that you can show. So those would be the ones I would say are kind of very critical. All that comes together to basically create an environment that feels inclusive and supportive and enabling to everyone.
GEORGIE: One of my big fears, Neveen, is this move to working from home that we've seen through the pandemic will potentially set women back. What seems liberating and make no bones about it, for many people, this is liberating. I work from home and I'm enjoying the benefits that that brings.
But I also have a fear of not going into studio, not going into the office, not speaking to people, not being present and in people's faces. For all sorts of things, for creativity, but then also the material impact of that. Will I get promotions? Will I get pay rises? Those sorts of things. And also this idea of reinforcing old gender stereotypes, because all of the research shows so far that women are still doing much of the housework and caregiving, regardless of whether both partners are still at home. I just worry.
So that's one thing. This other thing I would say that has come out of interviews and research very clearly is take on things that are different, take on things that are challenging, stretch into places that are uncomfortable in a positive way, because that's expected in a career of everyone. And then communicate when you've done that successfully and you've had wins because everyone communicates their wins and there's nothing wrong with it if you communicate in a way that's like productive to the organization and the team. So I do think just as organizations have responsibilities, we have responsibilities too.
GEORGIE: Amazing, Neveen. Thank you so much. And to you for listening. We'd love to know your thoughts. To get in contact, leave us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you like this podcast, why not hit subscribe and leave a rating wherever you found us. It helps other people find us too.
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