The Sleeping Butterfly Effect: On Being a Woman in Technology

The Sleeping Butterfly Effect: On Being a Woman in Technology

The Sleeping Butterfly Effect of Being a Woman in Technology

The Sleeping Butterfly Effect is a series of personal development talks I do, including on being a woman in technology. The idea is that you are the Sleeping Beauty in a chrysalis, and when you emerge, with a single flap of your wings, you will change the world.

I want to change the world by encouraging more kids (especially girls) to develop an interest in technology. And I’m doing so by setting an example through my own life.

To watch this as a 15 minute presentation, click on the photo or go to To read about it, continue on below!

My Reality

I was the first person at my university to study Computer Science and Fine Art in 1986. My reality is one where I use both sides of my brain. This allows me to think laterally and be innovative.

I love visual technology.  I started at IBM creating multimedia. I then ended up in computer games. Then I got into database-driven internet sites. Which led me into streaming – first audio, then video. And along the way I ended up a BAFTA judge.  Seven years ago I became CTO for FilmFlex Movies and delivered the Video on Demand (VOD) film service for Virgin Cable and Ch4’s Film4oD.

I took that experience and two years ago I started consulting globally at a technical and strategic level in Video on Demand and Smart Home technology.

The Stages of a Tech Life

The stages of a life in tech are:

  • Generating interest
  • Entering the workforce
  • Staying in and advancing in technology

Generating Interest

The defining characteristics of a child are:

  • Curiosity
  • Wonder

Curiosity leads to a desire to learn.

And wonder leads to passion.

What drives you is the passion. What enables you is the technology.

Apps for Good is getting kids (60% girls) interested in technology by having them come up with ideas that interest them and assisting them in developing the technology to create those applications. When I attended their event, these kids ranged from a boy in Scotland who wanted to keep track of his family’s cows to a group of boys and girls who wanted to keep track of dog walking from the dog’s perspective.

That’s part of why doing multi-topic degrees makes sense to me. What drives you may not be technology.

Start kids using technology as a tool to create their ideas as young as possible. We can now get auditory feedback through music and sound effects, visual feedback through video, websites and games, and kinesthetic feedback through 3D printing.

Another great example of kinesthetic learning is what Bloodhound is doing with kids. Bloodhound is a land-rocket aiming to break the land-speed record and hit 1000 MPH. To help kids understand aerodynamics they’re giving kids a foot of foam and getting them to carve it into the shape they think is the fastest possible. They’re then putting a rocket on that, putting the whole thing on a wire on a track and igniting the fuse! These rockets go in excess of 100 MPH and the kids are competing against each other for the best design.

What drives you is the passion. What enables you is the technology. Drive the passion.

Entering the Workforce

What stops women from entering the tech workforce? Some things I’ve heard mentioned are:

  • No tech degree
  • Not good enough
  • Women are “aggressive”
  • Few role models

I have a computer science degree with my art minor, but I’m one of the few people in technology who seems to have a technical degree.

One of the smartest people I know in technology studied archaeology. He’s since worked for Red Hat and Google. His wife had an English degree – and she’s worked as a programmer and technical lead for The Guardian. That said, I think you do need a good foundation to write well-structured code.  As a starting point, you can always do a day at Decoded, or learn to code your own website.

Not good enough. Women are equally as smart as men. It’s a mix of problems with the way roles are advertised and the way men find it easier to bluff it more. So, know your stuff and be passionate and enthusiastic about the company and the rest will come.

I hear every so often that women in technology or senior management roles are viewed as being “aggressive.” Now being aggressive isn’t good – aggressive behaviour is usually based on fear, so don’t be aggressive. But what they’re talking about isn’t necessarily “aggression”. Now I’m regularly told I intimidate the hell out of men. Cool. My father, at 80, a physicist and genuine rocket scientist, is still also regularly told that he intimidates the hell out of men. I wonder where I get it from? Intimidation is just fear of the unknown. Be a little unknown. It keeps people on their toes.

And as you get older you become more you and you care less about what people say about you. Just be true to your values. And do the best you’re capable of on every given day. In my journey I found that NLP and coaching are great tools for communication and really helpful for both leadership and management.

Role models. I met a woman at Bloodhound recently who is a military engineer. By 24 she was also the equivalent of a COO and now (still under 30) she has the equivalent skills of a CTO. She’s led technical teams of 50 in Afghanistan. I guarantee you she is superbly good at her job and doesn’t take crap from the guys for being a woman. And they trust her with their lives.

The best way to BE a role model is to just DO it. Do what you love and show by example.

What special qualities does a woman bring to technology? A few that I regularly see are:

  • Intuition
  • Thoroughness
  • Empathy

Intuition is another word for pattern-matching. Our unconscious mind can deal with 16 million pieces of simultaneous information. Our conscious mind about 5 (plus or minus 2). It’s the ability to process a large amount of information at an unconscious level and make sense of it. Something highly useful in complex technical projects.

Women in technology are also typically very thorough, as they often have to be at least as good, if not better, than their male colleagues in order to earn respect. They also typically have a higher attention to detail.

Empathy helps with collaboration, sharing, management and leadership skills and understanding the end customer and client relationships.

Staying in and Advancing in Technology

What does it take to stay? In my experience:

  • Cojones
  • Communication

You’re going to get some flak and some weird behaviour and some sexual propositions.  And you’re going to need some cojones to deal with it. I very specifically use the word cojones, rather than guts or balls, as there has been some debate in the media about the correct term. Balls sounds like we’re playing tennis. Guts for me is more about gut instinct – intuition. Cojones, well if you’ve ever seen a Hispanic woman after a man has crossed the line, well then you know women can have cojones. I’m from New Mexico so I know this well.

And that leads us on to communication.

Everything in this section is something I’ve discovered by research into my own experiences.

There is something in communication known as “perceptual filters” or “metaphors”. It’s essentially the window through which we view the world and filter all of the data in life that comes to us.  We delete, distort and generalise that information in order to process it.  What filter we apply means how we interpret that information.  This means you can say the same thing in the same way, and even the same person will process it differently depending on what else is going on in their life at that precise moment.

Linguists have broken down some of this into stereotypes. As with all stereotypes, this is indicative of a trend, but it does not always define the individual.  What’s key is that this type of perceptual filter does happen. And to be aware of it.

  • Male metaphor: Competitive sport / rules – Do whatever it takes to win!
  • Female metaphor: Schoolroom / manners – Do your very best and get a good grade!

I’ve only seen the schoolroom metaphor mentioned in Suzette Haden Elgin’s research (Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense).  The competitive sport metaphor is echoed by a number of writers. John Gray has a good description. John Gray is also the writer of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The reason I reference John Gray specifically here is that in my personal experience many men don’t read self-help books – or books on communication – but most of them have heard of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and some have even read it and thought it was good. And this article/presentation isn’t just for women – it’s also for the men who form part of our journey.  And anything I reference in this article is something that when I read it, made sense of real situations to me.

So here’s a few stereotypical differences from John Gray (How to Get What You Want in the Workplace: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting Results) that I’ve personally experienced.

Male rules Female manners
Don’t put yourself down. It weakens your power to lead. Don’t build yourself up above others. It creates division.
Always take credit for what you do and let it be known. Always give credit to those who have helped you.
Always have an answer and never reveal the feeling of uncertainty. Don’t assume you have the best answer. Include others in problem solving.
Using the least number of words to make a point demonstrates competence. Sharing details develops rapport and strengthens work relationships.
Do what’s most urgent or important. It’s OK to overlook the little things. Everything matters.   Remembering the little things demonstrates caring.
Only ask for help if you need it. You are respected by what you do on your own. Giving and receiving helps generate a sense of connection and team spirit.

And trust me, those differences can lead to real trouble in the workplace.  When a woman involves others in her decision, a male boss may decide she is weak. From her perspective, she’s being strong by demonstrating that while she has her own answer, she doesn’t automatically assume it’s better than everyone else’s. By discussing she opens dialogue to ensure the chosen solution has been peer-reviewed and is the best for the company and its clients and not just for her own personal advancement.

Both men and women have to be aware of these differences in the workplace for there to be genuine respect for the diversity of thought processes.

And that leads us to… what does it take to advance?

As Cindy Gallop (@cindygallop) said in her speech at Ernst & Young recently, “If you’re a white male, prepare to get uncomfortable. Because if you want to innovate and disrupt you need people around you who don’t think like you.”

And that’s everything from allowing kids to study completely disparate topics – like me with computer science and art – to research (Breaking the Glass Ceiling? The Effect of Board Quotas on Female Labor Market Outcomes in Norway) that says you need three women on a board to drive innovation. The general reason is that one woman is side-lined and has to act like the majority to gain acceptance. The same for two. Three seems to be the tipping point for being taken seriously. I think this may depend on the size of your board, and of course women aren’t the only minority group out there in technology, as we saw by Google’s diversity stats.

What is key to remember is that – no matter where you are in that technology life-cycle – diversity drives innovation.

So, go – be diverse!


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