The Engineering Leadership Podcast · Episode 41

Bridging the Gender Gap

with Christina Wick

May 18, 2021
We have a conversation with Christina Wick, CTO @ Flowcode, on the current state of the gender gap in tech and what we can do as engineering leaders to actively bridge that gap. We cover stories of the historical impact of women in tech as well as what you can do to remove bias in interviews, performance reviews and feedback. Plus what you can do to intervene when you observe bias happening.
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SPEAKER

Christina Wick - Chief Product & Technology Officer

Before leading Product & Technology at Flowcode, Christina was previously VP of Engineering at Harry’s, a successful men’s grooming brand that launched in 2013 that is now disrupting the consumer packaged goods industry by creating the next-generation CPG company.

Before Harry’s, Christina’s roles have ranged from running Product, Design and Engineering at Venmo, to defining strategies and building services in the mobile and devices space at Amazon, to AOL where she started as a Software Engineer and rose to the level of Sr. Technical Director responsible for over 50 consumer-facing mobile apps and websites and where she received an Apple Design Award for the Best iPhone Entertainment Application, AOL Radio, in June 2008.

Christina has a Bachelors in Computer Science, with minors in Mathematics and Psychology, and a Masters in Computer Science and Applications from VA Tech, with her area of concentration being Human-Computer Interaction.

"The first time I heard someone talking about how "women should seek executive sponsorship" I got really annoyed... The term executive sponsor in project management usually means the C-level executive that sponsors or is responsible for the project. So like, why do women need an executive sponsor? I'm not some project!

But then I thought about it... And men sponsor men all the time! We just don't label it that.”

- Christina Wick


Special thanks to our exclusive accessibility partner Mesmer!

Mesmer's AI-bots automate mobile app accessibility testing to ensure your app is always accessible to everybody.

To jump start your accessibility and inclusion initiative, visit mesmerhq.com/ELC


Show Notes

  • The historical impact of women in programming & tech (2:03)
  • The current state of the gender gap in tech (7:04)
  • Three things you can do to start actively bridging the gender gap in tech (12:12)
  • Stop gender stereotypes & vague feedback (14:04)
  • Remove bias in performance reviews and interviews (17:01)
  • Intervene when observing bias (23:44)
  • Executive sponsorship (29:40)
  • Establish norms and make it okay to talk about bias (34:29)
  • The Impact of “throwing starfish in the ocean” (37:36)
  • Takeaways (38:39)

Transcript

The historical impact of women in programming and tech

In our conversation today, I know the primary topic that we want to dive into is first confronting the reality of the gender gap and to share some of the tactical ways that we, as engineering leaders can really actively bridge that gap and help grow, promote, and retain women in engineering.

First off, I just want to say thank you in advance for really being our chief storyteller here and sharing different stories and experiences and your aggregate knowledge with us.

Christina Wick: Thank you for having me.

Patrick Gallagher: There seems to be a general lack of awareness in our industry. And I also have to admit my own ignorance here, about some of the profound ways and impact that women in programming and technology have made. And so to begin, I was hoping that you could help us really illuminate why our conversation is so important today and maybe share some of the stories of the historical impact that women have made in our field that we just might not be aware of.

And so can you share some of those stories with us?

Christina Wick: Sure I would love to share!

I mean, I think you might be surprised to learn that the role women have played throughout our history and tech industry has been a pretty prominent. One, for example, like, did you know that the world's first programmer was a woman?

That was Ada Lovelace and she lived between 1815 and 1852. And she was the very first programmer. She worked on the analytical engine, which was a machine developed by her friend, Charles Babbage. It's considered to be one of the first or the first general computer.

I think a name you might actually recognize is Grace Hopper because of the yearly conference that's named after her. The Grace Hopper conference is the world's largest gathering of women in computing. And it's designed to bring research and women's career interests in computing together.

Grace lived from 1906 through 1992. And she was a computer scientist and a Naval officer. She was part of the team that developed the UNIVAC one computer.

And she later introduced the idea that programs should be written using human centric terminology. She coined the term compiler to refer to a tool. She wrote that translated mathematical notation into machine code. And then later created the first English-like data processing language, which directly influenced the design of COBOL, which is a language that's actually still in heavy use today. Believe it or not.

There's also this whole controversy around Grace Hopper and whether she coined the term bug, she's definitely responsible for making the term popular in the software industry. They experienced a software glitch after a large moth, like literally a bug flew into the Mark 2 computer. The moth died and got stuck in the electronics of the computer, which later caused it to deliver errors, which they didn't realize until they opened it up. And they saw it like stuck wedged in there. Hence the term bug.

But to be clear, Thomas Edison was the first to use the term bug to describe a flaw or problem during the process of innovation. And I think it comes from some notion of finding a fly in ointment or something like that.

Then there's sister, Mary Kenneth Keller, she lived from 1913 through 1984 and was one of the first set of students to earn a PhD in computer science in the United States. And in fact, she was the first woman to do so. She was also one of a dozen graduate students that worked on the implementation team of the programming language called basic. Which is actually my first language that I learned.

And then you've probably heard the name Alan Turing, but have you heard the name Joan Clark? She was the only woman on a team of eight recruited to break the Enigma code in world war II. And she is known as one of the greatest Codebreakers in history.

Then there's Jean Bartik who lived from 1924 through 2011. She was among the first programmers for the ENIAC, which was the first all electronic digital computer. She also developed and codified many of the fundamentals of programming.

And then this is another fun one of mine, Margaret Hamilton, born in 1936. She's a computer scientist credited with coining the term software engineering. She worked on the software for Apollo 11, the first spacecraft to complete a successful mission that placed man on the moon in 1969.

And it's interesting because the success of that mission is credited to her insistence on thorough testing. The guidance software that she helped develop for the Apollo was later adapted for use in Skylab, the space shuttle, and the first digital fly-by-wire systems and aircraft. And she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom award in 2016.

So there, you have it, a few things. I bet you didn't know. We were the first programmer, key contributors in a variety of important programming languages, the inventor of an early form of compiler, responsible for codifying many of the fundamentals of programming, coined terms like compiler and software engineer. And we were instrumental in getting us to the moon.

Patrick Gallagher: I'm just so happy that we're acknowledging credit where credit is due and thinking about one, my ignorance is I can't believe that there was actual coding or programming going on in the 1850s? But that's entirely because of my own ignorance.

Christina Wick: Crazy. Isn't it?

Patrick Gallagher: But also I'm just thinking about, you know, some of the origins of like deep tech culture and language. Like talking about COBOL basic, the Enigma code and software engineering and bugs. Like the fact that that type of culture, language and practices is not talked about as contributions by women, engineers, and programmers. I'm just so happy that we're able to tell some of those stories and acknowledge that right now.

Christina Wick: Yeah, me too.

Patrick Gallagher: Christina, you know, we were just talking about the historical impact. But there's quite a gap between gender parity within the software engineering world and technology industry.

Can you help us better understand the current reality of the gender gap in tech and software engineering. And where are we at right now? And what's the current state of things.

The current state of the gender gap in tech

Christina Wick: Sure. I mean, to be honest, the current state is pretty grim. First, we're going backwards in the number of graduates we have in computer science today.

Roughly eighteen percent of computer science graduates are women. Compare this to the mid eighties when we were around 35%.

Patrick Gallagher: That fact is really surprising to me that we've gone backwards from the 1980s.

Christina Wick: Yeah. And so you might want to ask like, "well, is our work product worse than men?"

Well, what's interesting is Github released some interesting data that showed that code contributed by women is accepted 78.6% of the time, which is actually 4% more than code written by men. As long as gender isn't disclosed.

So that research, showed that simply identifying the gender of the programmer, modified how those in charge saw the quality of the work. So just to kind of reiterate... code written by women, is more frequently accepted only if the gender of the programmer stays a secret.

What else do we know? We make less than our male counterparts. In general, women make about 19% less than men in tech though we make 29% less. And one might think it gets better over a course of a lifetime, but it doesn't. The gap just widens as we get older.

And the pay gap is way worse for women of color. The stats kind of crazy... but a black woman to earn the same amount that a white man makes in one year, she has to work that full year plus an additional 226 days to equal what he made. And Hispanic woman, it takes a year plus 306 extra days to reach parity.

And while progress is being made towards pay parity between the sexes, the Institute for women's policy research estimates that it will not be reached until 2059. 2059! Which is absolutely crazy.

We know that less women are being promoted into management roles. Since men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, there are fewer women to hire or promote to the senior manager levels. So even as hiring and promotion rates increase for women at certain levels, we can never really catch up. There are just simply too few women to advance.

Some stats to share, like at the global level women only account for 16% of managers in the tech space. And globally women only account for 3% of CEOs and 20% of CFOs.

There's a recent analysis done at the top 1000 firms in the US by revenue. And they showed women only accounted for 18% of the Chief Information Officers or the Chief Technology Officer roles across all industries. McKinsey who also releases some really great stats, released a report that shows the percentage of women in C-suite roles, went down from 22% in 2018 to 21% in 2020. And to break that down even further, white women held 19% of the C-suite roles and women of color held the other 3%.

I'm excited to finally be able to say that I broke through into that 3% C-suite category for women of color in my career. As I am now, the CTO of Flowcode, the offline to online company, building direct connections for brands and consumers.

So I'm sure by now you would agree with me when I say that we have a pipeline issue. But we also have a massive retention issue...

50% of women who take a tech role drop out by the age of 35. There's also this other study that showed that one third of women in tech that are older than 35 are still in junior positions.

So what does this say? So not only are we losing 50% of our technically trained women by the age of 35. Of the remaining 50% who do stay 35% of them are still in junior positions.

So why do women leave mid-career most women cite burnout. As the reason we experience a higher rate of discrimination. We cite that our contributions that we make are often ignored. The additional stress of raising a family comes into play. We experience isolation, because just to the lack of access to women and peers, role models and mentors. And I already talked about how we're paid less than men.

But get this say, we decide to reenter the workforce after leaving. We see our earning power decreased by 18% or even worse, 37%. If we leave the workforce for more than three years. And now we have, COVID nothing like a pandemic to really make things worse. Women are one and a half times more likely to downshift their careers in the pandemic compared to men. And it's no surprise there because we already said we make less than men. And if we have younger children or other caregiver responsibilities, and someone has to sacrifice their job... obviously you choose the one who makes less nevermind. There's that stereotype and societal expectations placed on us to prioritize our family over our careers.

In September of 2020, 1.1 million people left the workforce. And of that 865,000 of those were women. This pandemic is really going to set us back significantly.

Patrick Gallagher: My fiánce has been putting together a report for her work, where she's in the international development space. And recently did a presentation on the shadow pandemic, which is talking about challenges of... you're seeing an incredible amount of women leaving the workforce as a result of the pandemic. And so the shadow pandemic referencing that it's something that is invisible and unseen that most people wouldn't necessarily know right away.

And so I think the statistics that you shared and, and especially acknowledging the reasons around burnout contributions, not being acknowledged, not paying the same and earning power decrease... I mean, these statistics, they kind of just, floor me, as you share them.

Jerry Li: It's clear that this is more of a system issue. There are a lot of problems that are interconnected. When the pandemic happens make the situation even worse.

Christina Wick: Yeah. I'm really curious to see what kind of impact this is going to have longer term. It's actually devastating timing for us and in our industry.

Three things you can do to start actively bridging the gender gap in tech

Patrick Gallagher: As you share that, Christina, we're talking about confronting the stark and challenging reality around the current gender gap in tech. And, we're not really doing a good job.

And so I think the reason why Jerry and I have been looking forward to this conversation is to start to dig into what are some of the ways that as an individual engineering leader, we can do to take action to bridge that gap. And to create an environment and to contribute to growing, promoting, and retaining women in the technology industry.

I was wondering if we could transition our conversation now to how do we bridge the gap?

There's a lot of things to unpack in terms of some of the challenges that was shared, but where should we start? What can we do begin actively bridging this gap?

Christina Wick: I think there are three key things we can do to help bridge the gap.

First, if you're a man help advocate, and if you're a woman self advocate. No one will be a better advocate for your own career than you yourself.

In the 20 years I've been doing this, I've had 22 managers. And in case you're curious, three of those were women. I think the worst of it was when I had seven managers over a span of two years. Remember, managers will come and go.

The second thing, learn and be curious. Both men and women should take the time to learn about gender bias and help do things to eliminate that in our everyday work. Remember no one is ever done learning, especially leaders. And always seek to improve yourself. Be curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

And lastly, listen, communicate effectively and work hard to foster inclusivity. Whether you are a man or a woman, when you hear gender bias, politely call it out. You know, I think making good choices and doing these things will help level the playing field, surround yourself with smart people, choose good companies that really care about diversity inclusion.

And remember when it comes to interviewing you get to choose your employer just as much as they get to choose you. So maybe this would be a good time for me to share that I'm hiring? So connect with me on LinkedIn or check out my flow page on flow pages.com/christinawick.

Stop gender stereotypes & vague feedback

Patrick Gallagher: So one of the things I wanted to go back to, and to talk a little bit more about your experience as a new CTO, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to that experience and your observation, throughout your career, as you've become now, a CTO, how do you increase awareness of and reduce biased or gender stereotyped feedback?

Christina Wick: There are lots of training sessions out there that HR teams are starting to put managers and employees through. One of the things I do is I read every review written by my managers.

I also suggest to replace the name in a woman's review with a man's name and reread it to make sure it still sits right. And believe me, when I say I have seen it all, I have seen things written like "Connie writes code gracefully."

That sounds ridiculous. I mean, would you ever say Bob writes code gracefully?

No. Right. And what does that even mean? I even had a manager referred to an engineer's "Mama Bear tendencies."

Really? Why would you even go there? You can also do something similar when reviewing resumes too. but I would suggest in that case, just remove names altogether on resumes to remove bias. The worst advice I ever got in my career came from a manager that told me "I didn't talk enough in meetings."

I love that kind of feedback usually it drives me nuts. Right? You aren't vocal enough. You're too shy and timid, or sometimes you get the opposite. "You're too aggressive."

This manager literally told me in order to fix my issue from now on, he wanted me to. One state two facts in every meeting, even if they had nothing to do with what we were talking about and ask one question, even if I already knew the answer. That literally was the action item that he gave me walking out of that review.

That is the biggest bunch of bullshit I have ever heard!

And it's absolutely absurd, which reminds me to the women that are listening, listen carefully to the advice you were given. And remember that not all advice is good advice. And that said, don't let the past negative experiences discourage you from seeking better feedback.

If you get vague feedback, remember ask for specific and actionable pointers.

This applies to guys too! Don't let them off the hook until they give it to you. And those of you writing reviews, don't give vague feedback! Provide examples and avoid weasel words. Do you know what weasel words are?

Patrick Gallagher: I don't know what weasel words are.

Christina Wick: Okay. It's a term to refer to words and phrases that create the impression that something specific and meaningful has been said. When in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been made.

So some examples are like, "questions have been raised..."

Well, what questions?

Or "I heard that..."

Who'd you hear that from?

Or "There's evidence?"

What evidence?

Like I said, be specific. And if you see things like that in your review, ask for clarification.

Patrick Gallagher: I think it's really powerful, the different examples that you shared, because when you're talking about Connie writes code gracefully and when you. Gender your feedback. You are robbing people of the specific descriptors of what causes success or what could be improved.

And so I just think it's interesting. Cause I feel like that type of feedback is so common and that it's so easy to introduce gender bias in these types of feedbacks scenarios.

Christina Wick: She's writing code, she's not a ballerina

Jerry Li: Are there other examples like that, that you've seen the past?

Remove bias in performance reviews and interviews

Christina Wick: Yeah, and when I went back to the managers and asked them about you know what they wrote. It really didn't occur to them. And like I said, when they switched out the name to a male name and started reading it back to themselves, they're like, "Oh wow, this doesn't sound right." And so. I actually think that's a really handy trick to help you out there.

Patrick Gallagher: And I think it's so easy. And it goes back to the statistic you were sharing earlier about the Github study in that code was more likely to be accepted when you remove gender from the equation. And so when you're looking at the performance reviews or interviews and you're removing gender from the equation, you're removing one of the inputs for bias, which I think is really powerful.

Christina Wick: Right. I had a director wants to tell me that "I wasn't aggressive enough."

And I told him, I said, look, I'm plenty aggressive. Right. Just because I'm not in a room, pounding my fists on the table when I'm trying to make a point doesn't mean I'm not aggressive, I'm aggressive in my own way and in my own. Right.

And so I think it's important for people to remember too, that people are stylistically different. And just because we don't represent the qualities, the exact same across the board doesn't mean we don't have them

Patrick Gallagher: With what you were sharing about the well-intentioned... I don't know if this feedback is well intentioned, but the the feedback you got to share two facts in the meeting... it seems like at the surface level, that could be well-intentioned feedback to try to increase better responses. But in fact, it's sort of incentivizing the wrong behavior in that, like say things that either don't matter or don't mean anything? Am I kind of getting the interpretation correct with that.

Christina Wick: Yeah. I mean, I think he actually thought that was really good feedback. You know, there is this culture there of this like, "plus one" mentality. I actually have it to the point where people would just go and reiterate the same thing that another person just said around the table. And to the point that instead of just repeating it over and over again, they just kept saying, "plus one! Plus one!" To the point that it would happen on emails where.

A leader would send out an email saying, congratulations, this was, you know, great launch. And then people would start saying, "plus one! Plus one!"

And actually, you know, I don't know if this is kind of asshole-ish of me, but I actually summed up... I took like a six month period and I summed up the number of times that received a plus one email that went out to a listserv and I counted up, you know, I got the total of the people on the listserv. And I timed, you know, how long it takes you to open up an email, look at it briefly and then realize it's not anything important and then delete it.

And then multiplied it by. number of plus ones and the people on Listserv and then calculated like the average cost of an engineer to like calculate how much we were actually wasting in money by having these plus one emails that weren't really like contributing anything more to it.

And so, you know, to this manager that gave me that feedback, I think he really was trying to help me to, you know, get that presence in the room. But again, like, I'm not just going to say stuff unless it's actually relevant and important to the discussion that we're having. Otherwise it's just wasting time and that wastes money.

Patrick Gallagher: And I'm thinking like... there are probably a lot of people listening who may be guilty of giving well-intentioned feedback. But incentivizing the wrong thing or having unintended negative consequences. And so I think the awareness around some of these pieces, I think are really powerful for the people listening in, because if people are giving this type of feedback, they're able to now acknowledge or recognize or encourage different types of behavior.

I think the being really specific, like what you shared being really specific and removing gender from the type of feedback that you're giving is really powerful way to help overcome some of that bias.

To share a quick story really quick. A few weeks ago, Jerry and I were, we were leading an event for engineering leaders and it was a small group conversation.

There's six people in the, in the group. One of them was female. And what was important for us in our community is creating an environment where everybody feels welcome and included, and that they're able to provide input. In this particular space, we were talking about the challenges of the gender gap.

The women engineering leader was sharing her experience and some of the ways that like unconscious bias were showing up in her conversations with different leaders. And what had happened was another engineering leader was talking over her and talking over her. To share a little bit about like what he's observed in his experience about gendered bias.

So in this moment here, Jerry and I are sitting there kind of panicked because we're observing this happen and we're conscious that this is happening, but we're sort of lacking the courage to act and how to intervene appropriately.

And it's one of the things where I look back on that and it's like, I kicked myself. Like, you become more like you can see it. And it's like, this is happening right here. And you know, the person speaking, maybe is unintended, it's unconscious, and it can take just one small intervention from us to adjust the conversation and to reset that environment. But we didn't do it.

And it's something I think back on is it's just something so simple and easy that I could done differently.

And so I wanted to ask you, Christina, what are your suggestions on, how should you intervene when you observe or experience bias?

Intervene when observing bias

Christina Wick: Yeah. I mean, I get it calling out somebody or knowing what to do when you experience bias or discrimination is hard.

Did you know that 50% of women leaders a stand for women's issues compared to 40% of men? The truth is until we see 50, 50 women to men across all levels in the industry. We have a fine line that we have to walk. I mean, I've experienced bias and discrimination in my career.

And I think about this time where before the whole Me Too movement what really viral on social media. I experienced a pretty extreme situation. And when I look back, I wish I had spoken up. But the truth is, I didn't know what to do.

I worked in a group where an executive leader in would Do you really inappropriate things. Like come into my office after hours and walk behind my desk and kiss me on the forehead or he'd blow kisses to me in meetings or constantly hug me.

Now, don't get me wrong. He hugged men all the time too, but I swear it was only because he wanted an excuse to hug the women too. There wa this one time where he commented on my clothes. I have this pair of boots that I have never worn again, because he referred to them as my "fuck me" boots. He even asked me once to be his fuck buddy. And I laughed it off and pretend like it was a joke, but really it was because I didn't know what to do.

And so here's kind of the pickle that I was in... if I wanted to promote any engineer reporting to me, or if I wanted to give them a high rating, I would need his support during the calibration and let's face it.... he knew this behavior wasn't appropriate.

So I complain and what happens? He says he was joking... he's a really friendly guy... He's sorry... He made me feel uncomfortable that wasn't his intention. Sorry. I misunderstood how, he says things like that.

And then what? What behind the scenes? What retaliation will I face? He was a level above me! And the catch 22 is if I'm the first to complain, it isn't a pattern of behavior yet. Right. But If I'm the second or third, then there's a pattern. But then who goes first? And what protection do you have from being coined that girl, while you wait for the pattern to emerge.

It's really hard because I actually look back on this and I feel ashamed, but do you think he sits back and thinks about this and his behavior? Do you think he ever feels ashamed? I mean, I highly doubt it.

I know I should of said more. And I should have reported him to HR. And if I could do it all over again, I would. I wish I had a network of women in leadership positions or executive men that I trusted that I could have gone to for advice. That's something I've since fixed. So I've created a network of trusted advisors, both men and women, to help me facilitate some of the most challenging moments in my career. From situations like this, to seeking advice on negotiating during an interview process to technical advice as well.

I think the other thing that probably would have helped you guys out. Is to have scripts pre-written out. So this applies to both men and women, and it helps you in those moments to call out inappropriate behaviors or habits. Like I would have loved to have had any guy in that room of 20 or so men to say, "Dude, why are you blowing kisses? That's so not cool."

I know this was an extreme case, but. What about when you see someone cut a woman off, like you said, or talk over her in a meeting or say something biased or my favorite is offer the exact same idea of a woman just offered like a few minutes before. Having those scripts to really help you speak up in these moments are really handy.

So you can say things like. "I'm sorry, you just made the same point. Sally made a few minutes ago. Was there something else you wanted to add?"

Or "That comment just doesn't reflect the person I know you to be."

Or "Can you repeat what you just said?"

Or "Bob, you cut Maggie off again. Why don't you let her finish what she is trying to say?"

Right? This can work for both men and women to say in the room. And if you're prepared and you have these scripts and you aren't caught off guard, when you see this happen. And these types of phrases are a great tool to have in your tool belt, because they politely call people out. They help hold people accountable and they stop people so they can actually think about what they just said.

And I would highly recommend role playing it out with others. Like two of you could do that to practice ahead of time to make sure you're more comfortable in these situations. Role-playing is a great tool. I even recommend it for managers when they're giving feedback, role play it with other managers so that you can prepare for different ways people might react.

Maybe something I think is important here to share and I want to share is that vulnerability key, right? And so you want to create an environment where people can be open about their experiences and give feedback about bias and stereotype feedback. So be vulnerable. And as a leader, demonstrate vulnerability. So people know what it looks like. Be open to feedback, be vocally self-critical and remember. That no one's perfect. And people don't expect you to be.

And always assume others are coming from a place of good intent. I think that's important. I find that people usually don't wake up in the morning and say, gee, I wonder how it could be an asshole today at work. I think the points that you shared about... summarizing it for my own understanding here... but first building out a support network of people that can help support and advise you. And I think within the organization of building that support network of people that can support you and intervening when you've observed bias, I think is also a really powerful concept and idea, because now I'm thinking about like with Jerry and I, after this conversation now have sort of created our own support network within him and I, and can better intervene and take action when experiencing the unconscious bias.

Patrick Gallagher: But what you're sharing about rehearsing and having scripts prerpared it is so important because it reduces the friction to action in that if you've practiced the words that you have to say, then you only have to just do it. And it's habitual instead of, you're thinking about, "Well, what do I say? I don't know what to say."

Then that's the thing that prevents you from actually taking action.

Christina Wick: Right? The truth is we know what to say. I mean you're kicking yourself later going, "Ah, if I only had said this, I wish I had said that!"

Right. And so pull that moment up further. And like I said, practice with somebody you trust and it will be great. Sometimes it's really literally about just stopping the person, just slow them down so they can self-reflect

Patrick Gallagher: Christina, I tell you this, every time we have a conversation, but every time, every single time we talk about the retention statistics of women in STEM, I am absolutely floored.

Every time we continue to reference the statistics, it blows my mind because that's something that I think is so surprising. spend a lot of time thinking about getting women into STEM. But this is like the hidden side of it is that there's a lot of people that don't pay attention to the retention side of things. Is that Once we have women in STEM, what happens? What next?

Executive Sponsorship

And So I was wondering if we could shift the conversation a little bit to ways to support retention specifically about executive sponsorship. Can you help us understand a bit more about what is executive sponsorship? How do you do it effectively? And what's the impact when it's done well?

Christina Wick: The first time I heard someone talking about how women should seek executive sponsorship I got really annoyed... The term executive sponsor in project management usually means the C level executive that sponsors or is responsible for the project. So like, why do women need an executive sponsor? I'm not some project!

But then I thought about it. And men sponsor men all the time! We just don't label it that. And it's just our natural psychology, all leaders naturally gravitate towards junior colleagues with similar interests. So that means men typically like themselves, right?

We already talked about men outnumber women in the management and executive leadership space. So what they do is they tend to gravitate towards some colleagues with similar interests and they mentor them and give them chances to help accelerate their career.

So my advice to all the men listening is to broaden who you sponsor. And then for the women listening, don't be afraid to look for men and women executives to help sponsor you. You should also seek mentors and mentees. Being mentored helps increase your confidence. It drives more self-awareness and it helps you think about problems from different perspectives. The HR department Sun Microsystems, they released some interesting stats they found when they compare the career progression of a thousand employees tracked over a five-year period.

Both mentors and mentees were 20% more likely to get a raise than people who did not participate in a mentorship program. And employees that were mentored were five times more likely to get a promotion than people who weren't.

So hopefully that helps incentivize I'm thinking about the line that you said that men sponsor men all the time, we just don't label it. That like, to me, that is a really, really stark thing. And so we talk about executive sponsorship, it's building a little bit of language and formality around something to help actively bridge a gap that exists.

Jerry Li: I want to hear your perspective. Are there nuances to be called out among those different ways of support that people can provide?

Christina Wick: No. I mean, I think part of it is, you know, how do you get access? to more senior leaders to be able to help sponsor you. I say, you know, attending conferences, networking all these types of events, where you have opportunities and to meet new people and connect with them that you shouldn't pass those up.

People reach out to me all the time, this is something I'm actively passionate about. And so I try to make time for this type of stuff. And then you'll find that, know, if you drive awareness and you ask that other people will as well, I do think it's challenging sometimes.

I remember when I worked at a company where they had a very formal mentorship program and a lot of my mentorship experiences in the past were very ad hoc. And I felt a little bit like a fish out of water cause I didn't know... I had to go pick somebody to mentor me and they had this long list of people to choose from. And you like read. Pieces about their bio.

And I'm like, I don't know. I felt a little bit like I was on a dating site. Wasn't quite sure how this works.

And so I went to the VP of my group and he gave me great advice. Cause I was like, I'm struggling to try and figure out who do I ask be my mentor? And he asked me like, "What was it that I was hoping to learn?"

And so. I went through and I said, Oh, there was a couple of things. Like I grow and promote engineers. And so I need to be able to understand engineering culture and, No. what does that look like and how do I best set my engineers up for success?

And then another thing was I remember the pains that I went through when I went from a first-line manager to a second line manager. As I go to the next step in my career, I thought, "What kinds of roadblocks am I going to run into? Like, what things can I start to prepare for now?"

And so I share these two things, and he said "Oh that's simple, like for the first one, you want a really senior engineer in the organization. Who's been around the company for a long time that can help you understand the culture and navigate that space and learn more about how the engineers promotion process looks like. and what is it like from a social perspective?"

For the second one, he told me to find an executive that'd been promoted multiple times really quickly. And the reason why he suggested that was because then that person kind of got thrown into. an accelerated career path. And they were more likely to have run into pain points really quickly because they didn't have as much time to kind of smoothly transition from one level to the next.

And they would stick out in their mind more and would remember that when offering me feedback and advice. And so I thought that was really powerful. You can advocate and you can go get your own mentorship relationships. And the best way to do it is to think about what is it that you're trying to accomplish, and then match yourself up with people that have different aspects that will be able help you.

And then as you evolve over time, your criteria or needs are going to evolve and it's okay to let those mentorship relationships go and to establish new ones.

Establish norms and make it okay to talk about bias

Do you have other examples you can share? Where you've seen someone successfully intervene when bias was happening?

Christina Wick: I've also had people who have been a little bit more passive, which I think is better than nothing, to be honest. And so they've reached out to me over Slack, after something happened and shared with me what happened and what they witnessed and how they wish they had seen things go.

And it really gave me an opportunity to go talk to the engineer that actually exhibited the behavior after the fact.

And again, like I said, people don't usually tend to wake up thinking, "Oh, how can I be an asshole today?"

Like, they're usually horrified when they hear that they've done something to make somebody uncomfortable or the room uncomfortable. Even more so when it's not just, they've made another female uncomfortable, but then they made their male counterparts uncomfortable as well. And so they appreciate that kind of feedback.

I know it's not as directed, like in the moment, but it's also those types of passive actions, as opposed to just completely letting go can really help.

Patrick Gallagher: I think the "revisiting the conversation afterwards", I think in terms of helping surface and making the unconscious bias conscious to help that person become aware is a really powerful practice.

And I think of what you said of like use the scripts, I'm really gonna use the scripts. I think that's something that I think is going to be really valuable for me personally.

Christina Wick: Like I said before about being vulnerable. I remember I had a female engineer come to me and she was struggling because she was working with a male tech lead on our team who was pretty quiet. And just had this style about him that made him seem unapproachable.

And she asked me for advice about like, how does she overcome that barrier? And so I said, "Don't be afraid to ask questions. No, question's a stupid question."

Right. And trying to help her build confidence. But then when I met with him, I was giving him growth and feedback advice, because as he grows in his role, it's really important for him to be able to mentor and influence others. Everybody has different communication styles.

And so, I talked to him about making sure that he drove awareness and the fact that he can come across as unapproachable. And sometimes it's a lot more difficult for a junior person let alone a junior woman, to kind of break past that barrier. And once I kind of gave him some examples, he was really excited to take on the challenge to try and eliminate that barrier.

And when I followed up with meeting with the female engineer later, you know, she reported back that, you know, it's been great the last couple of months and the communication had really gotten better. And he actually was proactive about checking in with her and she really appreciated that and it just made her feel more comfortable.

And, and so, again, just even having the courage to like, come ask for help or advice, or like, what do I do in this situation? That's what your manager, your manager's manager is there for, right. To be able to help unblock those obstacles. So use us.

Patrick Gallagher: That is an incredible example. As you know, the engineering leader, who's observing these dynamics in the team to give that feedback and make that adjustment. That then changes the team dynamic where then the ultimate outcome is like, you're creating better input from everybody in your team because you're helping architect that space. That's an incredible example.

Okay, Christina. So I know we're getting closer to the end of our time. Are there any final words that you would leave us with to help us take the action to bridge the gender gap?

The impact of "throwing starfish into the ocean"

Christina Wick: Let me leave you with a story. I remember being told a story by motivational speaker that they brought into my elementary school and it stuck with me all these years. So it was definitely impactful.

The speaker talked about this man who's walking along a beach after a really big thunderstorm. And there are hundreds of starfish washed up on the shore. And down the beach, he sees this little boy picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the ocean.

And he walks up to the little boy and he asks him and he's like, "What are you doing?"

And the kid looks up and says," I'm throwing the starfish back in the ocean."

And the man looks up and down the shore and looks back at the kid and says, "But there are hundreds of them. And you're just one boy. Like what difference could you possibly make?"

And the little boy looks down, picks up a starfish and he says to the man before he tosses it in, "It makes a difference to this one."

So if you take away only one thing from this podcast, remember that you have the opportunity to make a difference. So I just wanted to thank you both for letting me have this opportunity to share with you and your listeners. I really appreciate it.

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