CIO Best Practices

Why Women Must Rise As Technology Leaders

We need more women in technology leadership roles because of the strength that comes from how they have been shaped and what they have overcome.

Scott Smeester


April 22, 2021

Photo credit:
Simon Maage

I had a friend who was a musical prodigy. Not having played the piano, I asked him what the black keys were for. I was expecting some sort of technical answer. Instead, he told me something I would never forget. “The black keys are what gives the piano its diversity.”

He then went on to explain about semitones or some such thing. I wasn’t listening. I was still hanging on to the word picture he had given me.

We use the word diversity to describe a range of differences. And that is absolutely accurate. But there is a little bit more to diversity than differences.

There is tone.

In Greek and Latin, tone has to do with tension and stretching. Behind its multiple uses in the English language, the one common idea to each definition is strength.

I work out at the gym. Time under tension is a basic principle behind building muscle (or becoming tone).

A group can be composed of a number of differences, but unless there is expression of strength and stretching and time under tension, there really isn’t true diversity.

Our common perception of diversity is being in a crowd of differences and exercising acceptance. That’s not diversity, that’s a tourist destination or a food court.

Diversity is a multi-source exchange and display of strength. Many keys, many muscles, many people.

I used to teach a lot about unity in diversity. It happens not because we accept the differences, but because we draw out the strengths.

Which brings us to women in the workplace, and specifically, women as leaders in technology.

I have a different perspective than most of my peers who write about the need for women in technology. You tend to get a couple of major views:

  • One standard narrative argues for the justice and equality women deserve. I couldn’t agree more. Frankly, men, we need to own it, and if I may borrow a word that seems long abandoned - repent. No excuses. No drawn out explanations. I could easily dive into an oration, but as I suggested, others embrace this and articulate it well. Maybe that is the problem. So many words. I’m simpler than that. Where there is discrimination, sexism, limitation, egotism, we as guys just need to knock it off.
  • A second narrative contends that women are needed in the workplace because of their differences from men. Here I tread a little more lightly. Stereotype thrives easily. For instance, the differences between a male and female brain is overhyped. Actually, studies suggest that there is more difference between one woman’s brain to another woman than there is between a woman’s brain and a man’s. (There are some fun differences, and knowing those differences would dramatically improve a man’s dating life, but that’s a whole other topic).

In an intelligence test or a personality test, men and women share the same numbers, scores and descriptions. We don’t need women in technology because they bring a different intellect or personality to the table.

We need women as technology leaders because of where they have come from and what they have risen from, the substance of tone: who and what stretched you, what is the tension that has formed you.

Every woman brings a different story. And that story strengthens me and the company I am in. That story makes the difference to the people around the woman. That story made her, and it makes us.

One is about culture, the other is about resilience.

Every woman brings a different story. And that story strengthens me and the company I am in. That story makes the difference to the people around the woman. That story made her, and it makes us.

In the words of author Eugene Peterson, “Each (story) tells how a person has been set free from the confines of small ideas, from the chains of what other people think, from the emotional cages of guilt and regret, from the prisons of self...We are free to change. The process of that change is always a good story, but is never a neat formula.”

We need women as technology leaders because of how they have been shaped and because of what they have overcome.

I’m not that old, but in my generation women in the United States have had to undo deep-rooted gender inequality, perpetuated male dominance, double standards, social constructions of gender ordering, economic dependence, predominant child care responsibility, and sexual objectification and violence. And a whole lot more.

The battle rages, but the progress is amazing.

Who doesn’t want that kind of strength on the team?

What is true of women in general is true of the individual woman who seeks employment with your company. They bring a unique culture. They bring an impressive resilience. Find it out, draw it out, and spread it out. The leadership that emerges is the tone you seek.

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