5 Women in Tech Leadership Roles Talk About How They Got There

As young girls, we’re often told that we can be anything we want to be when we grow up. From a successful actor, to a computer programmer, to the President of the United States, the sky’s the limit. However, despite the fact that 74 percent of young girls express interest in STEM fields and computer science, just 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees and 26 percent of computing jobs are held by women. The bleak numbers for women in tech get worse near the top of the corporate ladder: Women hold just five percent of leadership positions in the industry, and 40 percent of women who start in entry-level positions in IT companies never even get past the middle-management level.

Obviously, there’s a diversity problem in tech. While there’s no single cause, factors like male-dominated offices, a lack of female role models, unconscious biases, a shortage of earlier entry points into computer science, and a deficit of support networks all contribute to the overall problem.

Companies like HP want to change the way people think about women in tech, and the company as a whole is a huge advocate of diversity. To help shatter unconscious biases about women in the tech industry and highlight the many opportunities for women in the industry, we partnered with HP to talk to five women in tech leadership about how they achieved their current roles, and how we can shatter stigmas surrounding women in tech, once and for all.

Lesley Slaton Brown, Chief Diversity Officer at HP

Lesley Slaton Brown (pictured above) got her start in the technology world as a product marketer for HP’s LaserJet cartridges, and moved into managing global communications. After 10 years, she broke into the role she continues to hold today: working in Diversity and Inclusion strategy and marketing.

As a woman of color, Slaton Brown has experienced the biases of the industry firsthand. But as a problem solver at heart and a firm believer in the idea that diversity drives innovation, she’s used these experiences to continue HP’s investment in diversity.

“The lack of women and minorities in computing and STEM careers and education drove me to where I am today, and continues to drive me,” Brown says. “Every day I get up and see more opportunities to solve this problem.”

Brown believes that the biases women face in technology are similar to those we face everywhere else — like being judged by looks before skills, or marital status before expertise. Her first recommendation to address these biases? Recognize that they actually exist.

"HP is embedding diversity and inclusion into everything we do, and we are making sure everyone can bring who they are to all they do,” Brown says.

In addition to offering unconscious bias training at all levels of the company, HP encourages an environment where people are confident in who they are.

Learn more about HP's diversity initiatives here.

Robyn Exton, CEO & Founder of HER

As a marketer working at a branding agency, Robyn Exton never dreamed of working in tech. Yet a tech-based client at her old job and a slew of frustrating experiences with lesbian dating websites inspired her to develop an app that worked better for women and queer people.

Although she was fully immersed in the realm of branding, she entered a whole new field, adopting a learn-as-you-go approach to launching her tech company. Today, Exton is the CEO and founder of HER, a social and dating app for lesbian women.

“Everyone will experience their own nuances and biases,” Exton says. “The most important thing for me has been to never stop [working or pursuing something] because of something a person has said. Just keep moving forwards.”

Alison Gleeson, Senior Vice President of the Americas organization at Cisco

Alison Gleeson realized her passion for technology during a college internship, and after beginning her career as a regional manager, she worked her way up the corporate ladder. Today, Gleeson is the senior vice president of the Americas division — the largest division within Cisco.

“Every day is something new,” Gleeson says. “One of my mantras is, ‘Do something every day that gives you butterflies in your stomach.’ Working in technology gives me butterflies.”

With more than 30 years of experience working in the tech industry, Gleeson has witnessed the internal improvements for women, like the expansion of adoption and maternity leave policies. However, she’s also experienced the realities of an industry lacking a true gender balance.

“Technology is still an industry where organizations have less than 25 percent female representation,” Gleeson says. “The most important thing we can do is attract, retain, and develop women as part of a diverse workforce.”

To encourage said diverse workforce, Gleeson helped start the Cisco’s Women’s Action Network in 1997 to celebrate women in tech. Now known as Connected Women, the community has more than 6,850 members globally.

Monisha Perkash, CEO & Co-Founder of Lumo BodyTech

Tech wasn’t something that interested Monisha Perkash as a child. However, after moving to California after college to work for an educational non-profit, she found herself energized by the startup scene in Silicon Valley. She launched her own ed-tech startup called TuitionCoach, providing online guidance for making college affordable. After selling the startup, she knew she had “caught the bug” of entrepreneurship.

Perkash spent the next few years rising up in management and leadership opportunities before having her first child. Then, she launched her first company, Lumo Bodytech — a motion science company that combines sensor data and advanced algorithms to help people move better.

While she acknowledges that only a small percentage of entrepreneurs are women, Perkash tries not to think about how she’s different, but rather focuses on playing to her strengths — many of which come from being a woman. She also believes that the answer to shattering many unconscious biases about women in tech is getting more women involved in tech.

“The fewer of us that there are in entrepreneurial, leadership, or tech roles, the fewer of us there will likely be,” Perkash says. “We can help banish these biases by thinking consciously about deserving women whom we want to provide opportunities to, mentor, and invest in.”

Rica Elysée, Founder and CEO of BeautyLynk Corp

Rica Elysée always thought she would have a career as a lobbyist or executive director of a nonprofit, but she fell into working in tech because of a passion to make beauty services more accessible. She began with a bit of self-taught CSS and Wordpress skills, and today Elysée is the founder of and CEO of BeautyLink Corp., a company that builds, designs, and tests innovative products and services devoted to improving the beauty industry.

“What excited me about tech is building solutions from people's experiences,” Elysée says.

Elysée has certainly been exposed to obstacles within the industry, but she believes BeautyLynk’s success has helped to stifle naysayers and overcome challenges.

“Being a black woman with a mohawk, tattoos, and boobs, I face a lot of unconscious bias about my style, the company, and my leadership,” Elysée says. “In order to banish these biases, we need to be intentional with our goals from the start when it comes to being inclusive, listening, and doing more than having forums — even though they are a great start.”

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This post is sponsored by HP.