Inner Fire: Change For Women Leaders in Tech Comes From Within Culture

The challenges for women leaders in the bro behaving badly culture prevalent in tech are not new, yet are receiving more attention recently. This is thanks to the recent outrageous antics and sexual harassment confessions of top guns in Silicon Valley.The latest was earlier this week with the resignation of the founder of 500 Startups causing investors to claim the tech industry has gone “deeply awry.”The solutions to change the culture to one of diversity, inclusion and welcoming for women and under-represented groups are not reached in a day or a week, but by addressing the problem holistically and practically.In order to make STEM fields and tech better for everyone, “It cannot just be an introduction from the head of diversity. It has to be what the CEO cares about and the leadership team cares about. Until that happens, it doesn’t matter,” says Kristi Riordan, chief operating officer at Flatiron School, an outcomes-focused coding bootcamp offering software engineering education in New York and online.[bctt tweet=“The solutions to #ChangeTech culture to one of diversity are not reached in a day or a week @FlatironSchool” username=“takeleadwomen”]“It’s more of an iterative process. We need to see higher numbers of women on boards, in leadership positions, management, and c-suite.  We need men as advocates. I think it’s more a matter of empathy and perspective,” says Riordan, who has been with the five-year-old Flatiron School since 2014. Before that, the CPA and lawyer spent nine years at Gerson Lehrman Group, the world’s largest network for professional learning.The numbers support Riordan’s view.“On top of all this, there are very few women in positions of power; less than 20 percent of senior leaders at tech companies are women by some counts. And many of the women at tech firms are running non-technical departments like HR, legal or finance.,” Julie Bort writes in Business Insider.“Google’s latest diversity report confirmed what we all know about prestige jobs at Silicon Valley tech companies: Despite incremental gains in diversity, these jobs still overwhelmingly go to white males,” writes Rani Molla in Recode.“For leadership — a category that usually includes director-level or above — Twitter and Apple have a slightly higher rate of women in those positions — though none of the companies measured has over 30 percent female leadership. Remember, women are 50 percent of the population. Intel and Microsoft have the lowest rates of women in leadership,” Molla writes.The need for change is obvious. The path to change for women leaders in tech may be less so.[bctt tweet=“The need for change in tech is obvious. The path to change may be less so for #WomenInTech” username=“takeleadwomen”]“As the industry as a whole becomes more sophisticated, what do we want the culture to be?” asks Riordan, who after graduating college in 1998, earned her CPA and became engagement manager at the public accounting firm KPMG. After law school, she was a law clerk on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and then went on to work with the founding partners at Blackstone Private Equity, before going to GLG in 2004.Riordan has personal experience of what it is like to move up the ranks in male-dominated fields. The good news is the culture for women leaders in tech is changing, thanks to more women speaking up and companies having transparency on numbers.“We are at a different place than even three years ago,” says Riordan. “When I first got here, I felt it was hard to have conversation in the industry about women’s issues; it felt like we were walking on land mines. Now the conversation has become a drumbeat. Everyone knows these issues exist, there is more momentum and it will snowball.”In her position at Flatiron School, Riordan is able to spearhead the feeder entry point of the pipeline and highlight the outcomes as well as focus on the bigger picture— all elements that will move the culture to a solution.“It is exhilarating and exhausting at the same time,” Riordan says.Flatiron recently celebrated its five-year anniversary. The school was founded in 2012 by Adam Enbar and Avi Flombaum, who according to the website,  “partnered to create an alternative to an education industry leaving a wide skills gap in a booming tech world.” The school, with both an on-site New York school and an online component, is “an accelerated programming school that inspired a coding bootcamp industry.”“Technology has the potential to reshape the way we learn – and we’re just getting started,” Riordan says. Flatiron is “not just for the individual student, but it is doing good things for technology and education and is part of the national conversation on education as a whole,” she says.And the outcomes demonstrate the success of their teaching models. The school claims “over 98 percent of students starting fulfilling careers at companies including Google, Apple, even NASA.”Achieving those outcomes, Riordan says, requires attendance to what she calls the “three big buckets we have to address in Women Take Tech: awareness, confidence and access.”First, for young women, there needs to be, “awareness that this is a field that exists that you can pursue and find satisfying and rewarding. A lot of people don’t realize what it means because they don’t have role models,” says Riordan “You have to have a diverse group of people to reach women so you can say, ‘Look at this person like you. You can pursue a career.’”Secondly, Riordan says, is a “confidence gap that applies to women and under-represented groups.” She says, they think, “More men have had more experience in exposure to coding.  So they think they are better at it. We counter balance that with outreach.”The third bucket is access. That is related to the wealth gap, says Riordan. “When you combine less access to capital, less access to savings, and combine that with less confidence, we have to create scholarships and opportunities,” she says. Flatiron does that with Women in Tech and Women Who Code scholarship offerings.With the wealth gap, also comes the reality that “time available for education is more restricted,” Riordan says. That is why Flatiron is both “highly structured in person but also offers online education that is self-pacing. That opens the door for many.”With her experience of launching digital products for GLG as senior vice president beginning in 2004, Riordan says that this innovative experience serves her well at Flatiron, and also in understanding the pace of the tech industry and the role for women leaders.“It occurred to me back then how rapidly technology was changing absolutely everything. I heard a lot of fear and some excitement.”Her move to Flatiron in 2014 was because, “I wanted to get into the heart of tech and reinvent myself. I was introduced to the founder, and fell in love with the idea of a vision of changing how we educate people with coding being part of that new model,” Riordan says.And while the view of the tech culture now is one at times that is disheartening for women, it is also a time of disruption, matched by the whole of society.[bctt tweet=”#TechCulture now can be disheartening for women, but it is also a time of disruption “ username=“takeleadwomen”]“Considering social stability, we have to think about how much disruption there is now in the labor force. With these massive societal changes, we have to make sure there is broad participation in jobs of the future. That’s the big picture.” Riordan says. “We can not just have a small elite section of society participating in the future workforce.”Women leaders are part of the solution to make careers in tech accessible to all.“We want to create programs that help women candidates thrive ,“ Riordan says. “We don’t think we are ever done.”She adds that everyone participating and leading in the tech industry and STEM fields needs to be on board to change the culture for good.“It’s crucial to have the internal fire and the drive to understand the need for change and to advocate for it and champion for it.”To learn more about programs to disrupt and change the role of women in tech,  join Take The Lead for Virtual Happy Hour,  Wednesday, July 12th at 6:30 pm ET for Women in Tech: Building Support for Women in STEM.  Heather Cabot, co-author and co-founder of Geek Girl Rising and Adda Birnir, founder and CEO of Skillcrush will talk with Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead and share what they are doing to transform the tech industry. Cabot will share the success tips she learned while interviewing women for her new book, Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech and Birnir will dish on which skills and programs are helping women kick start their next big career move. You can register here.