Interview
18 Jan 2019

Women in tech need practical advice not psychology

Let’s consider ourselves prepared on topics related to motivation or self-discipline. Instead, let's spend that energy on learning more, becoming better at what we do, and helping the men around us see how unreal the playing field is. 

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
Women in tech need practical advice not psychology - NewsMavens
Patricia Florissi, personal photo

The following interview with Patricia Florissi from Dell Global took place during the "Women In Tech Summit" in Warsaw, in September 2018.

Zuzanna Ziomecka: How often do you find yourself the only woman in the room?

Patricia Florissi: Too often. But I think I have become so used to the situation that I don’t pay attention to it anymore. It’s not because the problem has gone away -- it’s a self-defence mechanism. I believe that humans, men and women both, have a limited capacity; there only so many things you can think and focus on at once.

I feel that we, as women, have so many other points of disadvantage and so many obstacles to overcome, that we have to prioritize. 

ZZ: Did you find that being a woman in an environment where women are rare, can work both ways -- to your advantage and to your disadvantage?

I don’t want to -- ever -- accomplish anything in my life because I’m a woman. I want to accomplish and achieve everything in my life because of merit. If I feel that I’m being favored or privileged because of my gender, that’s going to be a failure.

ZZ: So what happens when you feel that you are being disadvantaged because of your gender?

I have to tough it out and keep going. I’m not seeing that it’s the right thing to do generically, I’m telling you how I deal with it. I would not forgive myself if after all the years of school, after all of the effort and all of the hard work, what gets me there in the end is gender, which is something I didn’t control and doesn’t result from a decision -- right or wrong -- that I made. It is a part of who I am, and I’ll always be a woman, but I don’t want to be favored in any way.

ZZ: After all these years of toughing it out, would you honestly recommend this field to women?

Absolutely.

ZZ: Given all the barriers, obstacles and discomfort involved?

What I should fight for is not favoritism to women, but an equal playing field for everyone.

ZZ: That’s not what  I’m seeing when I look at women in technology. Women are still at a tremendous disadvantage, both on the startup level and in big corporations.

True, but there’s marked improvement. Today, there’s far more access to information than there was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. The environment is far more competitive, there’s much more pressure in the system to get it right, there are more people that demand changes to be made -- and if you’re caught not doing something right, it affects your reputation which plays a major role. The whole system is now evolving towards a more positive direction.

ZZ: How long have you noticed this mounting pressure around gender?

2 years. I have been in a lot of conferences on women and technology and women in science -- I don’t think we’ve even reached a pivot point, but we are getting closer to a strong level of awareness. However, there is another element that plays a tremendous stop function in the whole process, which is related to culture.

Culturally, in our generation -- even if there are the sources of information to look for on salary -- we are not trained to actually look for them, find them and become self-aware.

We, the leftovers between baby boomers and generation X, are in many ways, at the mercy of a system that is unfair.

I think that we are more of a transitional generation, whereas millennials and Generation z have a better mindset -- they grew up with access to technology, access to global sources of information and to awareness of the issues -- culturally their minds are wired differently.

ZZ: And geographically? You travel to technology events all over the world. Do you have a sense that there is a common culture represented in the industry?

Male. Absolutely. Even if I don’t mind and tough it out. I could, If I wanted to, actually count the women along the way.

ZZ: Yes, 5% in leadership.

I would even be stronger and say that I see about 5% percent everywhere, even in the lower ranks. Because if you count 5%, what you’re saying is that for every 20 people, one is a woman. And that’s exactly what I think I see.

ZZ: I was really interested in your assessment of the pressure building for self-sustaining change with regard to women in the industry or inclusion. What do you think needs to happen for the pressure to get us to that pivot point?

Maybe it needs a revolution.  I like to look at the moment that we’re living in from a minority perspective in the workforce and in management as very similar to the civil rights movement. It required such a massive effort. There’s a picture of Martin Luther King that I think about a lot. He is leading one of the famous walks: he’s in the middle and to his side are two African Americans, and to his other side there are two white Caucasians.

For me, that picture speaks a thousand words, because it means that in order to get yourself out of a situation, you need support from the majority and without that you don’t progress. We women sometimes do ourselves a disservice when we consider it our problem instead of everyone’s problem. It may be controversial, but men need to hear more about the issues faced by the minorities. Or rather -- the majority needs to listen more, and to live and to understand the issues that minorities are going through.

ZZ: You don’t feel that’s happening enough?

Often minorities have meetings and discuss topics, and they look like group therapy -- everybody feels better at the end.

ZZ: Self-created ghettos.

Yes -- we position ourselves into corners, and we say: hey, go fight, and so on. But the battlefield didn’t change -- it doesn’t matter how strong you feel, you’re still fighting the same issues and the other side is completely oblivious to it. It gets better as more and more senior men have daughters which makes them more empathic to the fact that they’ll need to work, but it’s still a long way to go.

ZZ: So we are preaching to the converted more often than we are actually making change where it  needs to happen.

But people want to help. I don’t believe any majority wakes up and says: today I’m going to crush the career of 10 minorities. Sometimes they’re just clueless. I’m not saying it’s always the case.

ZZ: It’s easy to feel hostility even if it’s not there -- just being a minority [in the field] is uncomfortable. Is there anything you do to arm women, to help them prepare? Because I feel that what happens is that at events like this we’re telling women: “go for it, it’s a wonderful field, there’s so much future in it, you need to go into technology”.

But are we, or should we be, preparing them for what will happen when they actually get there? I feel that we’re setting women up, if we don’t tell them how difficult it will be when they get there.

I think that we’re doing even worse. We are telling them that all the responsibility is on them. We’re telling them to “lean in” -- I didn’t like that book. If, in my life, leaning in worked, I would have been the president of the entire world! [laugh]

I am a risk-taker, I have tried everything that I could, I have never said no, and so on. But it is not that!

We give women a list of action items[....]: build a network, be a good person, help others, do social work, and be on top of your field, be better prepared than everyone else, don’t mind the men in the room. What are we, superhumans?

ZZ: So we’re doing them a disservice by giving them action items that refer only to things that they need to do. How can we do better? How can we prepare women for going in and changing this industry into what it could be?

Can we give an out-of-the-box solution and prepare the men instead? [laugh] Let’s consider ourselves prepared -- I declare myself graduated in many topics related to motivation or self-discipline. Instead, let's spend that energy on learning more, becoming better at what we are, and helping the men around us see how unreal and unlevelled the playing field is.

And on your way -- help other women. Not just by motivating or encouraging them -- guide them, tell them: look, if I were you and if I were your age, I would double down on AI, because the future is there.

Don’t double down on doing silly things, go and understand the theory behind things, because the people who actually understand the math, the depth of the technology that is underneath, are going to be the people who have the advantage. Learn a new field, go learn autonomous driving, because we’re at level 2.5 and there are 5 levels to accomplish.

Give women practical advice that will put them in a position of advantage, in terms of merit and intellectual understanding, not just psychologically.

Don’t neglect the psychology, because everybody has a bad day, say: tough it out, cry, here’s a Kleenex box, when you’re done with that box, get yourself up and do it again. It’s not easy and I don’t want to trivialize. But we are overrating some psychological aspects, mental aspects, at the expense of creating a disadvantage on the competence that actually matters when push comes to shove.

***

Patricia Florissi is VP and Global Chief Technology Officer for EMC Sales and holds the honorary title of EMC Distinguished Engineer. She is a technology thought leader and innovator, with 20 patents issued and more than 20 patents pending. Ms Florissi is also is a creator, author, narrator, and graphical influencer.

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