I’ve been a woman mathematician in Industry for almost 5 years. I have Malcolm Gladwell’s requisite 10,000 hours to be an expert. Throughout my experience, I have struggled to gain the trust of my more technical colleagues. It’s not a new problem for me, but, upon joining Industry, a new wrinkle to this puzzle has presented itself: Do I want to be trusted as a technical individual contributor or as a leader? I like both options! I am capable of both options. And, as a result, I waffle back and forth between the options.
Every time I’m on one track, I think fondly about how the grass is greener on the other side. I think, “Gosh, I miss sitting quietly at my computer and writing code.” Or I think, “Man, I wish this project was better managed so my good work was used more!” On the whole, I have chosen to lead people. Because without a good leader, the technical work doesn’t get used. And I came to Industry so people will use my work instead of having the work live primarily in a journal article somewhere.
But, do ‘leading’ and ‘doing’ have to be so separate? In some companies, the two development tracks are presented as something which can be done together. “You can lead people AND write code!” they say. But in my experience, any leader who does this effectively is working 80 hours week. Spending 40 hours on technical contributions and 40 hours on leading people. And, ultimately, when time is an issue, an individual must decide which is more important to them: leading people or doing technical work.
And, based on some new research, there are other reasons to believe that these two options are NOT options which can be taken together. M. Teresa Cardador & Brianna Caza interviewed more than 330 engineers over the last 4 years [HBR article]. Taken together their conversations show that technical folks view managerial roles as undesirable. Teresa has done previous research on the prestige hierarchy of this highly technical space. Our culture teaches us the hard skills we need to be technical capable are separate from the soft skills that make us good with other people. What’s more, we “also learn that these skills are gendered, with the [hard skills] viewed as more masculine, more revered and higher status; and the [soft skills] viewed as more feminine and lower status.” So, as I move into leadership, do I have enough technical skills to be seen as trustworthy on technical topics? Am I masculine enough to be trusted? Without that, my value to the company is seen as lower than the individual contributors because I’m using my “feminine” skills to get work done.
“It seems like these things, these skills, these traits that I’ve honed for a very long time…one might label as soft skills maybe…are not really the kinds of things that get rewarded as much on day to day. Or are being recognized.” – Cardador & Caza
This quote is from the article, but I could have easily said the same thing. I know many people who agree with this statement. Being a leader is a burden and is ‘less valuable’ than being a technical data scientist. Devaluing leadership isn’t really a problem, until you layer in the gender bias. Cardador & Caza found in their study “that while some women pursued these technical supervisor or management roles based on their preferences, some were also mentored into these roles.” So, women are getting pushed into these roles despite their other preferences.
“When women disproportionately occupy roles that are less valued or unwanted, it can reinforce stereotypes about female engineers being less technically skilled, make them feel less respected, and create the illusion that they are not a ‘real engineer.’” – Cardador & Caza
And that’s exactly how the choice feels to me. Do I want to be a “real data scientist” or do I want to be a leader of data scientists? I find leading to be more personally fulfilling and, I believe, leading makes me more valuable to my company because I will insure the work of the non-leaders finds its best use case. I spent decades of my life politely fighting with men to make them see that my hard skills are just as advanced as the men’s skills are. I spent these years metaphorically saying, “I’m masculine! I’m one of the guys!” But now, with a choice to serve the greater good and use the skills that are really underrepresented in tech (social skills), I am undermining all that credibility I built.
The perception is tough to shake. Cardador & Caza talk about resilience of women in tech. Mostly it’s about staying true to oneself and ignoring the peer pressure. It’s being able to say: “everyone else will think I’m making the less prestigious choice. And that’s OK.” But honestly, I can’t decide if it is OK, because if I lead, then the individual contributors will perceive that I’m more feminine and approachable and therefore less technically capable. And if the team I lead doesn’t believe me to be capable, then I will have a harder time leading the team effectively. And I don’t know how to solve that puzzle… So, the question remains: Do I appear masculine enough to be trusted?