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September 21, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:55am

Egnyte CSO Isabelle Guis: It’s lonely at the top for women in tech

Guis talks building credibility, focusing mind set and workplace hostility as the bitter pill to swallow.

By Ellie Burns

Continuing her Women in Tech series, Editor Ellie Burns sat down with Isabelle Guis, ex-Head of Cloud Strategy at EMC and current Chief Strategy Officer at Egnyte, to talk about her own experiences and opinions about women working in technology.

 

EB: What attracted you to a career in technology?

IG: "I was attracted to a career in technology as a result of my academic background, which was heavily focused on STEM subjects. The French curriculum strongly encourages students to pursue scientific disciplines and I excelled in maths, biology and physics. So the more time I spent on these subjects, the better I got, and the more I enjoyed them.

"After leaving university and qualifying as an engineer, Silicon Valley was naturally the most attractive place to work. I felt like a child in a sweet shop driving down Route 101 with all of the latest technology companies I would hear about and see online all around me!"

 

EB: What attracted you to the role at Egnyte?

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IG: "There were several factors that attracted me to my current role at Egnyte – the technology, the business model and the management team.

"Before moving to Egnyte, I worked at EMC where I was responsible for developing the cloud strategy. EMC was a big proponent of hybrid cloud, and so Egnyte’s unique hybrid cloud offering really excited me.

"Most of the large enterprise CIOs I was engaging with at the time were telling me that they wanted to move to the cloud but "on their terms" and not for everything due to significant past investment. As one of the only Enterprise File Sync and Share solutions with a hybrid offering, I knew Egnyte could solve IT pain points and give businesses the flexibility they required.

"The SaaS model also intrigued me, the faster rollout of features, data/analytics collection, instant feedback and real-time actions.

"Finally, the management team. They are a very cohesive group, comprised of a number of industry veterans with impressive track records and valuable, complimentary skill sets."

 

EB: What have been the biggest challenges you have faced being a woman working in technology?

IG: "In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges I have faced being a woman working in the technology industry has been establishing my own credibility and expertise. In such a male-dominated industry, quite often women are underestimated for their level of technical understanding.

"Having a degree in engineering doesn’t automatically give you the credibility you might expect to have. First impressions have been crucial in making sure that I can convey my expertise and skill set to prospective clients, employers and peers.

"Furthermore, the fact that I am French, with English as a second-language has created another stumbling block; making sure that cultural difference and linguistic barriers do not hinder working relationships has been very important in getting to where I am today."

 

EB: How did you overcome these challenges?

IG: "There have been several factors that have helped me overcome the challenges. First and foremost gaining accreditation, especially in the US, gave me credibility in the industry and ultimately opened more professional doors. It helped me rise above some of the other people vying for the same positions and helped get me past that initial vetting stage to secure more in-person meetings.

"Once I gained experience, my professional success helped to build a positive reputation. Former managers and co-workers would highly recommend me, which was always very helpful.

"I have also been able to turn my negative career experiences into positives. If you are underestimated and over deliver you make a BIG impression – people remember you and the ideas you bring standout more. There have been many occasions where as the only woman in the meeting I have been able to position myself as invaluable, based on my knowledge and skill set which helped me rise above any "differences".

"Lastly, I found it was about mind set – I always focussed on my role and the shared passion for technology. People’s love for high tech in Silicon Valley really is gender blind. If you love what you do and are good at it people tend to lose focus of other factors, such as gender."

 

EB: Having held senior roles at companies such as EMC and Cisco, is there a culture running throughout the technology industry which fosters a male-centric environment?

IG: "In my own personal experience there are individuals within the technology industry who perpetuate a male-centric culture. They create an uncomfortable environment for women through misplaced jokes, alienating other co-workers, and creating hostility towards women and their success and expertise. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but unfortunately this can be the case in any sector.

"Throughout my career I’ve felt that male-centric culture is limited to pockets of individuals rather than a company ethos or team mentality encouraged by management. I’ve found that there are many men who actively fight for gender equality.

"Personally, my career has been shaped and nurtured by many fantastic male managers who have empowered and mentored me, recognising my work with no bias and enabling me to grow. These individuals have proactively addressed issues I’ve had at work without me having to prompt or ask for their support."

 

EB: What do you think are the root causes of the skewed gender ratio in the technology industry?

IG: "I believe a major reason that we are seeing more men than women working in the technology industry is education. There are fewer women in technology graduate programmes and in the marketplace because STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects are still perceived by some to be ‘male’ subjects.

"For example, women accounted for only 18% of my engineering class and this translates into the workplace with fewer women taking up engineering roles than men.

"Even fewer women are taking up senior executive or board roles in the technology industry. This could be due to the career path chosen (for example, some women might have opted to take a break from or leave the workforce completely).

"Yet, this still doesn’t explain why so few women make it to the top of the corporate ladder. Some high-profile female leaders have suggested that women are less aggressive in asking for promotions or pay rises than their male counterparts; they wait to be recognised, are often under-estimated or have to work harder than men to achieve half as much.

"Either way, whether these explanations are right or wrong, there is a skewed gender ratio that exists and can’t be ignored."

 

 

EB: How do we tackle this disparity?

IG: "To tackle the gender disparity in tech, women need to be more proactive in fighting for opportunities and also more supportive of one another.

"We also need to highlight the different skill sets – behavioural and technical – that women bring to the table, and how they can improve a business, team or project. Both men and women bring different perspectives to a business and neither should be favoured over the other.

"Special" treatment shouldn’t be accepted and women should not compromise their ideals or opinions, setting the precedent for future generations."

 

EB: After getting women into the workplace, the next challenge is getting them to stay – as evidenced by the lack of senior/board level female execs. What issues do you think exist which are stopping women from reaching more senior/board positions?

IG: "Additions to the executive level of a business always come with a lot of judgement, whether that addition is female or male. But when you add gender to the mix, it’s of course a completely different situation and one that is often discouraging for women.

"The reality is, the impact of the personal on the professional realm for women is something that can’t be ignored and needs to be addressed if we’re going to retain female talent in the tech industry."

 

EB: Would you agree that the path to senior/board level is harder for women than it is men? Why?

IG: "The path to senior / board level is harder for women than it is for men. As I mentioned before, women are faced with a whole different variety of challenges – personal and professional – than men. What’s more, it’s traditionally been harder for women to establish a foothold in the industry, and prove their credibility and skill set.

"This is largely due to misconceptions in the technology industry regarding women in senior positions and whether they can perform as well as men. We need to change this mind set and demonstrate than women can be equally effective, providing unique perspectives and adding value in different ways."

 

EB: Are there different challenges for women at a senior level? Or do the same ones still exist?

IG: "As women climb further up the corporate ladder, the level of responsibility increases in line with demands and pressure from internal and external stakeholders. For anyone, male or female, juggling all of those things at such a senior level can prove very difficult.

"If anything, I wouldn’t say that women are faced with different challenges at a senior level, but rather the volume of challenges they’re faced with intensifies and there are fewer people to help you out with those responsibilities.

"Lonely at the top" is certainly an adage I would use – it’s harder to find mentors and maintain all professional relationships when you’re pulled in so many different directions."

 

EB: The need for women to have mentors, have someone to look up to, is a recurring piece of advice offered by women in tech. Did you have a mentor and how did it change your perception of working in tech?

IG: "We didn’t really have designated mentors in France when I was studying, but more informally we had people we admired and listened to for advice which is essentially the same!

"I definitely had a core group of individuals who I would always solicit for advice. Ironically, these individuals were often men in senior level positions who had already established themselves in the industry as successful professionals.

"However, I have always been inspired by successful women more generally, not just those working in technology.

"For example, female leaders within government often have much more responsibility and impact than those working in a corporate roles, and it’s those women whom I look up to frequently as role models.

"That said, I’ve always been passionate about technology and, regardless of the challenges thrown at me and the advice I’ve been given by male or female peers, I’ve never once considered working within another industry. I’ve just become more and more committed to my own path.

"And when you work in a sector you love, the challenges and hard work almost don’t count as such!"

 

EB: What advice would you offer to women working in tech, with ambitions to get to the top?

IG: "The one key piece of advice I would give to women working in technology today is never give up, even if sometimes you feel there’s no hope. Follow your passions with people you enjoy working with, regardless of their gender.

"Carefully choose the people you want to work for and with, and hopefully you will end up working with like-minded people. Don’t be afraid to show some grit and never accept prejudice or disrespect – ignore it and persevere.

"Things have changed so quickly in the technology industry in the last few decades and I’m confident that over time, things will change again in favour of gender equality."

 

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