Why authentic leadership, not “leaning in,” is the answer to gender equality in tech

Women in tech

It’s a fact that women feel pressure in the workplace, both consciously and unconsciously, to “act like a man” in order to be a successful leader. But there is a growing notion, one which I’m a personal advocate of, that we need to embrace our unique selves to form our own successful leadership style.

Whether you are bold or soft-spoken, demanding or reserved, stoic or effervescent – a diverse approach to leadership regardless of gender or ethnicity needs to be promoted to break down the barriers faced by women at the executive level, and to promote diversity overall in the tech industry.

My experience for the past 2 decades in the corporate world, during which I spent the first half trying to fit in a leadership model that had nothing to do with my personality. I did my best to don a black suit and mimic the serious, aggressive nature of the biztech executives that surrounded me. It was only when I embraced my authentic leadership style that I shattered the glass ceiling with a lively attitude, creative spirit and bold approach in the boardroom.

But not everyone who would make an incredible leader fits into that archetype either, and they don’t have to.

So why did traditionally masculine characteristics become synonymous with ‘leader’ in the tech world?

First, there’s an obvious lack of diverse role models in executive positions because (in the circular argument of the century) there were a lack of diverse leadership styles in executive positions before them, and so on and so forth. When businesses in Australia were saturated with the stereotypical ‘alpha’ personality at the head of traditional tech business models, the characteristics associated with this personality type became synonymous with successful leadership over time, despite the demographic and structure of the tech industry shifting.

Further to this, in the current climate, when a woman rises higher in the company, the more male-influenced the environment around her becomes[1]. Our mentors, bosses and executive-level colleagues are often men who, regardless of how supportive they are in wanting us to reach the top, are unconsciously re-enforcing that to be successful, you must act like them –generally speaking, by negotiating, networking and making decisions with an outspoken, unaffected approach.

A women’s professional development is constantly underpinned by the need to “lean in,” which is brilliant advice from a legendary businesswoman, Sheryl Sandburg. There’s one big issue with this though: women are not cookie-cutter personalities in the workplace. We can be extroverted or introverted, creative or analytical, humble or confident, and beyond, which is why “leaning in” doesn’t work for or resonate with everyone. If that approach to business resonates with you that is fantastic, but never compromise who you are and your authentic leadership-style to conform to the tactics of the successful leaders that came before you.

So how can tech companies successfully propel more women into leadership positions?

Don’t just focus on numbers, a 50/50 split of men and women in the company does not mean women are equally represented in a company’s culture, business decisions, content and committees. It’s important to set some granular KPIs that will ensure female employees have a larger share of voice and impact on decisions and ideas, instead of solely a presence in the workplace.

Encourage thinking and perspectives that represent a broader cross-section of personalities – such as rewarding conceptual, associative thought alongside linear, factual problem-solving. Further to this, foster an environment of acceptance and empathy.  Allowing people to express emotions, like sharing a stress or insecurity with a coworker, and showing care and empathy is acceptable and a sign of emotional intelligence.

Embrace that we are in the relationship era – it’s all about getting close to customers, striking up joint ventures, partnering with suppliers. The classic boardroom warrior doesn’t necessarily make a good CEOs in companies based on relationships. The new era of CEO has a high emotional-intelligence, nurtures their team to be stronger than they are, and isn’t afraid to stand their ground when they know something is right –and these are matters more women can succeed in.

It’s true that when it comes to gender equality, women need to be strong and assert ourselves as leaders, but it’s crucial that women aspiring to take on leadership positions understand that their best pathway to success is paved with authenticity, and embracing the unique perspectives and approach every person possesses as an individual will diversify the model of successful leadership in Australia, and be one of the key ways to pave the way for gender and cultural equality at the top.


About the author

As the managing director of Australia and New Zealand for Bluewolf, an IBM Company, Aniqa Tariq leads business development strategy across ANZ and drives market opportunities for customers and partners with Salesforce. Tariq brings more than 17 years of global business experience—spanning business and new product development, IT, sales, and marketing—including a decade of Salesforce platform expertise.

To hear more insights from a set of leading women in technology and business, register for Bluewolf’s inaugural Women Innovation Network in Sydney on 28 September, 2017.

[1] https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/Stats_at_a_Glance.pdf