Close your eyes and think about the people authoring and shaping the future. Think: innovation executives and leaders responsible for managing, growing and transforming their organizations in the coming years. Who do you imagine is in the room? Who’s got a seat at the table?
Now, let’s look at the numbers: Only 1 in 5 executives are women and fewer than 1 in 30 are women of color. Does that roughly reflect the image you conjured? As women in innovation consulting, we often find that when we get in the room with leadership across almost every industry that are working with us to create the future—they look pretty much the same as they did 50 years ago. But as designers we know that we’re never going to reach those peak levels of innovation if we don’t include more perspectives, backgrounds and contexts in the room.
It didn’t used to be this way. In fact, many consider the very first computer programmer to be Ada Lovelace, who in 1840 saw the potential of an advanced analytic machine and penned the first published algorithm that made way for the modern day, general-purpose computer as we know it. So, what changed? To uncover an answer, we interviewed trailblazers—women leading the way in innovation as C-levels, VPs and directors in business, design, science and technology—to understand how they arrived there, the challenges they faced, and what they learned along the way. We were struck by how willing these women were to talk candidly about their experience. Some of what we learned surprised us, most was as expected, but all of it inspired to take action and design the change we want to see.
Dr. Karin Lachmi, the Chief Scientific Officer & Founder at Bioz with a double post-doc, left the comfort of her position at Stanford to found the world’s first AI-based search engine for life science experimentation. Despite her accomplishments, she was once assumed to be the Executive Assistant assigned to schedule the next meeting because she was the only woman on an email distribution list.
How might we surface the bias – both conscious and unconscious – that emerges from assumptions like these?
Lucy Swithenby, Creative Director at frog Design, likes to use her design skills to solve business problems. Of the many problems she sees, she notes that most women “…try to hide how tired [they] feel because it makes you vulnerable,” highlighting the amount of effort it takes to find balance across all the areas that need attention.
Being superwoman is a lot of work, how do we help women conserve energy for what matters most to them?
Candace Hsieh, VP of Clinical Development and Regulatory Affairs at Aivita Biomedical ascribes to the adage, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ When coaching other women at her organization to advocate for themselves, she advises, “if you apply for it, you might not get it. If you don’t apply, you definitely won’t get it.”
How do we encourage calculated risk taking in women and girls?
Mary Murphy-Hoye, former Vice President, IOT Consulting, Cognizant Technology Solutions, built a career around challenging norms. She notes that women in high tech in the 80s and 90s were alone and different; they had to really believe in themselves and know they were good at what they did. Mary noted that Tom Malone, an MIT Sloan professor with whom she collaborated and author of Future of Work, encouraged her to create her own rules of engagement. “I worked with a guy that spoke about breaking assumptions about the way things are. ‘How long does it take to build a house?’ and he says ‘You can build one in less than 24hrs. You just have to change the rules of the game and ways of thinking.’”
Ivy Ross, VP of Design for Hardware Products at Google, feels her current success stems from her experiences early in her career as an artist and the ongoing practice of being her authentic self. “I just jumped in and continued to be me.”
How can we help people learn and break the unspoken rules of engagement at work?
Superheroes always have help, which is why it’s important to find a team both at work and at home.
Chris Hall, the VP and GM of Customer Experience at Adobe, believes that, “as a leader, you can’t get anywhere without others.” Chris does not see herself as an activist but asks herself what role she can play to help her team and broaden the larger organization. When it comes to gender, she thinks about it more broadly; most of the mentors she’s had throughout her career have been men. For her, it’s about watching out for others and creating environments to invite others into. Lisa Jackson, an Executive Strategy Director at frog design adds that finding a team who can support the multiple layers of one’s life is vital. She notes that, “it is hard to find mentors that have to navigate and balance career and parenthood.”
Aniko DeLaney, Global Head of Corporate Marketing at BNY Mellon, advises, “have your own board of directors. It could be friends, family or professionals. Figure out the people who will help you be your best self and pick you up when you need it.” Aniko believes women need to have strong social support systems that include good daycares, friends and professionals.
How can we better connect women to teams – mentors and advocates at work and home support networks?
Kesha Williams, Software Developer, Founder, Speaker, is a committed volunteer and mentor, passionate about getting children and women, particularly women of color, more engaged in technology. “I’m very passionate about increasing diversity within technology because of what I’ve seen and experienced in my career and exposing kids, especially young girls, to technology at an early age.”
Lindsey Mosby, former VP of frog Health and Strategy at frog Design and current Regional Health & Wellness Lead, Gensler, wants to be seen as herself first and as a female leader second. “You don’t have to be part of the movement towards fair practice, but we should all be grateful to those who are putting in the time and energy required to make it happen. Change doesn’t happen without major effort.”
How do we keep the circle going – connecting the women who’ve made it into the room to ones who can one day run the room given the right support?
Thanks to these women, we know what needs to be solved, that there’s momentum to change, and what we can work with to get started. What’s next? We design the change. Over the coming weeks, we will create concepts that help activate the entire ecosystem – women and men, public and private sectors, from early education to delayed retirement – to make sure that the rooms of executives of the future look a lot more like the community, population and nations around them.
We’d like to thank the following frogs for their contributions on this project: Suzanne O’Connor, Laura Scullin, Rachel Moore, Larcombe Teichgraeber, Chisun Rees, Jen Blake, Samara Watkiss, Samantha Nudelman, Alessandra Valenti, Kara Pecknold, Cristina Crespo, Melisa Hinojosa, Courtney Brown, Andrew van Hyfte, Ryan Menefee, Andy Couch, Jayson Truttmann, Emile Hoffman and David Zemanek.