Drop from the top - Who will lead us now?

Drop from the top - Who will lead us now?


With women stepping down from senior roles at an alarming rate, Saf Malik investigates and explores ways to empower more women to pursue C-Suite

Over the past year, we’ve seen the resignation of a number of key influential senior women in technology who have been role models for many.

Figures from S&P Global noted that across C-Suite positions, women lost seats for the first time over the study period (2005-2023).

Women held just 12.2% of the 15,000 C-Suite positions across publicly traded US firms in 2022, this was down to 11.8% just a year later.

Why did this happen? A panel at Women in Tech DC in Washington will explore this very question. The panel’s chairperson, Julie Murphy, president at Sage Communications, believes there could be several factors that contribute to this including a lack of access to mentorship and family responsibilities, which sometimes disproportionately affect women.

“It just happens to be that the childbearing years are right when women are going into leadership roles,” Murphy told emPOWERED.

“But it’s also ageing parents and things that can happen later in women’s careers.”

Murphy believes this was heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic, where women left the workforce “in droves” because kids were home for longer periods of time and often, it wasn’t possible for both parents to be working.

A report from McKinsey and Company indicates this was certainly the case. It said the pandemic had a near-immediate impact on women’s employment, with one in four women surveyed considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers versus one in five men.

The report said three major groups had experienced some of the largest challenges: Black women, working mothers and women in senior management.

And despite companies’ efforts to support employees during the crisis, women felt more exhausted, burned out and under pressure than men according to the 2020 Women in the Workplace study.

It starts young

Alongside her role as president of Sage Communications, Murphy also serves as the president of Women in Technology (WIT), a nonprofit serving the educational, professional and mentoring needs of women in the technology industry in the Washington, DC metropolitan region.

“We have around 100 members in Virginia, DC and Maryland and the whole focus of the organisation is elevating women from the classroom to the boardroom – that’s our tagline,” she says.

The organisation hosts both mentoring and professional development programmes as well as seminars with middle school and high school students to introduce them to the world of technology.

“If they can get the exposure before, they decide on a career path, we can show them that it’s possible, it’s fun and they can be good at it,” she says.

“In terms of who’s getting into the field, I think it starts young, and so we’re seeing a huge increase in helping girls get that exposure to help sort their thought process as they’re looking to select a major in college.”

On the panel alongside Murphy is Amy Doherty, chief information officer and vice president at The World Bank and Judith Apshago, chief digital officer at Amtrak. Apshago agrees with Murphy’s assessment and echoes the same sentiment.

“You need to get girls engaged at a young age,” she told emPOWERED. “It’s usually around the seventh or eighth grade when girls either develop an interest in STEM careers or not. Oftentimes, if you don’t capture them when they’re young, they’ll move to other career paths.”

Apshago credits organisations such as Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit organisation that aims to support and increase the number of women in computer science.

She believes that these types of STEM-oriented groups that focus on girls who are in “influential years” are already making a big impact in persuading young women to begin thinking about STEM careers.

Comfortable with discomfort

The following statistic has often been widely circulated across several publications: men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

The finding comes from a Hewlett Packard internal report, and the advice from one Forbes article was that women need to have more faith in themselves.

According to Apshago, this comes down to confidence.

“I think we tend to shy away from risk-taking by our very nature,” she says.

She therefore believes that support groups and organisations such as Girls Who Code, Women in Technology and STEM for Her are key to helping girls and women gain confidence.

“Even if you can’t check all of the boxes, put yourself out there and take risks.”

Apshago gives this advice as someone who by her own description is “risk averse”.

“I do think, earlier in my career, I wanted to have all the facts and all of the information to make the best decision possible, but I had a great male role model tell me that I had to get comfortable with making decisions without all the facts and take a little bit of a chance.

“Since that conversation around 20 years ago, I always remember that when I tend to want to take the safe and easy path, I force myself outside of my comfort zone to take some risks.”

Getting comfortable with discomfort and realising you may not have all the answers is essential to progress to C-Suite roles, particularly in the tech industry. Thus, Apshago believes finding the right mentor and surrounding yourself with the right people is integral.

But how do we encourage more women to be open to taking risks that could progress their careers? Murphy believes that this is still unclear, but there needs to be an analysis of the real programmes that work.

To put it plainly – the data isn’t going in the way we want it to,” she says.

“There are a lot of DEI initiatives out there and we have to go back to the data to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

“If some companies have had success with certain models – how can we replicate that in other companies to make sure women are getting the resources and support they need to help them thrive?”

For Murphy, organisations must pause in order to ask women how intervention strategies have helped, or what could they do differently.

“It’s an evolving process to make sure we’re implementing the right programming,” she says.

But Murphy is encouraged, noting that there have been positive changes made in the workplace in recent years.

“I think every generation learns from the previous one – and one thing I’ve been pleased to see is the women that are ready to support other women,” she says.

That goes for male allyship too.

“I’ve been really pleased to see that both men and women are aware of the issues now, which really pushes them forward.”

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