Lean in, lean back: Can a female founder of a tech company have it all?
With the flurry of articles that came out last week in the lead up to International Women’s Day, three thought pieces in particular caught my attention. One article, which was by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in the New York Times, was about leaning in with men and how this benefits both women and men. The second article, by Rosa Brooks in the Washington Post, had a somewhat opposing opinion and was about leaning back with men. It argued that because there is a culture of overworking and of workplace ubiquity we all need to lean back for our mutual sanity. The third piece, by Katie McDonough in Salon, centred around the experience of a young woman receiving criticism for not leaning in. This article highlighted issues inherent in applying a lean-in ethos across the entire spectrum of female experience.
How far can you lean in before falling over?
So what do we do? Do we lean in, as Sheryl recommends? Or do we lean back, with men, to avoid exhaustion and to actually enjoy life? I think it is a bit of both. We need to sit at the table rather than just pulling up a chair along the wall (I’m so guilty of that). We need to pull a chair up to the table and speak up. Sheryl is also right in that men will benefit from leaning in at home and from women leaning in at work.
However, Rosa is also right in that, collectively, we all work too much. If we are all working impossible hours, we need to lean back together, so that women are not leaning so far forward that they fall over.
In the case of Katie and her coverage of Jessica Williams’ experience, the article highlights that it is not fair to apply one standard to all women. It demonstrates that we all have a right to choose our own path, that we all come from different circumstances, that we cannot view all women with the same lens and that, really, we should all acknowledge that we do have a lens.
Basically, it’s complicated. People are different.
In all due fairness to Sheryl, she never claimed that “lean in” was a one-size-fits-all ethos. Yet somehow it’s been applied in broad strokes culturally to all women. In Sheryl’s case, she is lucky to have the support of a partner—such good support and such good circumstance (ahem, money) that she can lean in further than some. But how can you lean in when you don’t have it all?
Q&A with Jodi Glover, CEO of Real Tech
I sat down with Jodi Glover, CEO of Real Tech, to get some perspective on this issue from a female founder of a tech company in a male-dominated industry, who found a way to raise three children, one of whom has health issues, while also running a business.
Lynda: Tell me a little bit about yourself, your company and how your family life is impacted by your work.
Jodi: I founded Real Tech back in 2004 and we have grown the business to be an award-winning Canadian cleantech company with sales in over 40 countries around the globe. Our focus at Real Tech is on developing water quality analytical instrumentation that is practical, affordable and attainable. Our goal is to do our part in helping to improve global water quality.
On a personal front, in the midst of starting and growing Real Tech I had my first child in 2006, with two more children following in the years after. Growing a cleantech company while becoming a mother to three young boys definitely has its fair share of challenges, to say the least. I believe it’s important that you love what you do, as well as the vision at the heart of the business you’re working so hard to build. Otherwise you won’t be able to make the sacrifices and keep driving forward through the difficult times to find success and fulfil your goals. It’s hard to be driven to do the work involved with building a business if you don’t love your work.
Lynda: Have you experienced any unique challenges as a female founder of a water technology business?
Jodi: The water industry, from my experience, is still heavily male dominated. However, I can see some shifts, as I’ve recently had some women sitting at the boardroom table with me—a rare occurrence in this industry. As a woman, you have to prove yourself that much more. You are often referred to as “just a girl” and you are also often underestimated, which can add to the challenges to overcome. But you can overcome them. You just have to ensure that you believe in yourself to keep going and to prove them wrong.
Lynda: Could you describe an instance where being female gave you an advantage?
Jodi: As it’s being more recognized now, women seem to have strong abilities for intuition and financial discipline. In my experience, these feminine-associated traits seem to have given me an advantage in decision-making and have helped enable Real Tech’s success. Also, since there are so few women in the field, I have been able to receive recognition for my work with awards like the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award. Such recognition has assisted me further in achieving my goals and gaining the respect of my male peers.
Lynda: What advice do you have for other female founders of tech companies and for women working in the technology space in general?
Jodi: Keep being persistent. If success is defined as when performance meets expectations, then don’t let society set low expectations for what you can achieve in business and technology just because you may be “just a girl,” as I’ve been told. Set your own goals, don’t let others limit your potential and keep driving forward to find your own success and fulfil your own dreams to change the world.
Lynda: If there is anything you would have done differently, what was it and how would you do it knowing what you know now?
Jodi: If only we could take our future knowledge and apply it to the past! Keep focused. It’s something that I was told early on starting Real Tech and it’s a simple piece of advice that has really helped me. However, looking back I think I could have done even better with it since, when you are also keeping adaptable and innovative as an entrepreneur, focus can sometimes get lost. So, from my experience keeping focused is key.
Lynda: What do you think has to change, here in the developed world and in the developing world, in order to achieve gender parity in the technology sector?
Jodi: We need more women in positions of leadership and influence. Our societies are not even close to having enough female representation in the top positions of government, major companies and financial institutions, nor within the technology field itself. Let’s redefine success as performance meeting expectations. We need to create a cultural shift in perception, that women can be leaders in business, politics and technology. And we need to continue to open doors for women so that they can rise to the top of organizations. Then we may see a shift in societies’ expectations toward equality.
The same goes for men. We need the same shift in societies’ perceptions and expectations of men and their roles within the family dynamic. We need to foster societies that enable and encourage men to take a more active role within family life, and that see that the primary responsibility for raising children is shared between men and women. For example, when a child is sick, who is more likely to stay home and care for that child? More often than not it falls on the shoulders of the woman, which then creates more challenges for her to balance her career aspirations with raising children. If we begin ensuring that men share in the role of nurturing our children, both men and women will find more success and the next generation will benefit.
Another aspect to this societal shift can come from ensuring equal pay for women, as women are still making less than their male counterparts for the same roles.
Promoting and fostering education in technology for girls will also help. I know that not so long ago when I was making decisions about my education, although I was strong at math and science and would have loved to become an engineer, I was a girl, and girls were directed into more traditionally female career choices. Breaking down these gender stereotypes with career choices will help more young girls choose engineering and other male-dominated professions that will help bring about stronger advancement of women.
Lynda: Anything else you’d like to offer? Perspective? An anecdote? An experience you think would benefit other women?
Jodi: To throw a curveball into taking on the challenge of growing my business and raising young children, my oldest son has had health issues. I cannot imagine any employer tolerating the amount of time I have had to take off and the flexibility I need to ensure my son receives appropriate care and is safe and healthy. I think my situation is another example of how entrepreneurship can be an incredible solution for many women who are looking to not only pursue their dreams for using their skills and passion in life, but who also want to have a family as well. As a female entrepreneur, there are no limits and you will have the flexibility needed to help you work through challenges as you find your own success in life.
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Lynda O'MalleyLynda is a cleantech industry analyst with the Market Intelligence team, helping cleantech and advanced materials entrepreneurs and startups get the market intelligence they need to grow their companies. See more…