Women of Watermark: Tech execs on fighting gender bias in the workplace

SAN JOSE, CA – FEBRUARY 23: Investigative reporter, The New York Times, Jodi Kantor speaks onstage at the Watermark Conference for Women 2018 at San Jose Convention Center on February 23, 2018 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Watermark Conference for Women 2018)

By Nicki McClelland

The Watermark Conference for Women has amassed quite the following since their humble start 25 years ago. This year’s 6,500 attendees crowded the San Jose Convention Center Friday, Feb. 23 eager to claim their goodie bags, network and, of course, settle in to listen to the 100-plus influential speakers slated for the all-day event. Keynote’s included International Human Rights Lawyer Amal Clooney, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, Jodi Kantor, and actress and key player in Hollywood’s “Time’s Up” initiative, Reese Witherspoon.

The shear turn-out at the consistently sold-out event speaks volumes to the leaps workplaces, particularly in the Bay Area, have made toward addressing systemic issues that put women at a disadvantage to their male counterparts.

With that being said, as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo candidly pointed out, Silicon Valley, just a stone’s throw away from the venue, was once, and experts would argue still is, one of the largest offenders of gender discrimination. Despite valiant efforts, the tech hub, which has appropriately earned the title of “the boys club,” is in no way entirely cleansed of prejudice against women.

We asked several of the conferences speakers, many of which are local to the Bay Area and hold top titles in the tech industry, to share their advice on how to handle gender bias on the job.

Here are our five biggest takeaways from our interviews:

  1. Speak up! Each woman echoed the sentiment that your voice is your biggest weapon in fighting gender discrimination in the workplace. “Immediately go and tell your HR person…now you can. Now you have a voice. No one will shame you. People will believe you,” said Karen Cahn, former Google employee of ten years and founder and CEO of iFundWomen, a FinTech platform built to help female entrepreneurs get startup funding for their proof-of-concept stage through crowdfunding.
  2. Act immediately! Not letting instances of gender bias or sexual misconduct fester until they are unmanageable is key. Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix for fourteen years, gave an example we are betting nearly every woman can relate to. “Pick and choose the things that you can say in the moment, which is you know: ‘I think we call that mansplaining, you’re explaining something to me that I already know, so let’s not do that anymore.”
  3. Make it a teaching moment! The reality is, a lot of men have been getting away with bad behavior unchastened for decades. As McCord bluntly pointed out, if no one ever comments on the offenders wrongdoing, “[He’s] going to keep doing it, and we’re (women) going to hate [him.]”
  4. Use teamwork! Bridget Bisnette, the first female sales executive for Bay Area-based company Riverbed Technologies in its 15 years operating, gave a real-life scenario to demonstrate the power of strength in numbers. “Very often when you’re sitting in meetings and there’s men and women in the room, typically there’s more men, you may come up with an idea and people don’t actually listen to you. And, then a man, five minutes later, will say the exact same thing you just said and everyone will go: ‘That’s the best idea.’ What do we do? We just sit there, right?” said Bisnette, who also holds the title of vice president of global channel strategy and programs at Riverbed and formerly worked at Cisco Systems, Standard Micro Systems and AST Computers. She suggested if you witness a fellow woman’s voice ignored, you stand up for her! That statement doesn’t just apply to women either. As Bisnette expertly pinpointed  women need men on their side too.
  5. Don’t forget to have empathy! “For us to solve the gender bias, and it’s not even gender bias, it’s just bias in general. You have to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” said Mary Bui-Pham, vice president of global operations for media brands and products at Oath.” Bui-Pham emphasized the importance of “assuming positive intent,” and not being too quick to judge in the “Me Too” era. Don’t forget, we are all human!



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