Women Overcoming Challenges in STEM

Three African American C-suite leaders share their stories and offer insights on how women can break through the gender and race barriers in STEM industries

by Jackie Krentzman

Photography by Eric Marshall

When Robin Washington graduated from the University of Michigan, her first two jobs were in accounting and auditing. Washington was comfortable in Michigan, where she grew up. But she wasn’t happy—mainly, she was bored. So when she was offered a job by Tandem Computers in Silicon Valley, she took a deep breath and made the move.

Twenty years later, Washington was named the CFO of the Fortune 500 biotech company Gilead Sciences.

“I believe that one key to success is the willingness to take risks,” says Washington. “When I moved across country, I didn’t know anyone, but I was intrigued about living somewhere new. Then, when PeopleSoft [her next employer] asked me to move to Amsterdam, I was open to it. I had always wanted to live overseas.”
She believes that success in leadership in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) is about more than technical skills. “People skills are just as important,” Washington says. “And that often means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Stacy Brown-Philpot, the CEO of TaskRabbit, agrees that the willingness to take risks is the key to success. “The number one piece of advice I got early in my career was be willing to take risks,” she says. “It can often feel scary, as a black woman who has sacrificed and struggled a lot to get to where you are, but once you take that step, you will see the upside.”

Risks and opportunities are simply two sides of the same coin, says Shellye Archambeau, the former CEO of MetricStream. “All through my career I have been open to taking risks. I believe in taking the stretch opportunity. For instance, I once moved my entire family to Japan for a job. This willingness to push myself has given me more opportunities to demonstrate my capabilities.”

Diversity Woman sat down with these three dynamic and thoughtful African American women to explore how women who want to advance into more senior roles in tech and STEM companies can position themselves for promotion—and equally important, what companies in these male-dominated sectors must do to bring greater gender equity.

The journey
Shellye Archambeau’s path to the CEO seat began when she was in high school. She was a student leader, serving in leadership positions in many clubs and organizations in her school in Montville, New Jersey. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, interested in the still nascent tech sector, Archambeau majored in economics with a concentration in decision science—in the 1980s, most colleges didn’t offer a robust computer science program.

After college, she slowly worked her way up the ladder at IBM. Archambeau made no secret of her desire to be CEO of IBM one day. She was its first African American woman to head an international division. However, in 1999, when she was recruited by Blockbuster and became head of its exploding e-commerce division during the dot-com boom, she saw a quicker pathway to the top. After several more career changes, she became CEO of the cloud-based open-platform Zaplet in 2002. Two years later, Zaplet merged with MetricStream, and she finally achieved the goal she set in high school—CEO.

Archambeau attributes much of her career success to intentionality.

“I am probably different from many people in that I decided early on I wanted to be a CEO,” says Archambeau, who is now retired from MetricStream but still serves on several corporate boards and is an advisor to companies. “I am a big believer in building a plan and executing it.”

Brown-Philpot also came to technology circuitously. She took a computer class in high school in Detroit, but as she recalls, nobody told her about the field of engineering. “If you were smart, you became a doctor or lawyer back then,” she says.

But she was good at math and, after graduating from the 
Wharton School of Business, forged a career in finance on Wall Street. In 1999, she was asked to close some tech deals—and she was hooked. “It was exciting to see how these Silicon Valley companies created value,” she says.

Brown-Philpot moved west and attended Stanford Business School. While interning at a venture capital firm, she realized that she would prefer working for a company that created value. She joined Google in 2003, when it had a relatively modest staff of a thousand. Over the next nine years (and another 49,000 employees), she went from managing 14 employees to more than a thousand. In 2012, she became Google’s senior director of global consumer operations—and was soon ready to move on to the next challenge.

In 2013, she joined TaskRabbit as its COO. In 2016, she was promoted to CEO. A year later, she led the company’s successful sale to IKEA.

Washington also didn’t start in the sector she ended up in. She began in finance but didn’t enjoy it. When Tandem Computers in Cupertino offered her a job, she jumped at it and moved to Silicon Valley.
“I thought long and hard about what I wanted and where I wanted to go—and decided I wanted a fun place to work, where I could learn about operations,” says Washington.

She next moved on to PeopleSoft as a senior vice president and controller. But when the company was bought by Oracle, she went to Hyperion Solutions, where she was able to fulfill her ambition to become a CFO. In 2008, she made the leap across sectors, to biotech, when Gilead Sciences hired her as its CFO.
“Eventually we came up with a product that cured hepatitis C, and it was awesome to be part of it,” Washington says. “I had learned something important about myself—I needed to work at a company where I believe in its mission and role.”

Leaping over barriers
The statistics are clear: women are drastically outnumbered by men in technology and STEM. According to Catalyst, women in the United States made up just 25 percent of those in math and computer occupations in 2016. And the metrics for women of color are starker. The same study showed that women of color made up less than 10 percent of the workforce in STEM roles in 2015. So Archambeau says the first challenge for women in tech, particularly women of color, is being taken seriously, and being heard.

“First, frankly, it is about your physical presence,” she says. “You need to stand tall, so people see you. You must exude confidence, whether you feel it or not, so people believe you, believe what you are saying. I’m talking specifically about body language.

“Secondly, I’ve learned that men have short attention spans. But often women want to set the context, before they get to the point, to be sure that the point is understood. Given the reality, it is really important to first make the point and then go into the context. That way, if you get cut off, people will hear you making the point. Women tell me how frustrating it is to make a point, and then five minutes later a man makes the same point—and he gets all the credit.”

Brown-Philpot says that as a black woman CEO, she is subject to death by a thousand microaggressions—and has come up with her own way of combating them.

“Ever since I left Detroit, where my high school was 98 percent black, I have been only one of very few black women in college and in my career,” she says. “What typically happens is that people are surprised when they find out I am the CEO of a tech company. For example, I will sit down on a plane, exchange niceties with the person next to me, such as, ‘What do you do?’ When I tell them 
I run a company, they invariably ask, ‘What kind of company?’ ‘A tech company,’ I say. This is often a shocking moment for people. 
I have learned to embrace those interactions as teaching moments and not get frustrated by them.”

Washington says she too has encountered many microagressions and obstacles in her career, especially in her years as a senior vice president representing PeopleSoft in Europe, where she also had to overcome a new set of cultural differences.

“Robin is also a male name, so when I was the site lead, I would go to meetings and the first reaction was they didn’t expect to be shaking hands with an African American female!” Washington says. “I learned how to use this reaction to my advantage. I just focused on my work, and by getting the job done, eventually the shock and awe wore off, and we got down to business.”

She says that the key is to find the silver lining when you face an obstacle or a rejection. “Ask for feedback and then learn how to leverage that disappointment into what you are seeking,” she says. “And sometimes the alternative turns out to be the better opportunity and fit.”

Breaking down the doors: diversity
Women, and particularly women of color, are significantly underrepresented in science, tech, and engineering occupations, according to a 2017 study by the National Science Foundation. For example, women made up just 14.5 percent of engineers in the United States in 2015.

Archambeau, Brown-Philpot, and Washington have all reached the pinnacle of their professions. That affords them a great deal of perspective on how to address the job equity gap and build diverse teams in the technology and biotech sectors.

One of the most deeply held axioms in the tech field is that new technology drives innovation. That can conflict with the reality on the ground, where many, including Brown-Philpot, strongly believe that the technological advances must be paired with the understanding that diversity of thought and experiences is just as critical.

“If your company is truly going to be innovative on a global scale, it must have diversity of mind-set and skill set in building your company,” says Brown-Philpot. “You can’t just say tech drives innovation if you have a bunch of white men building things and not understanding how people will be using that technology around the world. That company would fail. To get truly diverse human judgment, and therefore the outcomes you want, you need people with different experience and background around the table.”

As in any field, managers in tech and biotech tend to hire people who look like them and have similar life experiences. Therefore, says Archambeau, diversity and inclusion leaders need to help their CEO and leaders realize the importance of cross-pollination.

“Tech companies are moving so fast, they do what is easy—hiring people who look like them. This is simply muscle memory,” she says. “That said, I firmly believe there are leaders of companies who get it and those who don’t. But I do think that more and more are getting it.”

Brown-Philpot notes that at TaskRabbit the responsibility for hiring diverse employees does not just fall on the human resources department. “Every person in the company is responsible for creating diversity in their area,” she says.

She acknowledges that sometimes those conversations can be hard. “I once had a conversation with a cofounder who is the CTO, an engineer, and I said we need to hire more female engineers. It was a challenging, difficult conversation. Finally, as I kept insisting, he hung up the phone! But the next week, he called me and said, ‘OK, Stacy, we will do this together.’ That changed everything, when he signed on.”
For Washington, one way to get leaders to recognize the value of diverse teams is simple: ask them to think about their daughters.

“I had a boss who talked about how he wanted to ensure the environment he created as CEO was one he wanted his daughters to work in,” she says.

A diverse company means nothing without a commitment to inclusivity
In the tech field, says Archambeau, the key to ensuring inclusion is strengthening the skills of managers. Many people, such as successful engineers and programmers, are promoted into leadership roles. “The problem is some don’t have the requisite management or people skills to succeed,” she says. “They need training.”

Further, she says, currently it is incumbent on the diverse person to fit in, but it must be a two-way street. “As a manager, make sure you are listening and understand what your employees need,” she advises. “It is always harder for women, African Americans, and Hispanic and disabled people to come into a group where they are the minority and to feel part of the group. Companies need to figure how to do that because if they don’t, valuable employees who don’t feel part of the group are not going to stay very long.”

The attrition rate in tech companies is higher for women than men, especially women of color. For example, a 2018 Catalyst study on “emotional tax”—the state of being on guard, consciously preparing to deal with potential bias or discrimination—reveals that 60 percent of men and women of color surveyed feel that on a day-to-day basis they are subject to this “tax” and that they are more likely to leave their company earlier than those who don’t feel on guard all the time.

Washington says companies need to crunch the data differently to find out why.
“Companies look at the data on attrition, but they look at it as a whole,” she says. “They need instead to break it down, by gender, race, etcetera. I call it a ‘mirror test.’” Leaders need to ask, why are the attrition numbers higher for those who don’t look like me than for those who do look like me?

“Once you have those numbers comes the harder part—you have to figure out how to change them,” Washington says. “Everyone in that company, especially managers, needs to ask himself or herself, ‘Am I creating an environment where people can be successful, regardless of race or gender?’ Executives need to hold themselves accountable.”

One pathway toward creating an inclusive workplace is through affinity groups, such as employee resource groups (ERGs). These groups are common in large companies. However, Archambeau believes that there is a way for many affinity groups to be more effective.

“At least 10 percent, ideally more, of those participating in any given ERG should not be from that group,” she says. “So if the African American affinity group has only African American members, they are just talking to themselves. At times, that is helpful, to let our hair down. But all that rich understanding of differences and how that can elevate a team or company come from talking to everyone, not just those in your group. It is important to have champions from management who are not naturally part of that group represented.”

While the responsibility for career advancement for women in tech and STEM occupations is a two-way street, the truth is that much of the burden still falls on the job seeker. These successful women share their perspectives on how others can reach the pinnacle of their fields.

As mentioned earlier, all three are proponents of taking risks. But there are other techniques too.
“First, set some goals for yourself,” says Brown-Philpot. “Put timelines around those goals. That doesn’t mean everything will happen exactly as you mapped it. But you can see if you are on track before you wake up at 40 and see this is not where you thought you would be.” Mentors and sponsors are also important.

In Brown-Philpot’s case, it sure didn’t hurt that one of her mentors at Google was Sheryl Sandberg, then its vice president of global online sales and operations. “Sheryl was the one who pulled me out of a finance role into an operations role,” says Brown-Philpot. “In effect, that moved me from a junior to a senior management role. Mentors are important—in my case, she saw I had the ability to do the job and she gave me the opportunity to grow.”

Washington urges women to find not just mentors, but sponsors. “Sponsorship is critical, over and beyond mentorship,” she says.

In choosing a mentor or sponsor, be strategic, says Archambeau.

“Not only should you find people who do the job you want, but also find mentors who do the job you have now,” says Archambeau. “You won’t get that next job until you master this job.” DW

Jackie Krentzman is Diversity Woman’s editor in chief.

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