‘The old stereotypes die hard.’
A Silicon Valley CEO has revealed she dyed her blonde hair, wore loose-fitting clothes and switched her contact lenses for glasses in order to be “taken seriously” in the workplace.
Eileen Carey, who runs software company Glassbreakers, told BBC News: “The first time I dyed my hair was actually due to advice I was given by a woman in venture capital
“I was told for this raise [that she was pitching to investors], it would be to my benefit to dye my hair brown because there was a stronger pattern recognition of brunette women CEOs.
“Being a brunette helps me to look a bit older and I needed that, I felt, in order to be taken seriously.”
While people on Twitter are up in arms about a woman changing her appearance for a job, women in STEM have told HuffPost UK that Carey is “not alone” in feeling this kind of pressure and that sadly, it’s nothing new.
Charlotte Attwood, digital marketing manager at Women In Tech said it “does not surprise [her] that women in tech feel the need to change their appearance to be taken seriously”.
“I think in general, women struggle to be taken seriously in the IT sector as it has always been seen as a male dominated sector,” she told HuffPost UK.
″[Gender equality in tech] has definitely improved in recent years as there are a lot more women in higher roles within the tech sector, such as managers and CEOs, however it is still a huge issue that needs to be resolved.”
Helen Wollaston, chief executive of WISE, which campaigns for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, agreed that a woman feeling pressure to change her appearance for a job is “sad”, but not surprising.
“I know from the stories we hear at WISE that she is not alone,” Wollaston told HuffPost UK.
“There are some brilliant women out there – brunette, black and blonde [haired women]. Giving them higher profiles in the media, in business and in schools and colleges is helping to change perceptions, but the old stereotypes die hard.”
Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder of Stemettes, added: “Sadly, how someone looks still affects how they are treated and so in this case she’s decided to ‘comply’ and dye her hair. Until the wider social norm changes, underrepresented groups will feel pressure to ‘change’ themselves to get ahead.”
Therese Stowell, principle product manager at software company Pivotal has previously blogged about the need to encourage gender diversity in tech.
She too said she is “not at all surprised” to hear a CEO in the industry felt under pressure to change her appearance.
“While tech companies have been working to address gender equality, deep societal biases can be hard to shift. Human beings are programmed to make snap judgements, so it’s a challenge even for people who are actively working to be inclusive,” she told HuffPost UK.
Their comments come after a report by the New York Times uncovered the extent to which women in tech face sexual harassment in the workplace earlier this year.
Two dozen women in the industry told the paper about their experiences of being harassed by mentors, investors and other male colleagues.
Wollaston said things have improved for women in STEM in recent years, as “more companies see the business benefits of gender-balanced teams”, but far more needs to be done so that women in tech have the opportunities and respect they deserve.
“Ultimately we need gender balance in technology, from classroom to boardroom. When women no longer stick out because they are in a tiny minority (only 10% of this year’s A level computing students were girls), we will be able to be ourselves – judged for our ability rather than the colour of our hair,” she said.
“I would like to see more men call out sexist comments and inappropriate behaviour, especially men in positions of power and influence. If we’re serious about this, we can work together to create a culture where all or us can do our best work and thrive.”
Imafidon added: “The glass ceiling is made up of bad managers and bystanders. The culture needs to change to one where people are not only aware of their biases, but are able to call [out] when they see others acting on biases. If there are no repercussions then norms won’t change.
“The number of ‘exposed’ investors who have now lost their jobs or influence after women speaking out shows that there is too much of a culture and ‘norm’ around that behaviour, where it isn’t called out.”
Meanwhile according to Attwood, the gender pay gap is central to issues of gender equality in tech.
“This needs to be resolved urgently in order for gender equality to improve within the workplace. It also boils down to the stereotype of the people that work in the tech sector, which starts in schools,” she said.
“If we encourage children in schools that technology is just as relevant for women as it is for men, this will give girls the confidence to choose technology as further education and careers.”
For Stowell, gender equality in STEM must “start with leadership” in order for things to improve further.
“We need to counteract implicit bias with initiatives like sponsorship that encourage women to stay and advance in tech,” she said.
“At Pivotal, we work hard to create a healthy and accessible atmosphere. We have frequent conversations with our dedicated diversity team, and are discussing a potential code of conduct for the industry: one that is open, supportive, and promotes mutual respect.”
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