International Women’s Day was just two days ago, and it was very nice, because emancipation or not, flowers, hugs, congratulations and presents are always nice. What I also like about being a woman, especially on a rainy Saturday, is that it is my boyfriend who is walking our dog. Because I can always say that I am too cold, too weak and too fluffy without loosing face, and if I do this right, it is even considered funny or charming. He, poor guy, he needs to be the tiger, rain or not. One of the many occasions when playing the girl’s card can turn out pretty useful 😉
Woman’s Day this year was additionally nice, because I was chosen one of the Five Female Rockstars Leading the Crypto Scene in 2018 by the Forbes magazine. And Forbes is really something! I also appreciate that the author took the effort to choose a nice photo of me. Some authors do not take the effort, and looks, you know, looks are important for us girls. It was, however, not my first appearance in Forbes in the women-in-tech context. My premiere in this reputable magazine was in 2012, in the article about How Berlin’s Women Are Changing The Face Of Tech in 2012. And the photo was also good!
This reminded me that in 2012 I also did my first – and so far my only – public appearance on the women-in-tech topic. I typically shy away from this subject, and if I say anything at all, I rather complain about its presence in the media, than participate in the debate. That only speech in 2012 was delivered at Google in Berlin to the aspiring female founders, and I agreed to doing it driven by my frustration about the way the gender equality debate is often carried out. The way I think of this is that I am a woman, and I can’t easily change it. And if I can’t change my situation, I try changing perspective. So my speech was an attempt to turn this debate upside down – it was about the uniqueness of the position of being the one girl among many men, and about the first mover advantage. And also it was about playing the girl’s cards right in the exciting, yet hard tech business game.
I need to say, that back then speech was a big success. Today a friend of mine told me that she made a transcript of it. What a surprise! To be honest, however, when I read this today, I find that speech pretty rough… 🙂 because between the lines it also concludes that business game is not for everyone – it is for the tough guys, and for the equally tough girls. If you don’t like winning, if hard games don’t excite you, than you’re not gonna be happy in business, regardless of your sex. And this is not the message the gender equality promoters like to have out. However, since this talk was such a success back then I guess it has a tiny little point. So I dug out the slides from my archives, and to celebrate the Women’s Day, here I post all of it again. (I kept the original formatting, spelling, and also the grammar of the person doing the transcript.)
i’m gonna talk about something i love – about being a woman in the business of technology entrepreneurship – i have no idea how that works in medicine or other industries where there are also men on higher positions, i don’t know if what i’m gonna say here is applicable there. nevertheless, after having spent 15 years in the male dominated world of tech, there are some observations that i’d like to share.
there is a lot of discourse going on female emancipation and the position of the woman in the male dominated game of business, particularly technology business. this discourse focuses on identifying the points of discrimination, such as the fact that statistically women are underpaid compared to men, or that they take way fewer management positions, and on finding solutions to it, whether systemic, such as quota, or motivational and educational. while those are obviously facts, I think there is also the other side to this coin – that is the actual advantages of being a woman. so what i’m gonna talk about today is about leveraging your feminity, about the magic powers a woman in tech has, and about how to use them.
being a woman in technology business is a quite new thing, new in our generation. we can’t therefore learn much from our parents or grandparents generation, and it’s hard to find a successful role model you could learn from. in fact, we’re inventing and forming this role now. but if i would have to choose someone to look up to, it would be the head of European Monetary Fund – Christine Lagarde. I’m not sure what would be the more male dominated industry – finance or tech. Ms Lagarde is the queen of finance.
when talking about the position of a woman in a male dominated environment, ms lagarde sees two paths: 1) one is about identifying the differences and trying to remove them by fighting for equal treatment as men, 2) or you can decide to take advantage or your position. Ms Lagarde quite radically suggests that your only chance to succeed is the 2 path. both paths, in my opinion, are valid and could lead to success, but my path is also the second one. so let’s look at your unique position as a girl among many guys, and think of what you can do to leverage it.
this pink dot is me at Warsaw Polytechnic. during all the years i studied there, there was one female professor in one semester, and in my class there were 100 guys and 3 girls.
so this is the way to the classroom. the black dots are guys, the pink dot is the only girl. the traditional rules of gentleman’s etiquette in Poland were still observed, so the woman always goes first through the door. that resulted in this ridiculous situation, where a 100 guys would always wait in front of the class for the very few girls to enter first. and i had to live through this scenario numerous times every day, for almost 4 years long.
of course this was at times annoying and even felt discriminating, because your gender gets noticed, and it gets noticed hard. you’re in the spotlight whether you want it or not. you’re getting a special treatment. and the guys are of course taxing you up and down and sometimes comment on your butt , as you parade in front of them to the classroom. so what do you do?
one way to do it is to try to fight for equal treatment. but is it really making your position better? is the pink dot better off now?
i think it is questionable. i believe one can also think that as the pink dot you are uniquely positioned, and that means you are exotic, you’re a celebrity. that means you get the attention, and while there are many downsides to too much attention, attention is also the scarcest good. secondly, as a pink dot you have access to certain triggers that not everybody has.
so i was thinking what resources i need to be successful in business, and how can i leverage my unique position to gain advantage. i figured a lot of stuff, but let’s talk about three areas:
1) access – by law men and women have equal access. in fact, in certain areas men have more access, but in other we can have better access – if we play it right.
2) economics – everybody talks about women getting lower salaries and this is probably right. but we can use similar cultural stereotypes to sometimes get bigger budgets or push away some costs.
3) control – this one is the key to success, in business you want to drive, you want to be the one who sets the rules. while you’re not driving just because you’re a woman, often you can use your rare-beast status to break the rules. and breaking the rules is the first step to setting the rules. and this in effect means gaining control.
so let’s talk about these one by one.
access – this is the easiest one, and also most obvious. i see tons of girls taking advantage of it. how many of you have been begged to attend or speak at this or that conference or get into this or another black tie meeting, just because you’re a girl? but there is much more than meetings or conferences. for example, many VCs are giving extra points to each team where there is a female founder – go to those. also, you’ll likely get more attention during the pitch, because you’re a rare beast. so your first step, the opening of the doors, can often be easier than the guy’s. also at the moment having a female founder in the VC portfolio is well regarded, so you get extra points there.
to be honest, the fact that my gender was so rare at my school is the reason i finished my tech university with the highest grades, and i assure you i wasn’t the best in class. i was OK, but i wasn’t the best. but the same factors came into play at the Warsaw Polytechnic as they play at VC – i could choose any prof i wanted, he actually remembered my face and my name, and gave me some attention, and he wanted me to succeed / be part of his portfolio.
(From Zoe: Unfortunately there was no transcript for this slide.)
control. okay this is the most powerful one, yet the most difficult to explain. my favourite excuse for being late is “i’m sorry i broke my heel”. this line works wonders when checking on the before departure, of course only with the male airport officer. why does it work? it’s flirty. somehow funny and cute, in this special way that only women can be towards men. and the heels are, you know, triggering the right emotions in many guys. so caught off guard that guy at the airport often will wanna help you, and suddenly you are in control. a lot of you might say it’s cheesy. well, sure it is. but it also works. and business is about being pragmatic, and not about being idealistic. flattery can take you far, and so can the cuteness. yes, i know it sounds calculated, but you girls came here to complain about guys misusing you, and wanted to know about the cards you have to play, and this is one of them. be different, be a rare beast, be exotic and use the attention you have. trigger, break the rules, and consequently set the rules.
in business, this helps too: i was once in a negotiations room, pretty formal one, with lawyers, advisors and all that show. i knew that the success of those largely depends on my team winning the trust of a president of a company, who also was in that room. i also knew that one of his advisor’s agenda, also present in the room, was to actually not let us get that deal yet he couldn’t openly oppose it. so my goal was to limit advisor’s influence on the president in the meeting, and try to get as close to the president as possible at the same time, and win his trust. number 1: as a girl i was let into the room first. the president was second. nr 2: as a girl i could be a bit clumsy and spend a little more time working on my wardrobe at the hanger, waiting to see how the sitting situation at the table develops. nr 3: as soon as i knew where the president was sitting, i could fight for the spot next to him. a little weird, because that spot would normally be reserved for someone else from his team. but once you’re sitting no guy will ask you to leave your chair, right? so here i am, positioned absolutely strategically. an you know, you predicted a setup and you broke it, so now you’re in control, you have the opportunity to build your own setup.
i heard a few times that it’s humiliating to run around in stilettos, smile nicely just because you want something. well, this is true. but it is also true that business is a tough game. you have to be pragmatic. negotiation, and business in general, is about tuning your entire ecosystem to achieving something you want. it’s about pressing the right points at the right time, including convincing certain people to help you. and if some people sometimes want to help you because you’re a woman, than why not accepting this help? it’s their problem that they see you as a weaker gender, not yours. if you can defocus your negotiations partner by wearing stilettos in the room, why not doing it? do you think that if a powerful man wanted something from you, he wouldn’t try to charm the hell out of you by bringing you roses to a business dinner? do you think he would find it humiliating?
like on the chessboard – there is the Queen’s game and the King’s game. if you limit your queen to the king’s moves only, you are not gonna win.
so don’t give up your female cards. men have so many advantages already. why stripping yourself from yours. play the queen’s game. break the rules. set new rules. and eventually the chessboard is yours, and you’ll be queen in your very own land.