When former Pinterest COO Francoise Brougher wrote last month about “rampant discrimination, hostile work environment, and misogyny” at the company she once led, her story cut to the quick for many women in tech. Brougher was fired in April after a successful two-year tenure when, she says, she spoke up about gender discrimination at the male-dominated social media giant. She has since filed suit.
“Pinterest’s female executives, even at the highest levels, are marginalized, excluded, and silenced,” she said, words that resonate with any woman shut out of a room she deserved to be in. While operationally excellent, women are too often seen as lacking the capacity to be strategic, lead their function, and impact the broader business beyond their role. (Brougher said she was accused of not being “collaborative.”) This perception is often only made clear to women when it’s too late and they’ve been passed over for a promotion. It’s a major reason women aren’t getting ahead in tech, and I call it “She’s Not Strategic” (SNS) syndrome.
Preventing SNS starts with two things: leaders (men and women) recognizing if they’re not giving promising women a fair chance, and women in the SNS trap navigating out of it.
What’s “She’s Not Strategic”?
Both women and men in leadership are prone to unfairly judging a woman’s potential to have a broader impact. In addition to individual biases, tech companies are often prone to structural biases that prevent women from getting ahead.
I’ve seen it happen at least a dozen times to women who can’t seem to break through the director or senior director level and reach VP or above. While the surrounding circumstances are unique, the context is the same: A talented woman is asking for a promotion. This woman is typically highly valued and well known for her operational excellence. But when the decision comes on whether she’s a fit for the VP role or not, the whispers start: “But she’s not strategic.” And the woman gets passed over.
Because this woman never gets the promotion at her current role, she carries the stigma when she becomes disenfranchised and applies to another company. The new company notices she never was promoted to leadership and she gets a lateral offer. “We’ll put you on a leadership path,” they say.
I’d bet at a minimum 50% of the times that a woman is labeled “She’s not strategic,” it wasn’t the case. The reality is that she was so excellent at executing, she was given more and more work, and she executed. She did not have the space and time to become more strategic. Could she have made time in her nighttime hours to reflect and bring a new idea to the table? Maybe, and maybe not. Often organizations take their top performers and legitimately overwhelm them with work, and there simply isn’t time to step back. There’s only time to execute.
How do leaders spot SNS in the wild?
If you hear yourself say, “She’s not strategic,” consider these three questions:
- Has she been able to recruit and retain a high-performance team? There’s a lot to be said of someone who can sell the company and successfully recruit strong performers. This requires inspiring people with strong verbal communication and an ability to share the company’s vision and goals. People don’t go work for managers who don’t inspire them. So if she’s been able to do this, there’s strong potential. If she’s not had a chance to build a team, and is an otherwise strong performer, give her the opportunity first to suss the potential out.
- Has she brought new ideas to the table that had a positive impact on the business? Leaders don’t see problems and complain. Leaders come up with solutions and make sure those solutions are heard. If this person saw a problem and suggested a solution that was good enough to be implemented, and it made a positive change—think again about her potential. If it’s not obvious who made the contribution, ask her. Maybe she did come up with something but the manager above her took credit. If she can’t come up with anything, you should make it clear what’s expected of leaders.
- Does she understand all functions in the business? When you think about the life cycle of the customer, does she understand the interconnectedness of all the functions that attract, sell, serve, and retain customers? While executing, women (and men) can become so tunnel-visioned on their function that they don’t pick their heads up and think about how it affects other functions. Sometimes this can result in shortsighted behavior. An example would be if a woman has a lead goal and celebrates hitting it, but unfortunately the sales team missed its number. This shows shortsightedness and a lack of organizational awareness. Success is about the entire company, particularly at a startup.
How women can navigate through SNS
If you’re confident you deserve a promotion and believe you’ll be passed over, here’s my advice:
- Make sure your strategic contributions are clear. If you created a solution to a problem, and no one knows it’s your solution, that’s your new problem to solve. Your contribution needs to be clear or else it doesn’t exist—that’s a hard truth.
- Contribute to the overall health of the business. Executives are focused on building the business—they care about people strategy, growth strategy, retention strategy, and financial health. If you’re not contributing ideas on all fronts, start now. Your function doesn’t matter—you can impact everything. You can suggest a new recruitment strategy, try to bring in leads from your network, contribute to customer success, and find ways to make or save the company money.
- Up-level your presentations. In forums where you’re presenting, always take a step back and set the context. Don’t dive into details and numbers right away. The level of detail you operate in can’t be easily understood by execs. Always open with “Before we get into the details, just a quick reminder—here’s our strategy. Related to how we’re executing on this strategy we have three key takeaways for you.” While you may think this removes the opportunity for you to share the great details of your work, it’s actually giving you a better platform to showcase your strategic impact. Execs will walk away thinking you can articulate what’s working/not in your function.
- Understand the difference between management and leadership. Proving yourself as a manager is critical to becoming a leader. But being a good manager doesn’t make you a strong leader. We’ve all had difficult team members that are tough to motivate and manage; at worst they seek to undermine you, and at best they constantly challenge you. Leaders are able to take these employees and either remove them or inspire them to do their best work. Leaders are people that team members want to work hard for, not against.
- Build your visibility—up. Here’s an important distinction: I didn’t say build up your visibility. You need to focus on building your visibility upwards. If you want to move up, you need champions who are higher up than you. This is your boss, alongside their peers, all the way to the CEO. There are a lot of ways to do this.
- Always participate in company-sponsored activities. Execs will be there, and in the world of digital burnout, you’ll have an opportunity to stand out. You’ll at least make a positive impression for being committed and being a leader. If this makes you feel extra-taxed because you already have family commitments—I hear you. Do as much as you can.
- Spot problems, suggest solutions, and make sure people above you know you’ve suggested solutions.
- Ask smart questions in front of large audiences. There’s no better way to be seen and heard by execs than being the only person who speaks up in a company meeting. Come up with a question about your market, competition, or growth strategy and you’ll be noticed for intelligence and willingness to speak up.
These are all good ways to increase your visibility and make positive impressions so that execs will remember you’ve spoken up, participated, and contributed.
I’ve navigated being one of the only women in the room throughout a 16-plus-years career in tech. 16 years later . . . not much has changed. There’s so much subtlety and bias preventing qualified women from moving up. It’s time leaders learned to check our biases and recognize high-performing women.
Jess Iandiorio is CMO at Starburst, a Boston-based information technology services startup.