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Women atop IT world seek better gender balance

While there are few Hungarian women in corporate leadership and in the IT field, three bosses of major businesses show this is a situation that can change.

From left: Gabriella Szentkuti, Edina Heal and Krisztina Horváth.

Worldwide, women are in the minority when it comes to both corporate leadership and participation in the field of information technology, so it is no surprise that there are very few women heading IT firms. These trends are even more obvious here in Hungary, where men are generally in charge and few women even enter the tech field. Yet there are signs of change.

As of July 1, when she was appointed CEO of Microsoft Hungary, Gabriella Szentkuti joined Krisztina Horváth, general manager at Cisco Systems Magyarország, and Edina Heal, country manager for Google Hungary, in the small but growing group of women leaders in Hungary’s IT field.

Though they may be relatively lonely at the top right now, all three say that the situation is improving as more young women develop an interest in IT. They also say that things need to get better – if for nothing other than economic reasons.

“You don’t have to be a feminist to see that gender inequalities are bad. Beyond the obvious – moral, ethical and legal – reasons they’re bad for business too,” says Szentkuti who was promoted from head of business strategy to the role of CEO at Microsoft Hungary.

With more women graduating in Europe than men – 59% versus 41% according to an EC study – there is vast, untapped potential of which foreign-owned firms are taking advantage. All originating in the United States, Cisco, Microsoft and Google have long made it their mandate to hire women and encourage their advancement, not only because it’s fair but also because it makes good business sense.

“We have to bring down all the barriers standing in the way of productivity. And leaving out certain professionals from leadership, just because they are women, is a sinful waste of productive energies,” Szentkuti says, adding that she considers herself a chief executive who “is both ready and capable of leaving behind outdated stereotypes that hinder productivity”.

Advantages to being a woman

Horváth, whose job as GM makes her responsible for Cisco’s sales, marketing and technology operations, says she believes that there are many advantages to being a woman in IT. “It is easier to stand out in an environment where most of the leaders are men,” she notes. “At the same time, you have to realize that 50% of IT consumers are women.” As such, Horváth says, women have a better understanding of how women think and how they make purchasing and other decisions.

Szentkuti agrees that women have a different mindset. “It’s harder to sell retrograde solutions to a woman simply by referring to them as traditional,” she says. “In return, this constant ‘awareness’ against irrational arguments made us more open-minded and adaptive to innovation and change in general than men, who can always allow themselves the comfort of tradition.”

While she sees advantages to being a woman, Szentkuti highlights the danger of labeling one’s skill set as distinctly feminine, rather than owning those skills as an individual. “The leadership skills or characteristics I hope I have are not the features of a female CEO, but the personal features of Gabriella Szentkuti – partly brought from home, partly accumulated throughout decades of a professional career.”

Google Country Manager Heal noted one trait considered typical of women that can work against them: They are not as pushy as men.

“There is a gap between men and women engineers asking for self promotion, which shouldn’t be the case based on their performance,” says Heal. “So the HR team [at Google] came up with a simple, but powerful solution: They sent out an encouraging email to the female engineers. This resulted in closing the gender gap in promotions in our technical teams.”

Maintaining balance

It is not just sexism or a less aggressive approach that holds women back. In all fields, and therefore in IT, work-life balance, is generally a greater consideration for women.

But progressive companies such as Microsoft have come up with solutions to overcome the challenges associated with raising a family while also trying to fulfill one’s professional path. “The ICT sector – especially productivity service companies like Microsoft – help to redefine the notion of workplace and office hours, collaboration or distance work,” says Szentkuti, who herself is an avid user of ICT solutions and a mother of three. For Szentkuti, choosing between family and career was not an option. She wanted both. At Microsoft, she says, if a woman is more suited to a particular role, there’s nothing to prevent her from attaining that position and keeping it.

Horváth also sees the rapid growth of IT as a positive shift for women looking to enter or advance in their chosen profession. “Some analysts have gone as far as to say that in the next few years, 90% of all jobs will require IT literacy,” she says. Her advice to women looking to enter the field is “not to think of IT and technology as a separate world of its own, but to think of how it impacts and changes each and every job”.

Luck, timing and connections will always play a key role for woman striving to reach the top, but these leaders say they believe that the changing technological landscape and perseverance are also vital components of success. “You don’t necessarily need to be a programming genius to be successful in IT,” says Horváth, adding that many of today’s successful apps were born from a simple idea. According to a recent study cited by Horváth, many of the startups founded or co-founded by women are performing better than those founded by men.

Start them off early

Szentkuti is keen to encourage girls to choose a career in the ICT industry and says that it is a rapidly growing field with some 120,000 new jobs emerging each year. “According to the Digital Agenda of the EU, there may be a lack of 900,000 skilled ICT workers by no later than 2020,” she says. This is a clear-cut opportunity in a sector underrepresented by women.

“What makes the ‘discovery’ of the ICT industry by women even more important, is the alarming trend that we have to stop: Even after the low base there is a drop in ICT female graduates,” Szentkuti says. “According to the EU’s numbers, today only 29 out of every 1,000 female graduates have a computing or related degree and, what is even worse, only four [out of 1,000] go on to work in ICT-related activities.”

Szentkuti says the problem is not simply male dominance of the sector, but also bad career decisions made by generations of women. “There is a bold future for women in the ICT industry,” she says, “and I am personally committed to making more and more Hungarian girls and young women aware of that.”

Heal promotes the message of diversity for which her global employer has become well known.

“It is also the adults’ responsibility to help young girls be self confident in whatever they love to do,” she says. “Having a more balanced, diverse workplace, with men and women working on a given product has proven to be more successful in many ways. This is also why Google works hard on increasing the number of women engineers at the company. So my message to the female students is: ‘Go girls, go out and learn how to code!’”