Community//

‘It is a myth that the “improvements” in workplace culture that women are asking for are somehow only applicable to women’ with Penny Bauder & Jessica Nordlander

I think it is a myth that women want different things than men, that the “improvements” in workplace culture that women are asking for are somehow only applicable to them. I believe most humans want similar things, regardless of gender, skin color or sexual orientation — they want a place where they can use some […]

I think it is a myth that women want different things than men, that the “improvements” in workplace culture that women are asking for are somehow only applicable to them. I believe most humans want similar things, regardless of gender, skin color or sexual orientation — they want a place where they can use some of their waking hours to contribute to society and exercise their brains, and they want enough hours away from that place to spend time with their families and loved ones, exercise or have a hobby or two. If you can build workplaces that cater to these fundamental human needs, everyone will be happier. The normalized experience of working 12-hour days to build a career — completely sacrificing time with friends and family, having ten days off when starting a family, etc. — is not an ideal one for any men or woman I know. Rather than building work environments where these things are forced into place for woman, why don’t we create them to be more prevalent in general and so everyone benefits?


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Nordlander.

Jessica is a technology executive with an MSc in Applied IT, an XGoogler and recently named ‘Sweden’s Most Innovative Leader’. As COO at Thoughtexchange, one of Canada’s fastest growing software companies, she tries to operationalize awesomeness. Her career journey prior to that has included leading impressive change and growth in a number of multinational companies; as Chief Digital Officer for global travel group STS Education; Head of Business Development at Google and Managing Director in Stockholm, Dubai and Vancouver for SaaS growth wonder Meltwater. Jessica serves on the board of several tech start-ups and contributes to Forbes.com as a member of the Forbes Technology Council (an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives).


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Inow know that my greatest gift in life is my genuine curiosity about almost everything. Earlier in life, I saw it more as a curse as I had a really hard time making choices — what to study at University as an example. I started in engineering, later turned to business and then settled on a master’s degree in Informatics. What has ended up being the result is a range of skills that stretch almost as far as my interests — across sciences, technologies, business models, cultures and human behaviors. Even though my path at times has felt random, I now see my biggest career contributions being in the areas of helping connect the dots within companies and between individuals. When you can connect the dots, you can build truly successful organizations.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I have only been with Thoughtexchange for a year but still there are almost too many stories to be able to choose one. We recently raised an oversubscribed $20M Series B financing which was an amazing milestone and testament to the potential seen in our technology.

Our software allows leaders to crowdsource answers to open-ended questions in real-time. It’s a disarmingly simple idea but helps leaders solve enormously complex and valuable problems. We use it ourselves to solve a multitude of challenges and we’ve seen our customers continuing to come up with new, innovative ways of using our product to do the same in their organizations.

If I have to choose one very interesting and exciting thing that happened this year though, it is that we were granted a patent on one of my personal favorite parts of the software, Interest Analysis. Effectively it enables leaders to use our software to crowdsource common ground within groups of people where subsets of that group have very different thoughts and feelings about polarizing topics. In a world where people are growing more and more polarized, the fact that technology can be applied to help us find common ground gives me a lot of hope for the future.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As an immigrant to Canada and with English as my second language, I make a lot of language related mistakes and a lot of expressions that are commonly used in Sweden make no sense in English. A few that I use on a regular basis, that tend to make native English speakers laugh, are “steel bath” (should probably use “baptism of fire” instead), “fall between the chairs” (apparently things end up between the cracks here) and “water on a goose” (water off a duck’s back). My team constantly makes fun of me for this stuff.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

All over the world and across all industries, we consistently hear talk of disruption, globalization and digitization and how corporations and other organizations need to transform in order to respond and develop competitive advantages. It is my strong personal belief that if we want our organizations to change, we need to fundamentally rethink and transform leadership, otherwise true organizational transformation doesn’t stand a chance.

Up until now, there have been so many digital tools available to maintain the status quo of management practices. Thoughtexchange is the first tool I’ve ever seen that actually helps leaders lead in a new way. It’s one of the most exciting new opportunities for managers looking to drive change in their organizations, and an amazing example of how technology can make organizations operate better. We use our own software all the time to understand the perspectives and hear honest opinions from our teams in real-time. Our product helps voices that are normally marginalized get heard. It helps us to manage change and also tap into the collective intelligence in our organization on a regular basis. We have a 50–50 male/female distribution in our workforce which is extremely unusual in the technology space. Like every other company we of course have our challenges but, as is the case with our clients using the technology in their own organizations, it helps us fight bias that would normally cripple an ambition to become more transparent and equal.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We just closed our Series B, which is of course extremely exciting. We are building out our teams incredibly quickly right now — we’re currently at 140 people — and this expansion of talent will mean we can put the power of crowdsourcing in the hands of more leaders globally.

We’ve established an amazing client base with a growing list of Fortune 500 companies — such as Allstate Insurance and American Airline — as well as hundreds of public organizations and notable technology companies like Looker and E*TRADE.

New Thoughtexchanges are being launched daily. Revenue leaders are learning what hundreds of sales people need to achieve their targets. Development leaders are learning what’s most important to those going through organizational change. Public leaders are learning what’s most important to their communities before allocating funding. Human resource leaders are learning what their people need most in order to be effective and feel appreciated.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am not happy with status quo in anything so of course the status quo regarding women in STEM doesn’t excite me one bit. When you look at research, there is a lot of support for the fact that environment has a great deal of influence over young girls’ interest and ability in math and science. There is a lot of unconscious bias both from parents and teachers in play that subtly push girls away from STEM; even when girls outperform boys in terms of results and self-report equal interest — research shows that parent’s early predictions of their children’s abilities to succeed in math careers are significantly related to later career choices.

(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232604569_Achievement_in_Math_and_Science_Do_Mothers’_Beliefs_Matter_12_Years_Later)

What this means is that the interests of girls and young women can be eroded by the biases of others around them. When making choices about college majors, it’s been shown that “perceived gender bias” against woman emerges as the dominant predictor of the gender balance in college majors. The perception of the major being math or science oriented is less important. (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0002831217740221)

What this effectively means is that as women become increasingly better educated in general, they are unlikely to choose a path where they believe they will be discriminated against or paid less for the same work. If you are going to work hard to create a career for yourself, why would you choose a career where you believe your efforts won’t be equally rewarded just because you are a woman? This perception is a problem for STEM — not for women. Companies, educational institutions and organizations in STEM across the world are going to have to work harder to attract diverse talent or see that talent go to places where they believe they will be appropriately valued.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I believe this should be addressed from two different perspectives. The first is the unconscious bias that I started to address above. Research has proven that this bias exist (https://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474 ) and I believe that if these biases were conscious, we would have made better progress. If organizations and individual were able to better appreciate that discrimination tends to occur unconsciously they would be in a far better position to tackle the problem. Mindsets and behaviors are intricately intertwined when it comes to driving change, so even when people want to change their mindset, they might not have the tools available to them to change their behaviors and successfully move beyond their unconscious bias. In my opinion and experience, organizations need to make tools available that facilitate these types of core behavioral changes.

Secondly, starting companies or becoming an executive at one, requires a lot of time, hard work and energy. STEM requires a lot of hard work — I think anyone that has paid an interest in math or science at any level can vouch for that. In order to dedicate yourself to something professionally, responsibilities in one’s personal life need to be managed as well. Commonly, even when I look around boardroom tables at companies that are strong advocates for equality in the workplace — there is still a significant difference imbalance between men and women. Men tend to have partners that either do not work at all or have made the choice to let their partner pursue a career to a greater extent than themselves. As a woman, to pursue a demanding senior level career requires a partner that will be ready to support you at home or you will always be at a disadvantage compared to your male colleagues. Unconscious bias is the systematic responsibility of organizations to fix with better tools and training, unbalanced responsibilities at home is the responsibility of government and employers (for example paid parental leave) and, women themselves.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I think it is a myth that women want different things than men, that the “improvements” in workplace culture that women are asking for are somehow only applicable to them. I believe most humans want similar things, regardless of gender, skin color or sexual orientation — they want a place where they can use some of their waking hours to contribute to society and exercise their brains, and they want enough hours away from that place to spend time with their families and loved ones, exercise or have a hobby or two. If you can build workplaces that cater to these fundamental human needs, everyone will be happier. The normalized experience of working 12-hour days to build a career — completely sacrificing time with friends and family, having ten days off when starting a family, etc. — is not an ideal one for any men or woman I know. Rather than building work environments where these things are forced into place for woman, why don’t we create them to be more prevalent in general and so everyone benefits?

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why.

  1. Be curious. Approaching each new situation with curiosity is how I’ve successfully built my career.
  2. Use generous assumptions — most people are not discriminating consciously. But, people need help to not discriminate unconsciously. When you see things that look like bias to you, look for tools or technics that you can actively use to understand the situation better and to redesign processes so as not to allow for bias to continue going forward.
  3. Diversity matters. Companies with more diverse workforces perform better -(https://www.forbes.com/sites/karstenstrauss/2018/01/25/more-evidence-that-company-diversity-leads-to-better-profits/#724d86cc1bc7) — so even if it is sometimes tough to be the only one that looks like you in that executive team or in the boardroom — it is worth it. Both for future generations and for the organization you work for.
  4. Invest in continuous learning. I always have some kind of personal or professional development project going and try to approach both myself and others with a growth mindset. Competitive advantage, especially in STEM and tech, will come from speed of learning, both on an individual and organizational level. I currently take an online corporate law course to ensure I am completely up to speed on the differences between most European legal systems and Canada’s.
  5. Find a path to leadership that is authentic to you. You need all the energy you have to be focused on the things that matter so better not to waste any trying to be something you’re not.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I think I would prefer giving advice to all leaders, because finding a path to leadership that helps your team to thrive is a gender-neutral problem. When I try to figure out how I would like things to work in the future, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how things looked like in that past and where our current behaviors and paradigms originated from. Management practices and corporate structures to a very high degree stem from a world where economies of scale were the norm and the path to competitive advantage came from efficiencies. A lot of the tools and practices that leaders rely on are artifacts of that time. Leadership in this day and age has a lot more to do with helping people thrive under imperfect and constantly changing conditions rather than finding ultimate perfection and efficiency in a certain task or work that is repeated over and over again. My advice therefore is to try and find ways to disconnect psychological safety for your team allowing them to better navigate the change the organization will continually go through. If your people can thrive under constantly changing conditions, you will have an enormous competitive advantage.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Firstly, make sure everyone has what they need to be a leader. Leadership doesn’t only mean managing people, it also means self-managing your own tasks and responsibilities, leading by example and understanding and living the cultural values of your organization. You can never scale and grow a company or take on more responsibilities as a leader yourself if you haven’t developed people around you that can take over the things that you will inevitably have to let go of.

Secondly, know your weaknesses and surround yourself with people that are really good at the things that you are not. You can’t be good at everything. Hiring to complement yourself, both in competence, perspective and personality is something that I learned early and an area I continue to challenge myself. Early on in my career, it sometimes felt scary hiring people that were so much better than I was, but I quickly realized how much better it made me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had that science teacher in school that piqued my interest in technology that I will always be grateful for. I was pretty confused as a teenager and was very close to choosing a non-science path, as that was the direction of a lot of my friends went in high school. In the end, I decided on STEM because of one particular teacher. We had him in chemistry, physics and biology (I think) and I still remember one time when we were conducting an experiment using ammoniac and how his face crinkled up when he smelled the bottle to show us what it was. He was pretty rad.

I also had two phenomenal leaders at Google that I still stay very much in touch with. First, Natalie Bagnall who hired me there and taught me much about not striving for perfection but for speed of and ability to change. Second, Darren Pleasance, who was Managing Director for Global Customer Acquisitions at the time. The time he set aside to provide me with bigger picture context for what we were trying to achieve helped me tremendously to achieve success in my role and I continue to consider him a mentor, a fantastic leadership role model, and also a good friend.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I would say that success is defined by how we bring goodness to the world, period. I am obsessed by the opportunity of using technology to do good and have a strong belief that it must be possible to do well by doing good, otherwise there won’t be enough structural motivation (read: capitalism) in the world to constantly improve things. One pretty concrete example is my first attempt at being an Angel Investor. I don’t have a big family fund to draw from, only the money I have made myself. And I felt this enormous need to walk the walk and actually do something tangible for the environment. So, I took my retirement savings up until that time and invested them in a green tech startup called Greenely. Pretty big risk, but it was the resources that were available to me and I wanted to show myself that I wanted change enough that I was willing to make a personal sacrifice to be a part of making it happen. Every chance I get to do something good, I try and take it.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As I just mentioned, I am pretty obsessed by the opportunity to use technology to do good in the world. Two of the most exciting opportunities right now as I see it:

  1. Environmental. I think there is a lot we can do in the area of climate and environmental psychology to nudge or promote environmentally positive behaviors in each of us, from household recycling to large scale public policy.
  2. Tackle the current trend of mis- and disinformation, with fake news, polarization and communities drifting further and further apart rather than coming together to solve problems as a society.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I try to put myself in positions where I really don’t have anything to lose and one of my favorite quotes is by Charles Du Bos, who said “The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” To me, this has meant leaving something that has looked pretty good on paper for something more unknown, just because I felt it could provide a better learning opportunity to do something I had never done before. Opportunity for learning is my greatest motivator.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Frances Frei. 100%. Her joining the WeWork board as their first female board member, the work she did at Uber and also being a Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Harvard is a major source of inspiration for me.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Women in the Workplace//

It’s Time for Organizations to Prove They Value Women

by Jane Miller
The author on a hike during the Super Bloom on Grass Mountain in Santa Ynez Valley, California.
Community//

Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them… or not.

by Rachel Scott Everett
Mental Health at Work//

What It Takes For Women’s Mental Health at Work

by Bernie Wong

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.