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The Truth Nobody Wants To Admit About Being a Female Leader In Tech

Part of Kathy Caprino's series “Women, Leadership and Vision”

Rachel Mushahwar Photo Courtesy of INTEL

Most of us have read many articles and statistics about how the tech world remains biased against women in terms of leadership roles, and in roles throughout the ranks, actually. Taking another perspective, what is it really like to be a senior female leader at a major tech company? What are the hard truths that people aren’t sharing?

To answer that question, I caught up this month with Rachel Mushahwar, a Vice President and General Manager at Intel, a global technology leader that’s shaping a data-centric future with the computing and communications technology that’s at the foundation of the world’s innovations. Mushahwar is focused on helping companies realize value and solve real-world business challenges with technology. She’s been named one of the “Most Admired Women in Business,” one of the “Top Ten Women in Technology” and Women’s Wear “Top Industry Transformers” and is a strong voice for the advancement of women in STEM.

Here’s what Mushahwar shares:

Kathy Caprino: Rachel, you’re a role model for women in the tech sector, rising to a senior position as an Intel vice president. What’d it take to get here?

Rachel Mushahwar: I wish I could tell you that it is or was easy. I wish I could tell you that it was filled with a supportive ecosystem every day, and that I don’t have any guilt about my choices. I wish too that I could say that more women than ever are reaching the highest levels in companies and on boards. But those aren’t the unvarnished truths. The truth is hard to hear, harder to accept, and harder yet to change. A rewarding career seldom follows a straight path. There are always sacrifices along the way. But every twist and turn along the journey teaches valuable lessons and highlights where we need to continue to push for change.

I was raised in rural America surrounded by farms and cattle ranches. I went to university to get a civil engineering degree but found my passion for computers and technology. I have worked in technology ever since and been focused on pursuing a career that changes the world. I aspire to inspire others to blaze a new path, including my four young children, all under 13. They’re digital natives who pack their tablets and smartphones before toothbrushes and underwear, and who believe everything else you need can be delivered in a day. Their generation will see the biggest changes in technology and won’t realize it because to them it’s not a digital world; it’s just the world.

I’m proud of what I’ve been able to achieve and proud of being a working executive. There has been a lot of progress for women since the 1990’s, but real barriers remain. Getting to where I am took many sacrifices and I didn’t do it alone. I had help from my team, sponsors, mentors and was careful about choosing the right companies to work for. It was not a picture-perfect rise–just ask my kids!  We have more work to do for future leaders regardless of gender but change we must.

Caprino: In our conversation, you shared openly about the “ugly side” of being a high-powered female exec in a top international tech company. Can you please talk more about those truths that are hard to grapple with even today?

Mushahwar: People say things to me like, “How do you do it all?” or “You amaze me that you can hold down a high stress job, travel 4 days a week, and raise four kids” and “I cannot be what I cannot see–thank you for role modeling what could be.”

If that doesn’t add pressure, I don’t know what does! The reality is that you must make tough choices. My reality is messy: from the triumphs of reaching a work milestone to tears over a missed school event or a canceled dinner date with a friend because my flight home got delayed, again. It’s tough to answer a tearful child whose entire life is wrapped up in you, or justify the choices we’re making to our friends or partners when we’re wondering if they’re the right ones.

My life waffles from well-organized to complete chaos and hoping I packed shoes that match. It’s magical, complicated, untraditional, and imperfect but I chose my life and wouldn’t settle for easy. Easy and success don’t go together, but women don’t talk openly about the hard choices and consequences of getting to where they are. They make it look easier than it is. It is hard.

Caprino: Is the tech sector still getting it wrong? What more could and should organizations be doing?

Mushahwar: In many ways, the tech sector is getting it right. In 2015, Intel announced a goal to achieve full representation of women and minorities by 2020. We hit that goal in October 2018–two years ahead of schedule. As part of the Reboot Representation Tech Coalition, Intel and 11 other companies pledged $12M to double the number of U.S. women of color graduating with computing degrees by 2025, the Intel She Will Connect U.S. initiative is giving $1.25 million in grants to help 27 organizations expose middle school girls and their families to STEM, and we’re active in programs to attract and retain women.

It’s not enough to bring women into the field, we need to ensure they stay. So in many cases, the tech sector still needs to change.  Only 22% of the 7.4 million technology occupations in the U.S. are held by women and 17% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. 50% of women leave STEM career within 12 years (vs. 20% of non-STEM.)  And the stats are worse for women of color: between 2007 and 2015, the number of African-American women in tech dropped 13%, and the number of African-American women managers dropped 23%. These statistics are unacceptable. We have to do better, and demand our male allies do better too.

We have made progress, but it isn’t enough, and it isn’t fast enough. I am unwilling to wait 170 years for gender parity.  It is our job, as tech leaders, to continue to accelerate women in leadership positions, support each other, and share how hard it is to rise to the top. The stakes are getting higher as we move into next generation computing so it is also our job to ensure that equality starts at home so that our sons and daughters grow into a workforce that is different than today.

Caprino: What are you personally seeing in our society that are signs we need much more change?

Mushahwar: Unfortunately, it’s not just a tech problem; society hasn’t evolved at the pace we need. For example, schools still predominantly send emails to the mothers and expect them to volunteer at school. I recently tried to dial into a parent-teacher conference only to be told that all other mothers show up in person. Recently, a fellow passenger on my flight home asked me who was watching my kids and how I managed it all. I asked him if he was ever asked the same questions, and he sheepishly said, “Well, no.” We need to continue to push society, schools and the organizations where we work to be aware of these outdated perceptions and biases and strive to change them. We need the courage to point out areas that still need improvement (like the fact women still shoulder the majority of domestic work).

It’s crazy to think our society is still celebrating “first” achievements of women–like the media frenzy over the scientist that photographed the first black hole. Why didn’t we just celebrate that a momentous scientific discovery? At what point are building business, new scientific discoveries, etc. and building women leaders are one and the same?

We must stop trying to expect women to have careers as if they don’t have children and to raise children as if they don’t have careers.

Caprino: In your view, how can women themselves change their reality?

Mushahwar: Too often women think they’re showing strength by doing things alone. But now more than ever before, business is a team sport and we must engage all genders in our quest to create a better future. This is not just about women–it is going to take all of us

The bottom line is: Start before you are ready. Start now, where you are, with the pain and fear of the unknown. Start speaking up. Start raising your hand for that new job. Start supporting each other and telling the hard truths. Start now and don’t stop. Sometimes later becomes never – just start.

Caprino: What is the role men can play to close the gap and, ultimately, help us finally reach true equality?

Mushahwar: It is going to take everybody to close the gap regardless of gender. This is not a women’s problem–it is up to everyone working together to create a future better than the one we have today. We benefit from divergent perspectives that can only come from different ages, races and genders. Embrace them all. It is in our differences that we become united. The key to a strong team and company is giving each person the opportunity to focus on their skills, expertise, and what they can contribute so they can become stronger and better.

Caprino: On a final note, from your perspective as a tech leader, where do you think the human side of technology going? Any cautionary tales we need to be more keenly aware of?

Mushahwar: Technology is evolving at an alarming rate and businesses and educational institutions need to keep pace with the changes as they become the new norms. Without a diversity of voices and perspectives in technology, we run the risk of gender bias in board rooms and gender bias in artificial intelligence with the unintended consequence of errors entering algorithms.

As a tech leader, I see the need to ensure diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of every conversation and every decision. At the same time, we need to be keenly aware of the ethical considerations related to technological advances and that everyone has a role in shaping that future. It’s a big part of why I love working for Intel. We are at the forefront of technology and global policies impacting everything from 5G to Artificial Intelligence to Autonomous Everything. It’s not just a company or a promise of the future; Intel is creating the future and giving me an opportunity to help shape it. Change we must.

For more information, visit Rachel Mushahwar.

To build more leadership influence and positive impact in your work, visit Kathy Caprino’s Leadership and Career Coaching and speaking programs and tune into her podcast Finding Brave.

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