“An example in the professional world is Artificial Intelligence recruiting technology developed by men and forming a bias against women because it was trained predominantly on men’s resumes. Facebook was sued for withholding financial services advertising from female and older users. Facial recognition technologies showed disproportionately misidentifying women. The examples are endless.”
Sabine Schilg is the sixth guest of the series “A chat with change leaders” led by Guro A. Johnsen, founder of SHESKILLZGLOBAL, on work-related topics, leadership, change management, gender equality, and the vision of SHESKILLZGLOBAL “A world where talent has no gender.”
Sabine is a passionate, curious, and results-driven executive with more than 15 years of experience managing sales, marketing, and operations at a regional and global level in cyber security and analytics companies. Her focus has been building strong passionate teams, developing trust and loyalty with customers and partners, evolving and executing a strategy, and expanding regional and international sales success. She is most known for post-Merger & Acquisitions integration driving growth and culture transformation of acquired companies around the world.
The vision for SHESKILLZGLOBAL is «A world where talent has no gender» What does this mean for you?
It represents a dream to see equally women and men in all roles with equal pay and appreciation. We are far from reaching this goal, and I want to help make it happen.
Why did you decide on a profession in the IT and software business?
More or less accidentally. I studied math and physics because I loved those subjects in school and thought this was an easy and fun path to continue my education. I could not yet imagine what I would be doing once I finished. Attending a talent event at the university physics department during my first year of study, I was surprised that I was offered multiple summer jobs on the spot, mainly because I was among the very few women attending. I chose IT over manufacturing opportunities primarily due to the generous and well-paid job offer, and I loved every minute of my work that summer. From then onwards, I was determined to make this my career. Working on exciting new technologies that open new ways of how the world functions have been my goal ever since. The expansion to mergers & acquisitions was extremely exciting. Working with a variety of startups and cultures around the world with the focus of scaling the business is fascinating for me up to this day.
You started your long career in the IT business in the -80 ties, and you were for 28 years an employee at IBM. When I think back from Norway, there were not so many women as software and IT professionals. How was this in Germany?
I started programming in a development environment, wiring optimization for the first CMOS mainframe chipset replacing water-cooled systems. It was a domain of men. We were approximately 3000 developers in IBM Germany with hardware and software projects, with less than 15% of women and less than 8% of women in management roles. For me, that was normal and matched my university experience. What surprised me was that we in Germany had one of the lowest representations of women compared to all other IBM teams in Europe. Hearing that other countries had almost 50% women in management triggered a lot of thinking. Is Germany as advanced as I want to believe? Can I achieve my goals, and will this always be a struggle? Only then did I realize that Germany is not a progressive country and often stuck in old school thinking.
You have worked both in Europe and in the USA. What comes as “top of mind” regarding organizational culture and management style differences?
I was very grateful for the opportunity to switch for a two-year assignment to our software headquarter in New York after spending ten years in IBM Germany. I transferred into a world with many women in technical and executive leadership roles. For the first time, I had an all-female team with women of different colors and religions, which was a fantastic experience. The diversity drove rich discussions, and I learned how different backgrounds lead to thinking in many directions. By having an inclusive and diverse environment, this allows wider perspectives to be integrated when brainstorming, problem solving and developing new ideas in business.
The US can-do attitude, paired with many paths to advance my career, made me stay for 23 years in the US. Advancing to senior management and executive roles was not a question of gender but capabilities and network. IBM focused a lot on equal pay for women and men. It just felt good.
What do you think companies in the USA can learn from companies in Europe and companies in Europe can learn from companies in the USA?
For me, the US stands for a positive, forward-looking mentality that focuses on learning from the past and improving it. Furthermore, the mentality is to have much faith to tackle an approach that is not fully baked yet. Positions are filled with looking for a particular capability to do the job. I never felt that being a woman was limiting my opportunities. Being a foreigner and a bit more direct than my American colleagues was sometimes an obstacle, but not being a woman. For me, Europe represents solid planning and execution, and I also think that you have to prove yourself within a business before reaching a top position. Both approaches have pros and cons and it depends what problem you want to solve. A good example is a situation when something goes wrong. For example, in an international environment I worked on a development project with a German and an American team. With my German colleagues we were extremely proud to develop the very first banking card with an embedded chip to do banking. We found a security exposure once the card was already in use by banking customers. We focused on the German side on what happened, how this problem could have occurred and developed good lessons learnt how to avoid that in the future. Our American colleagues focused on a method how to find this kind of security exposure via ethical hacking and developed an iterative approach to develop and test right away. Both methods lead to a better product in the future, but the approach was very different. I personally enjoy the forward-looking approach more meanwhile. I believe that it leads faster to success and a very open discussion. It also avoids the discussion on who caused what and focuses on a solution.
Photo: (private). Sabine loves being back in Switzerland with the possibility of being out in nature doing different kinds of sports, like rowing, running or cross-country skiing
When it comes to being a female manager, do you feel there is a difference between working in Europe and USA?
I do think it is easier to be a female manager amongst other female managers and role models, and so naturally, at this moment in time, it is more accessible in the US. It feels natural to strive for a career. It is still different in Europe, not everywhere, but certainly in German-speaking countries. Returning from the US, it was irritating to me to experience discussions of having a career or a family versus simply having both. In private gatherings, I experience a split of women and men into two groups, discussing housework and cooking amongst women, and business and sports amongst men. Almost a different world.
In many countries still, the IT sector is dominated by men; what do you think about this, and what are the challenges when it comes to this when it comes to the product that is being developed?
From a user interface perspective, men develop naturally for men, from a design fitting the statue of men and favoring subjects that are male dominated. It shows in tools development, where vacuum cleaners are optimized for a female stature and a saws and wrenches for a male stature. Same in the gaming industry, games are developed predominantly for boys and this is exposed to kids early on and with that it continues to favor this trend. I believe it starts at school, with workshops and IT and technology projects targeted more at boys than girls.
An example in the professional world is Artificial Intelligence recruiting technology developed by men and forming a bias against women because it was trained predominantly on men’s resumes. Facebook was sued for withholding financial services advertising from female and older users. Facial recognition technologies showed disproportionately misidentifying women. The examples are endless.
What will be your advice to the IT sector to get more women interested in choosing this as their professional career journey? How should they promote themselves?
Go into schools, and start as early as possible to inspire girls to get excited about technology. Show that there is a path to have a career, not a choice to be made to work or have a family. We are still at a point where this is something a woman has to answer constantly, whereas it is normal for men.
This takes me to the next question, female role models: Why are female role models so important?
It simply proves the point.. it is not a theory but normal or at least possible. It inspires and shows that it is worth pursuing. Seeing is believing, it is hard to be what you cannot see. Research in this area shows that role models inspire women to be more ambitious and aim higher. They also demonstrate the mindset and behavior of how to rise. Role models represent and expand what is possible. A company driving for more diversity recognizes these phenomena and place role models on all levels showing the teams how to act, how to make decisions, and how to get the most from a job.
Photo: Sabine presenting at the European Carbonite partner conference
You have become an investor and a board member for SHESKILLZGLOBAL; what was it with SHESKILLZGLOBAL that made you interested in joining the team?
I have mentored women throughout my career, starting in school to encourage them to choose science and programming as majors. I have encouraged women to take roles they are curious about. Making diversity a topic in speeches and roundtables and spending time with young women to discuss their career options is rewarding. Returning to Europe 4 years ago, I almost could not comprehend how far behind some countries are in hiring women into challenging roles. SHESKILLZGLOBAL is unique in addressing both.. providing a monitoring platform and focusing on matching female talent with companies that are making diversity hiring a priority. It is impressive, and the market is enormous, so a good investment!
You are also one of our SHESKILLZGLOBAL mentors. Why do you find mentoring critical, also for people in higher positions?
Mentoring certainly changes throughout a career. While it helps overcome the first hurdles at the beginning, it is essential to have somebody to discuss challenges in higher positions since you are alone, have fewer peers, have fewer friends with the experience of a higher position, and have similar challenges.
What will you say has been a plus with being a female manager?
I believe solving problems, advancing teams to the next level, multiplexing, and empathy are required to be a good manager. Men and women can do that, and it is plain stupid to fill those positions predominantly with men.
Have you had a situation where you thought this would not have happened if I had been a man?
The most obvious is getting the question if you would like to have a family. I doubt a man receives that question in interviews ever; women always do. At work and in sports, I experience that men feel the urge to advise you how to improve your behavior, even if it is not required.. go golfing with three men, and you will see it for yourself. Another example is going out for dinner by yourself on a business trip: it took me a while to find out what I like to do while traveling for work and to establish the confidence to sit at a bar and order food & drinks with the correct body language that gives me the privacy I enjoy versus deciding to order food in my hotel room.
Men and women are not equal. We are not being treated equally anywhere, nor will we ever be the same. We don’t want to be the same but it should not restrict talent and having a super career.
Why do you think most women are careful with telling what happens/happens to them that underline that the company lack gender equity? How can we change this so the next generation of women do not need to feel so alone when they might end up in a similar situation(s)?
I think there are a few reasons. First, your environment confronts you with the belief that you fight for gender equity to get a job you are not qualified for. It is always assumed that you strive for your advantage versus the bigger goal. Secondly, you walk a fine line to seek leadership positions and point out problems in the business openly at the same time. And thirdly, you often face the stereotype of not behaving like a woman and might need to learn to stand up vocally for your rights and thoughts.
What will be your best advice to women wanting to have a career in IT and software?
Strive for jobs that you love doing, and things fall into place. There is such a massive gap in available talent in the market at this time that companies are changing their approach to finding diverse talent. All you need to do is have the right qualifications and the desire to make this your career.
Is there something you think we should discuss that we have not discussed?
Maybe one point: men apply for jobs if they fulfill 50% of the requirements, and women usually think they have to know everything. Men ask for pay raises, and women hesitate to do the same. In a world that has no gender equity yet, it is essential to recognize the difference in behavior and to decide how to compete. Finding a way that fits you is critical, but it is crucial to think about it.