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More diversity: how women and Gen Z change the tech world

Male-dominated, dusty and unappealing – Microsoft leader Annahita Esmailzadeh counters this image of the IT industry. On LinkedIn, more than 89,000 followers want to know her opinion on topics such as diversity and leadership. She tells us what makes the tech world more attractive for women and how Gen Z will shape the working world of tomorrow.

 

OLIVER BOSSE SPOKE WITH ANNAHITA ESMAILZADEH

The IT industry is struggling with a shortage of skilled workers. Women in particular often don't even pursue the relevant training. What is the reason for this?
I think that the lack of women in IT is due to a variety of different causes and has many dimensions. Starting with outdated role models and corresponding imprinting in the parental home and in the school years, and ending with still prevailing role and occupational clichés and the associated lack of female role models in the tech sector.

Should women make themselves more visible in the IT industry and actively position themselves as role models, as you do?
Today's public perception of the IT or tech world is clearly male-dominated: When you think of this industry, names like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates or Elon Musk come to mind. Female role models such as Sheryl Sandberg, whom girls and young women can identify with, are an absolute exception. That is the current challenge: we definitely need more visible women in the tech sector to encourage girls and young women that they too can be successful in this industry.

There are already various initiatives that aim to bring girls' and young women's focus to computer science. Is that enough, or do we need to tackle other areas as well?
These initiatives and support programs to get young girls excited about tech while they're still in school are incredibly important. I think Julia Freudenberg's Girls Hacker School is particularly great, for example, as it aims at getting girls and young women interested in programming. Or initiatives like Girls Day at my employer Microsoft, where girls from the age of twelve can take part nationwide. Another example is SkillHer, a Microsoft training initiative that helps women build digital and technical skills while expanding their network in the industry.

In addition, the industry needs to be freed from its dusty image – of the developer sitting in the basement, shying away from daylight and any interpersonal contact. This image has not corresponded to reality for a long time. Apart from the fact that software development is a very exciting field that requires a lot of creativity, empathy and teamwork, there are also many other fields of activity in IT that are not limited to classic programming.

We also need to ensure that girls and young women are introduced to the STEM field more strongly during their school years and are supported accordingly. After all, many gender stereotypes are acquired as early as elementary school age.

The industry still suffers from its dusty image of the developer sitting in the basement, shying away from daylight and any interpersonal contact. This image has not corresponded to reality for a long time.

To what extent can companies help to inspire more women to take up jobs in IT?
In my view, special mentoring programs in which women support other women on their way, as well as diversity training and anti-bias training for managers and recruiters are helpful in attracting and retaining more women in the industry in the future. Companies should also offer their female role models a stage in their external presentation, such as at trade fairs, social media or events, in order to reduce fear of contact. For me, a good example of this was the WomenPower career congress at this year's Hannover Messe. Here, for example, pioneering women in the STEM field were honored, success stories shared and new contacts made. Furthermore, companies should support the compatibility of family and career with specific offers.

Is a lack of equality still an issue?
Unfortunately, yes. Although men and women in Germany have equal rights under the law, we still have a long way to go in terms of actual everyday equality. The wage gap between men and women in this country is 18 percent. Even with the same formal qualifications and otherwise the same characteristics, it is still six percent. Here's an example of what this means in concrete terms: this year, Equal Pay Day, which symbolically marks the day in the year until which women work for free, took place on March 7, 2022. So statistically, women worked for free for more than two months this year – in my opinion, that's no longer sustainable. Women are also still heavily underrepresented in management and on supervisory boards. To this day, women carry the bulk of the "care work," work part-time more often, and are affected by old-age poverty and financial dependency.

The tech world needs women! But how can we encourage them?

Women are still underrepresented in the tech world. Yet the industry would have a lot to offer – also and especially for women!

Here you can find exciting insights and reasons for this situation as well as strategies for promoting women in the IT industry!

Now, the issue of diversity is by no means limited to the dimension of gender. It's also about physical and mental abilities, religion, ideology, sexual orientation, social and ethnic origin, nationality and age. In these areas, how do you assess the current situation in the tech world?
Indeed, it is crucial that we do not reduce ourselves to individual dimensions when discussing diversity, but think intersectionally. In order to fully exploit the creative potential of our society, we need to include all people with their individual skills and abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Although there is still a long way to go, I am convinced that inclusion and diversity are issues that do not live by implementing regulations – but through conviction. Only in this way can the areas of inclusion and diversity grow beyond meeting standards.

So, what specifically needs to change and where?
One thing, for example, would be to get more people with individual skills and abilities into higher-skilled jobs, including technical roles. Our goal should be to make it easier for more people to access technology. A great example of how this can work is skills programs like SkillAll, which support people with disabilities on their journey into the tech industry.

What measures are essential to ensure that diversity can be practiced holistically and sustainably in a company?
It's not enough just to have diverse teams. Different ways of thinking, seeing and doing things, different opinions and a variety of perspectives and problem-solving styles should also be allowed. Moreover, to really make a difference, we need to join forces. Diversity is an emotional topic and often polarizes. But the fact is: we need to work together, not against each other, in the public debate. Because change and the necessary inclusion can only succeed if we work together.

What does a company look like where diversity is lived reality and no longer just lip service?
At Microsoft, diversity and inclusion have long been firmly anchored in our corporate culture and are lived out every day. To name just two examples: Our "Women at Microsoft" employee network supports people who identify as women and are enthusiastic about a career in IT. Our "Disability" employee group is dedicated to the active inclusion of people with disabilities. All colleagues are welcome in the community – whether they live with a disability themselves or not.

It is not enough to simply have diverse teams. Other ways of thinking, seeing and doing things, different opinions as well as a variety of perspectives and problem-solving styles should also be allowed.

You also deal intensively with the topic of leadership and are a leader yourself. What skills does a leader need, especially in today's IT industry?
In my view, modern managers should be visionaries and not controllers. Employees are not looking for watchdogs and micromanagers. Instead, they need empathetic enablers who can show them their individual contribution to the company's vision and support them along the way. Managers have a key role to play, especially now, when people often work in hybrid and virtual models. They need to understand the new expectations and support their employees in finding their place in this hybrid working world and in feeling connected even between office and home office.

As a leader, how can you concretely contribute to an attractive and diverse work environment?
By setting an example of trust, transparency and a healthy error and feedback culture. Because only when there is a good error culture can diversity thrive and innovation emerge.

Together with Yaël Meier, you have written a book about Generation Z, in which you answer questions such as what makes this generation tick and how best to work with them. Can you tell us a few key insights from your work?
Almost one-third of all people worldwide belong to Generation Z. Today's 12- to 25-year-olds are characterized by concerns about the environment and the highest rate of mental illness to date. At the same time, they are more connected and technologically fit than any generation before them – they are the first "true" digital natives.

What distinguishes Gen Z most from their predecessors is their intuitive familiarity with the Internet and social networks. They feel just as much at home there as in the analog world. Gen Z doesn't "go" online. They live online. From an early age, they compare themselves not only to other kids in the neighborhood, but to their peers around the world via borderless social media. Beyond their passport, this makes them the true Global Generation.

By the end of this decade, Gen Z, along with Millennials, will make up the majority in the labor market as the Baby Boomer generation retires. The younger generation knows its importance in this regard and demands its price for it. Their values will increasingly shape the world of work. Companies are therefore well advised to ask themselves what this generation expects from working life and their place in it. And we provide answers to these questions in our book, which brings together the perspectives of various authors and examines the young generation from different dimensions.

Do you already know these female IT role models?

Katia Murmann, co-founder of the EqualVoice initiative: she has developed an algorithm that measures the presence of women in news media texts and images. Learn more about it here!

Elodie Floriane Mandel-Briefer of the University of Copenhagen: she has contributed to an algorithm that detects the emotional state of pigs based on their sounds. Read the interview with her!

Viktoria Prantauer, co-founder of Hippo AI Foundation: as a breast cancer survivor, she advocates for all people to benefit from medical data. Click here to read the story!

 

Another topic you deal with is "New Work". What trends do you currently see in this regard, and which of them will be particularly relevant in the future?
Definitely work-life blending in the new hybrid working world, modern leadership, and diversity and inclusion. We are, at the moment, in the middle of a real-life experiment. In my view, the transition to a hybrid working world must be consciously shaped. This is accompanied by numerous discussions about the way we work and the rethinking of long-established concepts.

One thing is clear: employees' needs and requirements in the world of work have changed. Personal goals and their own well-being play a greater role in career changes. Employees want more flexibility and time for personal discussions.

Over 89,000 people follow you on LinkedIn and want to know your opinion on topics such as "New Work", diversity or leadership. How do you account for your popularity?
If someone had told me just a few years ago that I would one day be followed by so many people on LinkedIn, I would have just laughed in disbelief. I would never have thought back then that my content would hit such a sore nerve and generate such a response. I can only assume, but one reason may be that I don't pretend and am authentic and also address uncomfortable things that most people only think to themselves.

What core messages do you want to bring across as influencer?
I am very grateful to be able to use my reach for my heart topics, such as the relevance of diversity in business or my ideas of modern leadership and corporate culture, and I would like these topics to not only receive even more attention in the future, but also to find a concrete implementation in practice.

About Annahita Esmailzadeh

Annahita Esmailzadeh has led Customer Success Account Management for the travel and transportation industry and the energy and utilities sector at Microsoft since 2021. Prior to her current role, Esmailzadeh, who holds a degree in business informatics, was responsible for the innovation area for SAP Labs in Munich as Head of Innovation. As one of the widest-reaching business influencers in the DACH region, she uses her voice on social networks and in the media to promote more diversity in business as well as modern cultural and leadership approaches in the working world. She is co-editor and author of the book "Gen Z für Entscheider*innen" and diversity columnist for STRIVE magazine. Annahita Esmailzadeh is also involved as a mentor for numerous initiatives such as Startup Teens, a non-profit organization that gives students access to entrepreneurship and innovation topics, regardless of their background or type of school.

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