Commentary

Women's Future In Technology: Q&A With Deborah Wahl

Gender discrimination is a hot topic in today’s workplace, including the representation of women in the STEM field.

Deborah Wahl, CMO, Data-Driven Innovator, is known for developing the Agency of the Future model, merging talent and technology with digital, data and human intelligence.

She was a marketing professional in the car business, rising to CMO at Chrysler before moving to McDonald’s USA.  

Now, “I’m focused on technology because I believe it is necessary for every marketer to understand how to use it to get closer to and more engaged with target consumers,” she stated. “We all need to think like a CTO.“

I spoke with her about the status of women in the tech field.

Charlene Weisler: What are the biggest challenges in assuring company diversity today?

Deborah Wahl: To be successful, we must continue to nurture a diverse pipeline, starting at the beginning, which is why I support initiatives like the Association of National Advertisers’ Talent-Forward Alliance, with twin goals of inspiring and elevating the quality of talent from the university system and building skills for existing employees.  

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Second, we need to stay purposeful and relentless about breaking down stereotypes of what types of people succeed, and support diverse talent.  My biggest fear is that high-performing diverse talent will be fed up with the slow progress in our industry and go elsewhere.  We need to act now.  

Weisler: A study from the 1960s concluded that the best technologists were disinterested in people and disliked activities involving close personal interaction. This led to more men being hired for tech positions at the expense of women. Do you think this is still the case today?

Wahl: Unfortunately, yes.  That’s what I mean by breaking down stereotypes and opening ourselves up to talent.  Campaigns like GE’s “Female Scientists” and State Street’s “Fearless Girl” are just what’s needed.  

Study after study shows unconscious bias exists throughout our culture.  We need to hammer at it and use every tool to change perceptions.  
The payoff: campaigns that have high gender equality measure [scores for] ads increase sales by 50%. [GEM scores ads or entertainment on how prominently they depict women].

 And we desperately need diversity in this space to create better solutions.  

Weisler: What are the biggest challenges for women in technology today?

Wahl: I’ve worked in some very male-dominated businesses, like automotive and homebuilding.  The challenge for women in tech is the same: building networks, being heard, overcoming the cultural walls.  

Success comes when women support each other and [realize] their networks can be as effective as any other.  
We also need purposeful action.  As an example, conference curators need to be purposeful about what speakers they choose so that a variety of thought and role models is represented.  

Weisler: Gender discrimination is more than harassment. Pay disparity impacts a woman's earning power through her career. What can be done about this?

Wahl: First, we each have a responsibility to resolve this.  I made it a priority in each of my positions.  
Second, the issues are related to what we discussed above: the unconscious bias and stereotypes that too often determine who gets promoted and how they are valued.  

Transparency is the first step.  We can’t fix what we don’t look at and talk about.  

“Pay secrecy is one of the things that continues pay discrimination and the wage gap,” according to Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the Nation Women’s Law Center.  

I’d say silence is at the root of a lot of our diversity issues.

Weisler: Give me some predictions for the future for women in technology in the next five years.

Wahl: I’m very hopeful.  There’s a big effort to change our stereotypes and make technology expected and accessible for everyone.  
But this doesn’t mean it will be easy.  For every man and women who believes that a diverse workforce makes us more competitive, productive and successful, we each need to do our part every day.  Speak up, encourage, see things differently — and take action.

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