Wednesday, 17 October 2018 16:43

Bringing female faces to (traditionally) male places

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Splunk’s president of Worldwide Field Operations runs 68% of the company and has a distinguished career across the NSA, Sun and Salesforce. Oh, and incidentally, she’s a woman. 

Susan St. Ledger is the president of Worldwide Field Operations for Splunk. She is responsible for all aspects of the Splunk customer journey, from initial awareness through customer success, renewal and expansion. This covers some 68% of the company, she says.

St. Ledger has been described by chief executive Doug Merritt as “instrumental in positioning us for success as we execute upon our enormous opportunity to drive value for customers".

She describes herself as a “high-growth junkie” and after completing her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, she worked for the NSA for 6.5 years, before joining Sun as a sales engineer, ultimately managing 250 sales engineers, before taking a series of roles within SalesForce, including selling to chief marketing officers. During her time, Sun expanded from $1 billion to $22 billion, and SalesForce from $100 million to $8 billion. “I don’t know any other world,” she says. “My whole experience is high growth.”

St. Ledger joined Splunk initially as chief revenue officer before taking her current role, persuaded to come onboard when Merritt explained his vision of wanting to be part of every data-driven decision in the world.

St. Ledger’s career is undoubtedly impressive. At the same time, her background is not altogether different from that of other high-profile technology executives, though with an important distinction. St. Ledger is a woman, and while this fact in itself ought not to make any difference, the reality is women are still under-represented in technology – both in terms of quantity and position.

According to HackerRank’s Women in Technology 2018 report, 20.4% of women in technology over the age of 35 are in junior roles, compared to 5.9% of men over the age of 35. It would be wrong to assume that women overwhelmingly start their technology careers later than men do, so the implication is something else.

For this very distinctively white, male writer who has never had his right to vote or drive or even to program a computer questioned, it’s not easy to appreciate and understand the difficulties faced by women.

What can be done to change this? Indeed, are some attempts to increase the proportion of women in the IT workplace simply patronising, suggesting people get their roles not by talent, but by quota?

iTWire spoke exclusively to St. Ledger to seek her help in understanding the situation and, importantly, what can be done about it.

“We are putting a great focus on diversity and inclusion,” St. Ledger explained. Splunk published its statistics last year, deliberately focusing on the topic, recognising you cannot manage what you do not measure.

“We’re also putting real science into job description wording to avoid gender bias, and anonymise resumes when they come in."

However, it’s not exclusively a Human Resources matter or even the task for female leaders. “Everyone has to be committed to the change,” St. Ledger said.

“If you’re doing it for the optics of doing the right thing then you will fail. You have to believe it’s the right thing in your heart of hearts. Diversity and inclusion is a competitive advantage. More diversity - whether gender, geography, or something else - provides more mindsets to make you effective as a company.”

Yet, while companies can deal with their diversity and inclusion policies, the root cause is earlier.

“It begins at grade school,” St. Ledger says. “You have to solve the problem at grade school and make sure children get exposed to technology.”

St. Ledger’s own childhood provides an example. “Your belief system comes from what you’re exposed to,” she says, explaining as the third daughter in the family her father was over the “girl thing” and gave her a bat and ball by the time she was two years old. “I love sports, and my father’s influence exposed me to it. He never forced it. My view is children gravitate to what they see most.”

“I don’t believe gender biases you to one way or another. I grew up as a maths and science person. Some men are terrible at maths and science and great at liberal arts, and vice versa for women.”

St. Ledger says of her own career that she was fortunate to have a growth mindset and be intrinsically curious. As a constant learner, she sought out people she could learn from and had many opportunities, aided by great mentors.

Even so, “it’s a much better world today for women”, she says, “All of the women I know who are senior leaders are helping younger women.”

However, she cautions, referring back to the question of whether drives to simply increase the number of women are effective, “not just every woman. You have to pick out the high-potential women and invest in those with a special runway".

“It’s very important. There weren’t many female leaders that existed back then [in St. Ledger’s early career] and of those very few were proactive and helpful. They felt only so many female seats existed at the table. It’s very different today,” she says.

“Even so, as Madeleine Albright said, 'There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women'."

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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