Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit’s keynote speech at the Women in Technology World Series Online Festival. The event, from June 7–11, features leaders from tech-forward companies around the world.
Hello everyone, I’m delighted to join you today to continue to make progress towards having equal representation of women in technology.
Let me briefly introduce myself and our company. I am the CEO of Elsevier, a global leader in information and analytics serving scientists, researchers, doctors and nurses around the globe. We’re part of RELX, a top 20 company listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Across RELX, we serve different professional segments. We help scientific researchers make new discoveries, we help doctors and nurses improve the lives of patients, and we help lawyers develop winning strategies. We prevent online fraud and money laundering, and we help insurance companies predict and evaluate risk.
In short, we help our customers make better decisions, get better results and be more productive.
We do this by applying AI technologies — primarily machine learning and natural language processing — to our extensive high-quality content and data sets. We spend about $1.5 billion on technology annually. In addition to my role as CEO, I chair the RELX Technology Board.
At Elsevier, about a quarter of our almost 9,000 colleagues are technologists, working mainly at our tech hubs in Amsterdam, London, Philadelphia and Shanghai in software development, product engineering, data science and infrastructure roles.
Today, I’d like to share with you some reflections from my own journey that brought me here as the first female CEO of Elsevier in its 140 year history — and personal lessons I learned that I hope will also help you as you work on your career progression in technology.
I have never worked as a technologist, but technology has been a key ingredient in my career. It is my partnership with our technologists that has enabled me to work with our global teams to deliver innovation for our customers and strong business results.
So what have I learned in my career journey?
9 career tips to excel in technology
- Think about how you want to approach your career; be intentional about it. You can choose a route that focuses on your natural strengths. Or if you have a dream job, you can be intentional about building the skills and capabilities required to get there. These will drive different choices.
- Think of your career as a tree, not a ladder. Build both business and technical skills. Sometimes this will require you to go sideways before you accelerate upwards. Don’t be afraid to follow non-linear paths to succeed. I started out in strategy and switched to operational roles before landing in general management.
- Focus on substance over style. There is a lot of pressure on women, including in the media – “Don’t be aggressive, be aggressive. Don't be nice, be nice. Be outgoing.” I've worked with incredibly strong leaders who have very different styles. Ultimately what moves the needle are the results we deliver, the substance and the progress we drive, not our natural style. Don’t worry about developing a style that does not come naturally to you.
- Stay true to who you are. It’s exhausting to try to be something or someone else, and it detracts from the substance of what you have to offer. If you have a naturally empathetic style, be yourself — that is a strength. Early in my career, I got the feedback that I was too nice to become a CEO one day. I see feedback as a gift, but ignoring that was one of the best things I have done.
- Think of your career as a journey. It’s natural to have periods when you feel overwhelmed. In the right dose, being overwhelmed is a sign of learning, and you need to learn to cope with that. If you’re never overwhelmed in your job, it means you’re cruising. So, don’t be scared off if you have started a new job and feel overwhelmed for six months or even a year. It takes time to get up the learning curve. On the flip side, if you are overwhelmed for very long periods of time, you need to explore why that is and fix it.
- Think about your trace as you progress in your career. My former professor at Harvard, the late Clay Christensen, said the most important thing is the impact you have on the teams you lead. Not only the impact on how well they perform and how engaged they are but also how they feel when they go home at the end of the day. Think about the multiplier effect of your trace. The biggest privilege and responsibility you have as a leader is to leave positive traces on people.
- Trust is incredibly important. Am I someone my colleagues trust, my customers trust, my boss trusts? It is essential to build the trust of the people you work with and serve. Trust is the most important ingredient to getting things done as a team, to being able to compromise, to feel safe and to find a path forward. Honesty and transparency are key ingredients for building trust.
- Figure out what fills your bucket and have a self-care routine. There is no such thing as having it all. We all need to find a balance that sustains our bodies and minds. Whether that’s eating ice cream, meditation or daily walks in the park, hugs with your kids or cuddles with your pets — work out a routine that is right for you and make time for it.
- Keep an open mind. As in all aspects of life, sometimes the best outcomes come from things we did not plan. So be open to opportunities, put your hand up, don’t worry about ticking all the boxes. If you are a technologist, don’t just focus on tech companies. There is some great tech experience outside of the Tech sector.
Why we need more women in STEM
Let me give you some context for why I say this.
Today’s scientists and technologists are solving some of the most pressing challenges facing society and the planet. To achieve the best outcomes, we need to harness the contribution of every brilliant mind.
Over the last 50 years, representation of women in STEM has indeed progressed. Taking the US as an example, the percentage of women in STEM moved from just 7% 50 years ago to 25% today.
But there has been clear stagnation in the past two decades, and we are definitely not where we need to be with women occupying senior leadership positions.
There are two obstacles we need to overcome to make progress.
- First, factoring diversity into the way we approach research and tech design and evaluation.
- Second, equal participation in research and technology careers.
There has been real progress in recent years, but there is a lot more to do. You probably know all these good examples, but it is sad that we are still at this place. For example:
- The reference body for car design is male, so although men are more likely to crash, women involved in collisions are nearly 50% more likely to be seriously hurt.
- Facial recognition software performs better on men than women, and better on light skin than dark. So if you are a Black woman, the error rate for facial recognition is 35%, for darker skinned men it’s 12%, for light skinned women it’s 7% and for light skinned men it’s 1%.
When research and tech design don’t factor in gender, race or ethnicity, the consequences can be severe.
How can we move the I&D needle?
The second hurdle is systemic barriers to drive equal representation of women. In my experience, there are rarely silver bullets to solve systemic issues and unconscious biases. It takes thousands of small movements in the right direction that accumulate over time to make a difference.
And we work very hard on moving the needle at Elsevier both to make sure our own house is as inclusive and diverse as it can be, and to support the scientific and healthcare communities we serve to make them as inclusive and diverse as they can be. Let me give you some examples:
Internally, a fundamental step we took was to develop a psychological safety program in collaboration with Prof Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School, and we rolled out unconscious bias training to ensure we break down barriers to inclusion and create an environment where all dimensions of diversity can thrive. The psychological safety work we do starts with 7 very simple questions we ask our employees to ensure they feel safe to be themselves, which in turn drives risk taking, innovation, high quality thinking and engagement.
We run both mentoring and reverse mentoring programs, as well as dedicated talent reviews for women and underrepresented groups.
We have set targets to eliminate inequalities on the editorial boards of our scientific journals, to drive equal representation.
Our technologists are developing purposeful innovations to drive inclusion and diversity. For example, they developed Elsevier’s Coronavirus Information Center in January 2020, then added a Covid-19 Healthcare Hub and Vaccine Toolkit, providing tens of thousands of free research articles and clinical tools for those on front lines of research and patient care.
Tomorrow you will hear from my colleague Irene Walsh, one of our senior leaders in technology, about the pioneering work she and our 3D4Medical team are doing. Irene and her team are working through some fundamental questions to train the next generation of physicians so that medicine shifts its centuries-old focus from the European male anatomy to an inclusive focus of male and female anatomies.
As a data and analytics company, we measure and provide data-led insights to help the research community, policy makers and governments advance gender balance as well as climate action and sustainable development goals more broadly. I firmly believe what you can’t measure, you can’t progress.
If you are passionate about inclusion and diversity, research and science, healthcare, sustainable development goals or climate change, you will find like-minded peers at Elsevier, So we might be the right place for you to apply your skills and experience to advancing progress in science and healthcare.
Kumsal Bayazit at EU Gender in Science Symposium: “ We must make progress across all dimensions of diversity.”
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