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Podcast: Addressing the Gender Imbalance in Technical Leadership

MMS Founder
MMS Neria Yashar

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

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Transcript

Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I’m sitting down with Neria Yashar from Wix.

Neria, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Neria Yashar: Thank you for having me, Shane.

Shane Hastie: My normal starting point with these conversations is who’s, Neria?

Introductions [01:08]

Neria Yashar: Okay, so let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m a software engineer, a backend engineer. I started my career actually as an electrical engineer more than a decade ago, deep in the hardware field. And later on I’ve gradually shifted my focus into the software world. I’ve worked for five years at a company which was acquired by Nvidia, then another five years at Apple and then Facebook, and now I’m in Wix for more than a year. So as you can see, I’m really into big tech corporates, and when I’m not coding, I’m a mother of two young boys and really passionate about supporting women in various activities, especially women in tech, which is something that I’m sure we’ll talk about later on.

Shane Hastie: Indeed. In fact, let’s dig into that. You’re very, very active in the Women in Tech community and the Woman in R&D community. Tell us a little bit about those activities.

The imbalance in women in engineering management roles [02:05]

Neria Yashar: I didn’t mention before, but I work in Wix, which is a company that provides a platform for building websites and Wix it’s a company that really supports women and really is a pro-diversity. So yes, I take part in many activities.

So Wix has two main activities that are for women. The first one is Women in Tech, which is a form that I’m not a main part of that I’m aware of. It’s a form that its goal is to help increase women’s presence in tech and inspire both women in the hope of making an impact on future generations and promoting gender equality. So basically what they want to do is to see more and more women in R&D management. As you are probably aware of, women are a minority in R&D. The numbers are about 20%, and as you go higher to higher positions, you see less and less women.

So just imagine that you have a group of 10 people and I’m one of them. So if you’ll be in the group, you’ll have seven people to choose who you want to be friends with, and I will have only one woman with me, and of course men and women can be friends, but if you are talking about a real deep connection so mostly it happens between men and men and between women. And this is from what I know. So this is the first activity.

The second one is Women in R&D community, which is a community that I founded about a year ago. So I can tell you more about it.

Shane Hastie: Please do.

Neria Yashar: Okay. So about a year ago I came to Wix, and I’ll share a personal story with you.

So when I was studying electrical engineering in Technion in Israel, we were only 18% women. So it was really rough and obviously all the guys had this brotherhood and women couldn’t really be a part of that brotherhood. So even though many guys were good friends of mine, the connection was not as strong as the one that they had with each other. So sometimes you can feel a bit lonely. And later on my old jobs, I really loved getting involved in women’s activities. And when I came to Wix, there wasn’t any activity like this. So I decided I’ll do something about it because I love it so much and I think it’s so important. So I reached out to some brilliant women like Nir Orman, which was also in your podcast a few months ago, and Aviva Peisach, and together we started building our own community. So it’s something that I’m really happy that I did.

Shane Hastie: So what makes that community and then what do you do in that community? What are the activities?

What make the Women in R&D community special [05:08]

Neria Yashar: First of all, we take this community really seriously. It’s not like a hobby or after time activity. It’s like a really, really major project for us. And we treat it the same way that we treat other projects we have at our job. So for instance, at the beginning we did some serious digging and sending out survey to the women engineers to find out what they want. It’s like a research you would do when you get a project at your job. And then we step down and we brainstormed about potential activities like I would do with the project that I would get in my everyday job. And then we got dozens of ideas. So it came down to choosing the best ideas to do, and we have two main goals, professional growth and networking. Those goals, we got them from asking the women in the survey like, “Why should you come? What are you looking for?” So it’s professional growth and networking. And we set goals and activities we want to do last year and this year.

So the activities, I just want to clarify it, the activities are not girly activities. They’re activities that are for both gender and we aim to increase the confidence and the knowledge of the women that comes to the activities. And I personally, I’m really into knowledge sharing, so I always try to initiate meetups about knowledge sharing. And we had plenty of activities in the last year.

Shane Hastie: Serious activities designed to share knowledge, increased knowledge, increase confidence. Tell us some of the specific events that you’ve had in that community.

Neria Yashar: So as I mentioned before, we had many ideas, so we had to choose some of them. I’ll tell you a few.

Examples of community events [07:05]

So we had a leadership panel of women leaders from Wix, and the audience gave us the questions and then we asked the leaders. That was really interesting. And we had round tables to mingle and to think about future ideas of the community. In that meeting, we also had Hila Fish, which is a bit famous in Israel. She is really into public speaking and she did a lecture for us for public speaking. She’s also working in Wix. So that was really easy.

We did, IAmRemarkable workshop. Me and my partner were the facilitators, so it was nice. We had a festive lunch together in one of Wix’s restaurants and that really things that we do for networking. We had a personal branding talk with Morad Stern, which is the head of engineering branding.

Last example, so just a week ago we had the final event of a course we got into Wix. The course is called Women on Stage, and it’s run by Moran Weber. And we took a few very, very promising engineers from Wix, and they were in the course, it’s a course about public speaking, and we did an event of Ted talks that each graduate came and talked for 10 minutes or so about a subject that is close to her heart that she’s really into that. So it was really fascinating and it was fully booked and I really enjoyed it. So these are just a few and we have so much planned ahead for the next year. So it’s a great thing to have.

Shane Hastie: Certainly does. Some really interesting events in there. And you make the point that it’s not a hobby. This is something that you’re doing as part of your day job. So thinking about organizations who want to support this sort of thing, who maybe don’t already have programs like this in place, what would they need to do to establish that?

Ways to help establish these communities in organisations [09:10]

Neria Yashar: First of all, the employees, the engineers, they can feel if you take it seriously or not. Like if you’re saying it’ll be in 5:00 PM after hours and you’ll need to pay for things and you’ll come and you’ll need to pay for the food or whatever. So it feels like it’s not really important. So we have a budget that Wix is giving us because they think it’s a really important goal, and we do it always at 10:00 AM. We want you to miss two hours of your job. It’s really important. We think it’s so important that you can have a pause and stop working for two hours and come and listen to lectures and meet other women. So I think for other companies I would say, get the budget and do it in the job hours and publish it and make it an official community. It’s not like a hobby or it’s not something fun, it’s something serious. It’s something that we want to do because we want to promote women and we want to give them the feeling that they’re really important for us.

Shane Hastie: You’ve made a point of the disparity and you said there were 18% in your engineering degree, and I think you mentioned 20 to 30% women in R&D in general. This is obviously not a good situation for our industry. We know all of the research about diverse teams are better and healthier. We get better outcomes and so forth. Why does this problem still persist? We’ve known about it for decades.

Addressing the imbalances will take time [10:47]

Neria Yashar: Yes, it’s an issue that we cannot solve in one week or one month or one year. It’s an issue that will take decades to solve. And although we are aware of that and we want to close this gap, it’s not that simple. So I think the main reason that we have this situation is the education that we give to our kids. When you look at the way that people raise boys and the way that they raise girls, it’s a different way, although we may not be aware of that, but girls, we always tell them, “You don’t need to do something which might be difficult and you need to be a good girl.” It’s a very common phrase, be a good girl, do whatever you’re told. And we don’t say that to boys. So when girls grow up, they think, “I should be so polite, I should be so nice.”

And then they don’t come and they don’t demand high salaries and they don’t think that they deserve the promotion. And then when they need to choose a subject in high school, maybe technology, maybe computer science, it’s too much. It’s for boys. So even in high school they don’t go to that direction. Researchers show that there are many young women that go and learn the STEM subjects, the science and math and engineering. But later on we see less and less women in the engineering degrees and in our engineering positions at work. And of course as you go higher, less managers. There are almost no CEOs, which are women so that’s a problem. I think it’s basically starts with education.

Shane Hastie: You mentioned you’re a mother of two. How are you raising your children?

Neria Yashar: So unfortunately. No, I’m kidding. I have two boys. It’s not unfortunately because they are perfect for me. But I think my sons, although they’re not girls that I can raise as a strong independent women, when they see us, me and my husband at home, they see two parents that are working equally and we both really care about our careers and we work many, many hours. So I think it’s really important that I set an example for them to see that women, that their job is as important as their husband’s job. And women can bring a lot of money home and they can be really successful and very strong. And I think my example for them will make them a very, very respectful men that will see women as the way that they should see them.

Shane Hastie: What else can we do to address the biases that we know are built into the systems?

Awareness is the starting point to addressing the imbalances [13:36]

Neria Yashar: I think the first thing that we need to do, as I mentioned, it’s not something that we can solve instantly, but I think the first thing that has to happen is that men and women must have awareness of the things that we do. Because I can tell you as women that if you would ask me 10 years ago, I would say that there’s nothing wrong. Women can choose to go and do whatever they want, but as I grow up and read more about things, I realize that I have some problems and issues with the way that I behave. And I think most women do. Sheryl Sandberg, she wrote a book, Lean In. It’s a pretty famous book, and one of her examples is she has a chapter about a sit at the table. When we go to lectures to meet-up to important meetings, we usually sit, even physically, we sit in a place which is not central.

And we often don’t speak out and don’t say our ideas and thoughts because we might come across as, I don’t know, not perfect, or it might be a stupid idea, so maybe I shouldn’t say that. But men, they don’t think like that. So I think it’s really important for us, for men and for women to be aware of the differences and the awareness is the first step for the solution. And imagine that you are an important manager in a tech company and you need to give someone a promotion. So statistically, men will come and say, “I want this promotion. I want to be promoted, I want to have more responsibility.” And women, even if they do want that promotion, they will feel maybe embarrassed to come and say that. Maybe they would feel that they don’t deserve it, although they do and they are professional the same way the men are. So if this manager will be aware of the difference, he might come up to these women and tell them, “What do you think? Do you want this promotion? Are you thinking about the promotion?” And that can make a real life difference and change in the women’s life.

Shane Hastie: So that’s one example of how a manager can make a concrete difference. What are some other ways that men can be allies?

Standing up as allies [15:56]

Neria Yashar: So first of all, I do see a movement of men starting to be aware and to be pro-women, which is a wonderful thing. Another way that men can be allies is maybe to support and to try to close the gap. I’ll give other examples. We said before that women sometimes might hesitate about saying their opinions. So I’ve seen men in Wix, my manager, he can come and say, “Okay, I want everyone to say their opinions, not just the two engineers that speak a lot. I want to hear everyone’s opinion.” And he does around the table and he asks everyone to say something. So my manager, he ask everyone to say their opinions, and he always gives the feeling that everything you say is really important and everything is valid.

So when you know that you can say everything and this meeting is a safe place, I think it’s really important and women will feel more likely to speak out and say what they think. And I think also when men are aware of the differences so they can help us even with salaries, maybe I’m optimistic, but I think that when you’re thinking about your wife, which is maybe embarrassed to ask for a raise, then you might be nice to the engineer that is working with you and tell her, “Maybe you should get a raise. Maybe you should ask for a raise.” I think being aware of that and helping other women is really an important step for us to do.

Shane Hastie: As an engineer in R&D, what’s your day? Tell me about your day.

Neria Yashar: Oh, my day. So working in Wix, Wix is a really wonderful company and it really focuses on the developer and gives the developer a lot of responsibility. The company really trusts each developer to take its own pet to production, to think end to end. So it’s really all about ownership. I would say the main steps of my job is that I get a project and then I do some research and write a plan for that project. I think about a design and architect of solution of solving this problem. And of course I always present it to others. I like to get other people’s opinions. Maybe I’ll show it to my team to see if they have some other ideas. And it always really helps me to think of new ways to solve, or maybe they remind me of things that I forgot. I’m really into teamwork. I really love it. So then I have the design and I need to break it into small tasks, prioritizing the task, and we need to set timelines for everything.

And of course, while we’re solving everything we need to think about testing performance, privacy, all the things that software engineers do. And as I said, I really love working with people. So all this time I’m collaborating with other teams and with my product manager. And at the end, of course, when I’m done, my code is always perfect and bug free. No, no, not really.

Shane Hastie: If only. If only.

So you talk there about enjoying working in teams and certainly we see the team often as the primary source of value in organizations today. What makes great teamwork?

What makes great teamwork? [19:32]

Neria Yashar: Having a great teamwork, I think it basically comes down to the people that you’re working with. So in Wix, I hope it’s okay to say, but we have a phrase that we say, “No assholes.” You don’t want to work with someone who is annoying or someone who is disrespectful. So I think when you’re walking in a safe environment where everyone can speak out their minds, that makes a really, really great teamwork. And also helping each other and supporting and reviewing each other’s code and helping each other with the design and sharing the progress with each other. So that really helps me feel like I’m part of a team. Of course, everyone has their own projects and JIRA tickets, but at the end, we have one goal that we want to reach, and the project is under one umbrella. So I think it’s really nice to see how all those small tasks are coming together and we’re working together as a team and then reaching our main goal of the project. So if I would have to say the most important thing is be nice and care about each other.

Shane Hastie: That’s good advice. Be nice and care about each other.

So Neria, before we wrap up today, is there anything else you’d like to say or anything else you’d like to add at this point?

Neria Yashar: Yes, Shane. I will say just that from my experience in the last year, I think sometimes when you think about doing something but it’s outside of your comfort zone and you might hesitate about that, I think it’s really great to be proactive about things that you really care about. And I would personally recommend doing that. For me, establishing the community was such a thing that brought me joy, and I’m so glad and proud that I did that. Although I’m not really the kind of person to do those things. And I think I’m so grateful that Wix and other companies, they understand the importance of having diversity in our teams and helping women promote those topics.

Shane Hastie: And Neria, really powerful thoughts and points through here. If people wanted to continue the conversation, where would they find you?

Neria Yashar: First of all, feel free to reach out and to ask for advice or anything else in my LinkedIn, Neria Poria Yashar. If you want to talk about founding and establishing communities or pro-women activities or anything else. So feel free to reach out. I always love to talk with new people.

Shane Hastie: We’ll make sure that your LinkedIn profile is in the show notes. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Neria Yashar: Thank you Shane.

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