Sasha Casas: Welcome back to our Women in Tech Leadership series. I spent some time with Ayelet Kutner, ForeScout’s VP of Engineering, discussing her experience as a woman in high-tech, her approach to leadership and raising two young daughters.
Ayelet, you’ve risen the ranks – starting as a coder and moving all the way up to a VP role – in a male-dominated field and industry. What’s been your experience navigating that landscape as a woman in tech?
Ayelet Kutner: I’ve been fortunate to find a career that I love and excel at. And my love for leadership has actually surpassed my love for coding/engineering. That passion for what you do is really key to being successful, especially as a woman in tech.
Men and women are fundamentally very different. We see problems differently, we discover solutions differently and we communicate differently. When you’re in a male-dominated environment, the value of the female approach can be minimized. Many women I’ve worked with were softer-spoken, including myself in the past and they under-valued their work and contributions. They also tried to avoid difficult conversations. Therefore their unique insights can be lost.
The value of a diverse organization is that both approaches are included in decision making, resulting in the best outcome.
Sasha: Why do you think there are less women executives?
Ayelet: There’s a big fall-off when women start families. In my university classes, it was 50/50 women to men. But in executive roles, I would say it’s more 20/80 women to men. My observation is that it’s incredibly hard to balance a career and a family. When faced with the stress, demands and trade-offs that come with being an executive, many women choose family. Unless you absolutely love what you do, balancing between career and family can be overwhelming.
Most high-tech cultures that I’ve experienced don’t have a lot of flexibility for full-time working mothers. You see a lot of females in the workplace, but few female executives. If I had stayed a coder/developer, I don’t think the struggle to balance family and work would have been as difficult.
Sasha: You’re a proud wife and mother to two young daughters. How do you balance the demands of your work and your family?
Ayelet: Julie Cullivan talked about “mother’s guilt” in her interview. This is 100% accurate. If I’m working “late” in the office, people question where my children are and “shouldn’t I be home with my kids?” The underlying assumption is that I’m not a good enough mother.
My husband is a founder at a high-tech company and when we decided to have children we agreed we would be equal partners. It was important for me to have a partner who is as hands-on of a parent as I am. It’s been interesting to see how the percentages have shifted over the years. As much as I love my job, I want to take a more active role with my kids. The first time my daughter got sick, my husband stayed home but I couldn’t focus at work thinking about her. Many women want to be more in charge of the day to day activities and choose to invest a lot of energy in it.
So while the struggle with “mother’s guilt” is real, you have to work to keep it in check. I know my kids are happy and healthy and I firmly believe that me doing something that I love every day makes me a better person and parent.
Being a mother with a full-time career is also how I was raised. My mother has her Ph.D. and always worked. I believe I’m setting a good example for my daughters. There is actually a lot of research that says if you are a working mother, your children have a better chance at having healthy relationships and good careers.
Sasha: As a leader, how do you build and develop a culture of diversity on your team?
Ayelet: As I mentioned, women and men are very different, in obvious and subtle ways. In my experience, I’ve noticed when interviewing men they tend to be more boastful. They will often say they know more than they do and they use “I” vs “we” when discussing accomplishments. Women, on the other hand, tend to downplay their abilities and accomplishments.
When I interview women, I approach it differently. I dig in. I ask what their specific contribution to a project was and try to get them to own their part.
Based on my experience with women tending to be more soft-spoken, I ask them direct questions in meetings to pull out their ideas and insights. I know women are often underpaid as compared to their male counterparts, many times because asking for a raise or promotion requires an awkward conversation so they avoid it.
My advice to other leaders is to understand that women ask for less. I see it as my responsibility to balance that out for my team. Push for raises, push for promotions, on behalf of your team. If you want your team to be valued, perform at their highest level and stay with the company, we need to actively make sure they’re taken care of.
Sasha: What piece of advice would you give women who are trying to balance it all?
Ayelet: In high-tech specifically, there is a lot of hard work. If you don’t love what you do, and have the option and desire to focus more on your family, I absolutely think you should do it. Do what makes you happy. If you love what you do, striking the balance is hard but worth it.
Also, while you’re climbing the corporate ladder, fake it until you make it with respect to confidence. Be aware of your downfalls and work to adapt. Get outside of your comfort zone, sit at the table, make your voice heard and have the difficult conversations. Until you have the confidence, fake it. I think this is the biggest barrier to female leadership – we have other priorities and/or we let our innate downfalls get in the way.
Sasha: Lastly, what are your thoughts on raising the next generation of women in tech?
Ayelet: Girls and boys are historically brought up to be better at different things. In STEM classes, boys tend to get more attention and therefore thrive. My daughters have been told “this is boy stuff” in some of their classes and activities. Awareness is key here, we need to break stereotypes. I don’t tell my daughters they’re pretty, I tell them they’re smart and that they can do anything they want to. Kids still have to battle the educational system and assumed gender roles. It’s our job to enable the next generation to breakdown those stereotypes.