It’s impossible not to notice the rising number of female leads and characters portrayed as more than secondary love interests on film and television these days, much thanks to the world’s beloved streaming giant, Netflix. Female directors, too, are on the rise. According to the Annenberg Inclusive Initiative at the University of South California, which tracks Hollywood’s diversity statistics, Netflix nearly doubled its percentage of US original films being helmed by women over the past year. From Orange is the New Black to How to get Away with Murder, women are flexing their artistic brilliance on and behind the quarantine screen. The tech scene is about to undergo a similar transformation.
Long critiqued for its exclusion of women, the tech industry is still a place in which women are forced to adapt to an overwhelmingly masculine environment. Female employees make up between 28% (Microsoft) and 42% (Amazon) of the total workforce at America’s largest tech companies, the so-called GAFAM group, according to Statista data. Those numbers, though, can be misleading. In terms of actual tech jobs, that percentage drops much lower, as women take up fewer than one in four technical roles at each of the companies reporting the gender breakdown. It’s why the term “tech industry” conjures up images of male tech geeks in wire-rim glasses, shorts, and flip-flops, inappropriately goggling every woman that walks by. It’s one of the few stereotypes that is so spot on.
But the idea that women should adapt to this masculine environment in order to get ahead isn’t quite as spot on. Sure, some adaptation is required, just as in any other facet of life. But in order for women to really shatter the glass ceiling in tech, they must embrace their unique qualities, just as women in Hollywood have. They have plenty of role models to learn from.
Allow us to take the example of Angela Ahrendts, the former Senior Vice President at Apple and CEO of Burberry Turning. The American businesswoman with small town roots in Indiana took Burberry from an aging British fashion brand and transformed it into a global luxury sensation. During her tenure at Burberry, the company’s value rose from £2 billion to over £7 billion. Ahrendts was the highest paid CEO in the UK in 2012, according to CNN Money, making $26.3 million. That’s highest paid CEO, not highest paid woman CEO. So how did she do it? Certainly not by suppressing her uniqueness and filling the role others expected of her.
Angela Ahrendts took Burberry from an aging British fashion brand and transformed it into a global luxury sensation. During her tenure at Burberry, the company’s value rose from £2 billion to over £7 billion. Ahrendts was the highest paid CEO in the UK in 2012, according to CNN Money, making $26.3 million. That’s highest paid CEO, not highest paid woman CEO.
Ahrendts saw Burberry as decaying and unappealing to the emerging millennial generation—it needed to be modernised and tech-ified. As much as she realised the importance of fusing tech with fashion, just as she had witnessed brands such as Apple branch out into every facet of modern life, she also understood the millennial zeitgeist was, and still is, authenticity. The hipster counterculture of the time might have thought it had sole ownership of all things vintage, but that yearning for something real and tangible in a world in which Instagram filters and e-books reign supreme certainly branched out into the mainstream. As such, Ahrendts saw the importance of preserving Burberry’s original brand identity. Her job was finding the delicate balance between vintage and modern, and using that to propel Burberry into the 21st century.
So instead of releasing more futuristic clothing lines, Ahrendts, the small-town American, emphasised Burberry’s core British-made luxury products—mainly, its iconic trench coat. The vintage aspect of her balancing act, she decided, was to center on the clothing itself. The futuristic side of things had to come in the form of tech.
Burberry’s new site was designed to speak to millennial and incoming Generation Z consumers through emotive brand content, such as music, movies, heritage, and storytelling. Another creative feat was offering customers the opportunity to buy collections directly from the fashion runway online, something previously unheard of. At Burberry’s London flagship store, the customer is blown away by a 40-foot-high LED screen streaming live fashion show videos, as well as sales associates using iPads in stores instead of cash registers. Clothing is embedded with RFID chips that can be read by screens and mirrors. When a customer picks up an item, the RFID tag triggers the nearest screen or mirror to reveal multimedia content about the item.
These might not seem so jaw-dropping today, but in the early-to-mid 2010s, things were quite different. Ahrendts had successfully brought Burberry out of the wilderness through her uniqueness and personal flavour, successfully merging the overtly feminine fashion industry with the less-feminine tech. Hers is the spirit and approach that women aspiring to be tech professionals must take on. It’s not about being stereotypically feminine, or bringing a so-called “feminine” approach to the table—it’s about being creative, unique, and unafraid. Women must bring themselves to the table in order to bounce off of it and shatter the glass ceiling, not leave their personality at the office door. Once they do, we will see the number of women in real tech positions jump significantly, just as we’re seeing in film.