Paula Dowdy - SVP, Cloud, Software and Managed Services at Cisco - explains the work that they are doing with Connected Women and its potential best practice application.

Why don’t we have more women in technology, or in business in general? It’s one of the biggest cultural questions of our time, but perhaps the best thing about my job is that every day I get the opportunity to play a personal role in trying to solve it.

As a mother and a leader I do find myself questioning why the problem is taking so very long to solve. Logically we all understand that diversity of gender, religion, age, ability and culture makes teams and businesses more dynamic, more successful and a better breeding ground for creativity.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company has estimated that ‘companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.’

Even in companies like Cisco where we focus a lot on this issue, we still have work to do. I try not to be offended when a peer of mine, like me, a senior sales leader, calls me ‘kiddo’. But I doubt he would use the same greeting were I not a women. It is this notion of unconscious bias that the BBC journalist and author, Kate Russell, recently spoke about when she joined our annual Women of Impact Conference at Cisco.

She called her presentation ‘Girls Don’t Game’ and the core of her message centred around the fact that actually women in technology also share many of the same unconscious biases as men. As a child she had questioned her right and credibility to game, something she still enjoys doing to this day.

So her presentation made me think about myself and whether I am actually a good role model to my three kids. After all, I have encouraged my son to code, but perhaps unconsciously haven’t done the same with my two daughters, who do not.

Recently I was with some of my closest women friends, who are all hugely successful, interesting and grounded. They are some of the ones who have been fighting this cause for close to 30 years and come from various places around the world: Singapore, London and various parts of the United States. I asked them ‘Are we actually making any progress?’ Gladly the answer was a very loud ‘YES!’

However, we all agreed the change is happening too slowly. My personal view is that we must keep pushing forward. This isn’t just critical for our daughters but also for our world. And it’s this opinion that was reinforced by another speaker at our Women of Impact conference at Cisco. We had the privilege to listen to Halla Tomasdottir. Halla is a remarkable woman, person and leader that led the ONLY successful financial services firm in Iceland through the country’s well publicised financial meltdown.

I am not saying that her company was only successful because it was led by two women, but they embraced a culture of being conscious and collaborative, versus the greed some associate with other parts of the banking industry.

Halla’s ambition knows no bounds; she is now running for President of Iceland! Yet she brings with her a thoroughly human and authentic style which we all warmed to. Her final quote made me want to laugh and cry at my own journey as a mother and leader: ‘I want every girl that is told she is bossy to know she has leadership skills!’

Two ways to create successful women leaders

Now let’s get practical on how we continue to tackle this challenge of getting more women to be in technology and business fields. There are two approaches I’m thinking about: top down and bottom up. One is by creating room at the very top by creating more role models.

We have done this at Cisco Systems where five out of 12 of CEO Chuck Robbins’ senior leadership team are women. This is great progress. The second way is by starting a grass roots effort from the bottom, where all the women play a leadership role. Where we learn, exchange, mentor, laugh and support each other.

Cisco Connected Women is an example of this. It’s a group that a few of us started back in 1998 in London. It’s now a global community with the charter to attract, develop, retain and celebrate talented women.

In fact, our leadership recognises the correlation between developing and retaining a more diverse, globally competitive workforce and achieving higher levels of technology innovation and better financial performance.

With that in mind, the Connected Women community celebrates the positive impact of women within Cisco, shares best practices and learning from around the globe, promotes its network to help teams address their gender diversity challenges, and promotes Cisco as a great place to work for women. Today, with 40 active chapters globally and more than 7,000 members, the community is thriving.

Making a global impact - bringing women together for one day

It’s one thing to promote opportunities for women to connect with each other in-region. However nothing brings a community to life like staging a worldwide event. And that’s what we did with Women of Impact last month. Now in its fifth year, this is an annual virtual event run for Connected Women members, other Cisco Inclusion & Diversity members worldwide, customers and partners.

You could almost think of it as the Olympic torch. Asia started our day with live dancers from Bangalore and we ended our day with a hand off of the torch to America.

Last year, the theme for our Women of Impact Conference was ‘Be Fearless’. This year’s theme was ‘Be Unstoppable’ and we participated across our region, but also globally. As the Connected Women EMEAR Executive Sponsor, I served as the EMEAR host during the broadcast and interviewed a number of female visionaries including Kate Russell, Halla Tomasdottir, who I mentioned earlier, and Philippa Waller, 4D Integral Coach and Facilitator.

Beyond building business leaders, at Cisco we are also focused on helping girls become more interested in technology. We are a founding member of US2020, a platform that helps connect science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals with girls and underrepresented minorities from kindergarten through to college age.

Cisco has pledged that by 2020, 20 per cent of its US staff will volunteer at least 20 hours each year to inspire students in STEM education.

So in the end, there’s no silver bullet. It’s all of these ideas that are going to contribute to a more diverse future for our industry. We must keep trying, learning, laughing and raising future women leaders.

Every day we create more talented women at the top and bottom and is a day when we encourage other women to join them. I’d also love to see us encourage more young women to code and to really immerse themselves in technology and business.

That’s the kind of world in which I’ll always want to take part. Let me leave you with one last quote that I love: ‘Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.’