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Addressing the IT gender gap with Cheryl Miller Van Dyck

How does the existing gender gap permeate into the areas of IT and digital transformation?

In this episode, we tackle how we can make opportunities in the tech industry more accessible for women and how they add value to the workforce. Joining us is Director of the Digital Leadership Institute Cheryl Miller Van Dyke, who also educates us on their approach to bringing women to the IT space by equipping them with skills on leadership, entrepreneurship and digital literacy.

Episode outline:

  • Cheryl Miller Van Dyck talks about how she founded the Digital Leadership Institute in 2014.
  • What is "inclusivity" in the context of digital transformation and how can we achieve it?
  • Van Dyck talks about how we can deliver IT skills content to the overlooked audiences.
  • Can diversity and inclusivity help address the issues of digital transformation's "people problem"?
  • Who is the best person inside an organisation to kick-start and drive digital transformation initiatives?
  • What should be done to better represent women in the tech industry?

Transcript

Kevin Montalbo

Welcome to episode 59 of the Coding Over Cocktails podcast. My name is Kevin Montalbo. Joining us from Sydney, Australia is Toro Cloud CEO and founder, David Brown. Good morning, David! 

David Brown

Good day, Kevin!

Kevin Montalbo

All right. Our guest for today is the Director of the Digital Leadership Institute, a Brussels-based international NGO promoting inclusive digital transformation and recognised by the UN in 2019 for its global leadership in diversity and inclusion in digital fields. 

In 2018, Google and the Financial Times placed her among the 100 Digital Pioneers of Europe, and in the same year, she received a coveted GLOMO Global Mobile Industry Leader Award for her grassroots work promoting digital equity around the world. Joining us today for a round of cocktails is Cheryl Miller Vandyke. Hi, Cheryl! Great to have you on the show.

Cheryl Van Dyck 

Hi, Kevin! Hi, David! Thank you for having me. 

David Brown 

Yeah, it's my pleasure, Cheryl. Thank you for joining us! Some nice accolades there. It's nice to be recognised.

Cheryl Van Dyck

Indeed, it is. Because it's pretty thankless work. I gotta say otherwise. So, you know, the occasional pat on the back is what I live off of basically.

David Brown 

Yeah. Yeah, I get that. And so, tell us a little bit about that work. You've got the Digital Leadership Institute. What led you to co-found that institute in 2014?

Cheryl Van Dyck It started kind of as a side job, as all the best things do, you know. I volunteered to launch a non-profit, promoting STEM skills to girls. And as I got more and more absorbed in that, it kind of took on a life of its own because you know, the challenge is pretty pervasive and profound. 

Then I started to make my way in kind of the grants and fun-making environment in Europe. And then we launched the formal non-profit to tackle some of the challenges that we recognised as being kind of the most pertinent, I guess, and unfortunately, like I said, very persistent.

David Brown

What drives your passion in this area?

Cheryl Van Dyck

Well, you know, I'm quite the business person at heart and I always have a little bit of disdain for that “passion” idea. It's nothing personal. It's kind of a language narrative I try to move away from because I think it kind of diminishes what the challenges in front of us are and also the viability and the sustainability of social effort that is tackling challenges of that kind. So, part of it is, of course, that I really care about the subject matter. The other thing is it's Business 101: there's a huge need. And over the course of working on this topic, really at the cold face for many years now, my team and I have innovated some approaches that really address the challenge.

So, here's the solution. And, you know, if we can make that work also from a kind of a business sense, then you know, we're doing things right. And I think what I've loved seeing is the evolution of business models to really include that kind of, you know, the triple bottom line discussion of people, planet and profit. We've worked in the nonprofit sector. It's just a choice. I also have a for-profit company in tech consulting. But that has been really a joy to see that we can do stuff that really matters and more or less make a living doing it.

David Brown 

I wanna get onto the solutions you referred to shortly, but we talked about passion for a second there, which is interesting that you grabbed on that and said, you know, you don't like to use that word, “passion” because you don't think it helps the cause. So, I just wanted to understand that a little bit better because passion and focus and drive, there’s many, many books written about why these are important things. And so just get back to me on how that doesn't help the cause.

Cheryl Van Dyck

When you say it's a "passion project" especially as woman, then that's like, "Oh, that's cute." And then it's relegated to the sidelines.

Call me a Maverick. No, I think it's more about when you say it's a “passion project” especially as a woman, then that's like, “Oh, that's cute.” And then it's kind of relegated to the sidelines. I mean, I'd love for it to become the narrative and you know, the vocabulary that we use because then it does make our nine-to-five existences much more enriching. But I'm careful about language and in all senses, you know? I speak like six languages. And also, in terms of the challenges that we're trying to tackle, we've gotta be very careful about that, the risk of relegating someone to kind of a secondary actor or you know, not giving the importance to the subject that it deserves. I didn't mean to go off on a tangent in this direction. 

David Brown

No, I just find it interesting that you picked up on that word. That was interesting. And you've fairly thought about, you know, why you don't like the phrase in the context. 

Cheryl Van Dyck 

Oh, bring it, David! I've got tons of those. But I mean, what's really interesting is like, when you look at, for example, 360-degree evaluations in companies, there are certain terminologies that are exclusively reserved for women in organisations that are definitely pejorative. I'd love to let you guess that, but there's one in particular in the UK that surfaced as being only used for women. It's not “aggressive,” but do you want to make a stab at what [the word is]? “Abrasive.” 

David Brown

Really? 

Cheryl Van Dyck

It's a term uniquely reserved for women. And I think language is so important. I also talk about more media portrayal. You know, at the Geena Davis Institute for Media and Gender, they really talk about, “If she can see it, she can be it.” For example, this word “passion” is being part of the normal discourse, but I always bristle a bit when I get labelled in that way, you know? It’s so nice that you, you know, care about that. But this is kind of diminishing the seriousness of the issue and the attention and the resources that it deserves. 

David Brown 

I never would have guessed “abrasive.”

Cheryl Van Dyck 

“Abrasive” and only for women. I think I can write a book called that.

David Brown

And you would actually think the total opposite to be honest. You mentioned words exclusive for women. And actually, the mission of the Institute is about inclusivity with digital transformation. What does inclusivity mean in this context? And how do we achieve it?

Cheryl Van Dyck

No matter where you are in the world, women are at a disadvantage as far as being included in the digital transformation.

Thank you so much for asking that question, David. For real, because of course I've looked at the work of Toro Cloud and the other eminent guests you've had on this podcast already. Our definition of digital transformation is really this macro thing that is happening to society. That's really shaking the foundations of humanity. There's no understating the impact that digital transformation has on our lives. And I always talk about mobile telephony as the internet of things or, you know, just smart objects. Of course, the cloud as you know, the consumer cloud, but also the industrial cloud that nobody really talks about as laypeople. 

Although we're enjoying all the advantages or apparent advantages of this bounty that the transformation is bringing us, I've kind of formulated this idea of like, the digital transformation inclusion model or inclusion maturity model, you know? And we look at things like access and skill sets and leadership. And so this is really not what's happening on the individual organisational level, which is a lot of where technical solutions come into play, and how do we prepare an organisation for digital transformation?

But if we look at society as a whole, as an organisation, then we really see that kind of the afterthought, you know? Again, the Triple P idea - people, product and processes, which we use at the organisational level to drive digital transformation. If we explode that to the global human population and also look at the impact on the planet, then we start to see how ill-prepared humanity is for the digital transformation. Like William Gibson said, you know, the future is here. It's just not evenly distributed. This is the reality, as far as the global population goes. So, we're really in a luxurious position to talk about adoption of the cloud, or of Martini, or how we can make companies oversee their digital transformation in a better way, which this clearly does. 

However, taking this arms-length perspective, right? Not everyone has access, not everyone has the skills necessary to participate, and certainly lead. So it's really from that perspective that we talk about inclusion that’s disproportionately impacted, in those terms. I couldn't even say negatively impacted. So the ones who have the lowest access rates  or no digital skills, [those with] very little representation in leadership and decision making are women across the board. So no matter where you are in the world, women are at a disadvantage as far as being included in the digital transformation.

And then, you know, based on research from the World Economic Forum, we know that the average group of women is more than the average group of men. It's a really interesting statistic. So, to me, this is a bit the edge of the wedge. So if we can meet, reach the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable with access, with skills, with leadership, even promoting entrepreneurial and readiness for the “future workforce,” which is actually the present workforce, if we can reach those most vulnerable, then we're doing something really super. And then we know that we are actually able to get everyone on board in this digital transformation.

David Brown

I mean, when you talk about, on a global scale like that, it sounds daunting. So where, where do you start?

Cheryl Van Dyck

It is daunting, but that's why my refrain is start with girls and women because obviously that's half of the planet. And it's surprising how hard it is to deliver that message. But you know, the symptom is actually perpetuating the problem because we don't have women in leadership who are the determining priorities for resources, for investment in digital skills and access and these kinds of things. So, we get a lot of business-as-usual, even in the grant-making, even in the public sector where we expect the leadership on these topics in particular. So, we start with girls and women. 

And then we look at what the best practises are because heaven knows there's plenty of that out there, right? There's a lot of action on these topics. There's more and more, and it's kind of like, the more the merrier, right?  Because whatever works we've gotta get it out there, just throw it against the wall and whatever sticks, we replicate and scale. Right? So yeah, start with girls and women.

David Brown

You've identified the problem and the demographic where it's impacting the most. How do you get involved in the solution process?

Cheryl Van Dyck 

Well, you know, I’m like in the “two body dilemma,” because part of me is doing the hands-on, grassroot stuff. And that's really where I've come from. It’s like, “Okay, this doesn't work. It's not working, let's just fix it,” like this being a very action-oriented and outcome-oriented person and then innovating, just constantly iterating until we get the magic formula. And that's also really about being entrepreneurial and having that business-starter mindset and innovator mindset until we've come to like the magic formula, which is still in the process of evolution. 

So, doing things. Just doing stuff, right? Do it, see what works and stick with what works and junk what doesn't work or park it so that you might be able to reuse it later at another point. So, that's one thing. It’s the hands on-stuff on the ground, at the coalface, right? Running programs that specifically target our most vulnerable and overlooked demographic that's girls and women

David Brown

I was just gonna say, I'm guessing some of those programs you're talking about are educational type programs like upskilling type programs.

Cheryl Van Dyck

Absolutely. Absolutely. If I can, I'd love to get to that in a second depending on what our time looks like. But that, you know, the double body phenomenon, the other part is like, of course, as you learn from what you're doing, then it's really an opportunity to take your learnings and then try to influence policy setting. So, really from the top down, this is what we know from best practises. Let's Institute this, create European objectives or national objectives, global objectives. And this is what has translated to my work in all of those areas, it’s just to be able to then become the advocate at that level where we need the decision makers to be getting the message, who can say, “All right, now we need to invest in this and these priorities, because that is what will prepare us for an inclusive digital transformation where large, large swaths of the population don't get left behind, or don't get relegated to second or even third class citizen status.” So that's really the thrust sort of the work that I do. 

David Brown 

So, the kind of strategies that the organisations would be looking at deploying once they've identified these problems would be something like what you've in your keynote Inclusive and Sustainable Upskilling within an organisation to addressing issues, inclusivity in the gender gap: “We have to bring IT skills content, which is readily available in various platforms to audiences that are overlooked.” That was the quote from that keynote. 

So, upskilling education, that's obviously a key initiative organisations should be looking at to bring women into the fold of this digital transformation journey and to be able to contribute the way they should be contributing with everyone else. Anything else you want to add to that regarding the education upskilling process and how that should work?

Cheryl Van Dyck

Good decision-making, good project management, these kinds of transversal skills where you can say, 'Damn, I can count on her.' Now, let's just buttress that with some technical skills and you've got a winning proposition.

Well, three things; one, that it's permanent, so it's not just a one off thing. Second, hire. So, hire women. Third, pay them. So it's not just about the skilling part, because what we've encountered is - and just a small note on upskilling, this could actually mean skilling, period. [Not] digital skilling because there may be no real basis for this, or maybe digital literacy as a minimum. Right? But this is not necessarily about changing or evolving a skill set, developing a skill set, unless, I often like to stress, you're really looking at executive faculties, right? Good decision-making, good project management, these kinds of transversal skills where you can say, “Damn, I can count on her.” Now, let's just buttress that with some technical skills and you've got a winning proposition. So just hire women really, because we know that, and this has been the mantra for 20 years. This leads to innovation, leads to better bottom line, all kinds of advantages, but basically ignored. 

And I think if you wanna be a really class startup competitor, this is the direction that you need to go outside the box. I mean, really outside the box means not the echo chamber of highly-educated, white, young males. Nothing personal, but this is kind of what the startup environment looks and smells like. And that's clearly not innovative regardless of how innovative that individual might seem. Right? Truly innovative is “wow.” Someone who has absolutely no idea about what we're doing here and can bring a perspective that's completely different and maybe, you know, really ratchet things up a bit.

The other point I made was, so hire them, just hire women and advance them. Hire them, advance them. Second, pay them because you know, women have also missed out on the whole startup ecosystem. Because, you know, you've gotta leave your family for three months to participate in a startup bootcamp or six weeks of coding, right? It's like, yeah, I might have that inclination, but unfortunately, due to these traditional caregiver roles, and the same reason why we’ve seen an exodus of women out of the workforce during COVID. 

Just to throw a statistic in there, before COVID in the US, the women made up 51% of the workforce. They now make up 37%. So, every time you see those LinkedIn posts about, you know, people leaving the job market, ask yourself how many are women, because I can tell you it's a disproportionately large number and this falls back to, unfortunately, “just a social thing.” But that means a lot of missed opportunities for women themselves and for society given that innovation, given those other opportunities. 

So pay them because there's no shortage of content. And this is another one of my key refrains. There's no shortage of  high-end tech skill curriculum out there. You know, just Cisco's been around 20 years doing the Cisco Networking Academy. But then look at AWS, and I have to disclaim, I'm a Cloud Ambassador for AWS, but just look at all the content that's available there literally in every direction you can possibly fantasise about, right? Whether it's AI or machine learning or big data. 

So, why aren't women here, right? Why not? I can assure you. It's not because they don't want to, I can assure you that. A large percentage of women and women entrepreneurs, as a matter of fact, are driven to entrepreneurship out of financial necessity. So they look like me. They've been marginalised by traditional career paths. They are out there, they're hungry, they're looking at an empty retirement fund and they're knowledgeable and motivated. So where are they? Big question mark. I don't know, I’m trying to find them, right? And skill them up into startups using high-end digital skills. So not just using Word, being able to use word documents - nothing against Microsoft, but I mean, I'm really talking about programs and we've innovated stuff like that, literally going and grabbing all the content out there, building a curriculum. But you know where the pitfall is? It has to; number one, dive with the kids' school and daycare schedule. So when the kids are at school, mom is coding or learning about big data or network or cybersecurity, right? I mean, very ambitious and they are hungry as hell, hungry as hell. 

COVID might have thrown a monkey wrench into this, you know, because our plates are full. You literally asked me before Kevin, “Can we talk about the missed opportunity for digital transformation for COVID?” Look, women are actually leaving the workforce because they're leaving financial stability because of their plates overflowing with responsibility. And again, kind of falling back into those social pitfalls, I guess, of gendered roles. 

So, even though the content is out there, we have to present it, we have to bring it to them in a way that's unique. So that's all the stuff that we've innovated, not only matching it with the needs of the women, specifically bringing it to them in all women groups, because this is about kind of diffusing the fear factor and the lack of confidence factor around startup and tech, which is really the canary in the coal mine. Like, if we can get women doing tech startups, tech-driven startups, we know that we're really firing on all pistons. And that's a huge economic opportunity, I think, not to speak about the financial opportunity for the individual girls and women. But so, bring it to them in a way that works for them. 

So, we formulated this whole approach. The funding got cut by the national government, unfortunately. But the idea was actually to integrate these women that we'd done the bootcamp with into companies and then handhold them through higher-end training with our approach while they're getting paid because that is really the key thing. They've gotta be able to be remunerated for their time because it is about opportunity cost. Like, I'm doing this, therefore I'm not doing that, that and that.

And we see that those other things are kind of taking over even to the point of making financial independence a serious question for women, which is not only about now, but it's also long term. Like I said about you know, pension and retirement. And so there are an awful lot of jobless women right now. You know, my son has even said, “Well, that's their choice.” And you know, I gotta ask, how much choices are really involved in that? We make choices as families. We make choices as a unit, as a couple even, right? And if you just look at your own partner and say, “Hey, I would really love her to have this.” What if she became an AI expert? Like, I could deliver that with her. I could actually make that happen. But then you gotta look at your personal situation and say, “Hey, we're making financial choices, we're making wellbeing choices.” And you know, COVID has really meant a huge step backwards in terms of women's financial independence of, women's engagement in the workforce. And a lot of things that I'm therefore working on at the global level, like with the G-20.

David Brown 

Well, you mentioned the startup ecosystem and how you'd like to see more opportunities for women in the startup ecosystem and opportunities for women within the enterprise to upskill and to advance through the corporate hierarchy. So, starting with the startup ecosystem is the solution there to have venture capital funds exclusive for women-oriented startups or startups benefiting women?

Cheryl Van Dyck 

Absolutely. I mean, well, we always disclaim, “Oh, how unfortunate that is, but this is a reality, you know? Sorry.” I mean, you can literally heatmap the sexism. There's some great research on that in the EU, same kind of startups, same requests, same key intersection of like digital and green, right? That's the twin disruption that Europe is really investing in right now. And, everyone hopefully. Same kind of profiles and women get like, maybe a third or a 10th of the seed funding or, you know, any kind of VC engagement that all-male and mixed teams get. So, women alone on their own, is literally a non-starter. So, there's definitely a question of sexism there. And I worked long and hard on, you know, “Let's stimulate startups in tech and using tech by women.”

So, that's one half of the equation, but the other is no matter what I do here, if we don't actually get the funding and the resources to make those startups launch and be sustainable over the long run, this is a wasted effort. Fortunately, we've seen a lot more of that action, female friendly. I think it's an unfortunate reality, but if that's the way it's going to happen, if it's got to happen that way, then do it. 

And, you know, my premise has always been that Einstein thing. If you keep doing what you've always done, you're crazy if you think you're gonna get a different outcome. I think the unicorns are actually gonna be in those areas, right? Where they have not been exposed and they have not been addressed in a robust manner in terms of opportunities and resources.

So I think smart investors will be actually going out of their way to find those, the magic mix. But it really does mean shedding a lot of our unconscious biases. Because like, what we see with investment in particular is women get loans from women loan officers, then get loans from men loan officers. So how do we unpack what the loan officers are thinking, right? It's the same in the startup ecosystem, you know? In the pitch competitions. And I'm thankful to be asked to come in and judge those things, but I can literally see the gears turning and the unconscious bias coming out and to make it conscious then is half of my job. The other half is like, you know, pushing forward those, the dark horses, the potential unicorns who wouldn't get the time of day otherwise. And that's really a fundamental shift. It's really a fundamental shift that takes a lot of work.

David Brown 

And within the corporate space, you've already talked about “hire women, pay them, upskill them, educate.” There must be some examples of companies that are doing it well. Do you have any companies in mind? You don't necessarily need to mention names if that's not appropriate, but what are companies that are doing it and are doing it well? What are they doing?

Cheryl Van Dyck 

I mean, I want to mention names, because it's like, “Hey, go work for Salesforce.” You know? I always get mixed up, but because it's Verizon in the US and Vodafone in India. And actually they're much more active in that part of the world than in the US, obviously for one. But they have really gotten into this, you know? The maturity curve I mentioned in terms of inclusion, starting out with things like, of course, paid maternity leave, paid paternity leave. And then, you know, that whole reentry program, so women who have gone out of our workforce that we're trying to bring back in and keep them as a valued resource because women tend to be more loyal, which cuts costs over time right?

And now they're really at the stage of, “We're looking at our middle and senior management and we have no women that we can even move into executive management.” So they're going outside of their organisation and have targets of like 40% external hires of women into leadership roles. And I can tell you that's like completely mind blowing because that means they would even look at people like me, whereas most people would be like, you know, “She lives all over the world. What are these gaps in her resume? I don't like this.” And that's, you know, again, the “abrasive.” All those things that you’ve seen from a different perspective can be assets, right? Entrepreneurial, risk-oriented, still managing and growing a startup. But that's the fear factor depending on your unconscious biases.

So, I think that for me is really a new benchmark, to be hiring outside of the company, to bring in women with experience and mature women who are the ones who are systemically relegated to the sidelines by the corporate infrastructure. Because again, these statistics have been around for decades as long as McKinsey has been tracking it. 80% of women are marginalised by traditional career paths. 80%. And these are women, so what are they doing? I'm going after them to try to get them to do startup. 

But I think companies, it makes sense to look around and bring them into your organisation, especially if they're doing anything entrepreneurial. It might be frightening. That might be your first reaction. “Yikes.” Yeah, because this is an entity with whom we are not familiar, but it's exactly that that brings the added value. And it opens, like I say, the edge of the wedge for greater inclusion and greater diversity, greater innovation and you know, stuff that brings us back to that planet-people-profit vision. And that is also proven in the research that women play a really big role in making that happen.

David Brown 

We have a lot more women as CEOs than we did, say, 20 years ago of top technology firms. When a woman is a CEO or even at the board level, if you have more women at a board level, how much difference is that making in inclusivity within an organisation?

Cheryl Van Dyck 

You know, that's a mixed bag to be frank. And when you say a lot more, I think in Europe, we're talking like 4% of CEOs are women and that's already like magnitudes better.

David Brown

I mean, in comparison to what it was before. I'm not saying overall.

Cheryl Van Dyck

Yeah. It's magnitudes better. Absolutely. And board roles, this is questionable in terms of what the decision making impact is. However, you know, I've been giving a talk. I even did a TEDx Talk 10 years ago that talked about the impact of investment, innovation, profit, but also I want to say, social orientation of a company that has a woman in a CEO, in a leadership, decision-making position. So, I think there may even be research in terms of how that translates to the bottom line. And you can look at those. It's kind of like the Bechdel Test for the movies, right? The test where you can actually go online and add content to the database yourself just by answering these three or four questions.Are there more than more than one woman in the main character suite? Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? Okay. So three questions, that's the Bechdel Test. 

And at one point, Cate Blanchett, I guess when she was accepting another Oscar, said, “I bet that those Bechdel movies,” so the ones that do achieve those criteria, “I bet they performed better at the box office,” and someone ran behind her and crunched the data and that turned out to be the case. So, it's kind of anecdotal, you know, whatever. It's definitely not mainstream knowledge. It's not mainstream thinking. But it's definitely motivating. You know, if you're a decision maker and you wanna be an innovative organisation and you are focused on the bottom line, which we all are, then that's really a perspective to delve into, and to take on board actively

David Brown 

Cheryl Miller, such important work you're doing. How can listeners follow what you’re writing and talking about? What are the best social channels to follow you on?

Cheryl Van Dyck

You know, it's been my own response to COVID to kind of bring down my social outreach a notch. So mainly I'm on LinkedIn now I've gotta say, and if I do things like this, I love to share it there. Because I think this is our posse. Maybe this is also where you found me. So, Linkedin.com/in/millervandyck. 

David Brown 

Okay, thank you. And you'd mentioned that you are working on a book?

Cheryl Van Dyck

I keep being asked to share chapters. But I haven't started writing the actual book myself yet. Again, bandwidth, but I would definitely keep you posted on my progress. 

David Brown 

We would love to hear about that and have you back, if you would be happy to come back to just talk about your book when that comes out.

Cheryl Van Dyck

Absolutely, absolutely.

David Brown

Cheryl, thank you so much for your time today!

Cheryl Van Dyck 

Thank you! Thank you both for having me.

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