Women in tech - Lisa Lang's story
Pubished 31st January 2019
This story contains language some may find offensive.
"I saw an opportunity in the chaos, and went for it."
A fashion house that is blending couture and technology, working with giants such as ASOS and Swarovski.
Last year saw Lang make it into Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech list, we wanted to know her story.
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How it all started…
From an early age, Lisa was a creator. She came from a family of craftsman that taught her skills from an early age, in particular how to get her hands dirty. During university and post-grad she jumped around in journalism and photography, but it was only after taking a programming workshop in web design that Lisa found her passion.
Lisa recalled in the first days, she had never done anything with computers, “I always tended to break them.” She explained “Everybody had to go through a test workshop to do basic programming, I had the luck that the head of tech was a woman. She was a Russian programmer, and everybody was scared of her. She said “you seem to enjoy it, why don’t you come and join this course?”
Adversities and obstacles…
Lisa was the only girl in the class, all of the boys had been introduced to programming at an early age. She recalls “I was the only woman. And didn’t know what I was doing. I saw opportunity in the chaos, and went for it.” She received comments from the software engineer’s officers, such as “You’re a girl, you can’t programme.” Lisa replied with “I’m going to show you.”
“What I’ve realised is the whole STEM process in education is very male-driven. It’s a very male orientated subject. Run by a man, taught by a man and learnt by a man. It’s perceived that you build droids and other ‘manly’ things.” She explained that “In your twenties, you are young and naive and you think everything is cool. You don’t have the sensitivity of seeing it. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that feel the same.”
She recalls a previous senior job role she was in. A position became available when her boss left the company. Lisa then applied for this very job. She went to the Head and said she wanted to become the COO of the department. Lisa was then asked by her superior “Are you sure? Don’t you want to have a family and children?” She didn’t see it as sexism at the time. Years later a colleague told her “Lisa if you had been a man he would have given you the job straight away.” Interestingly years later she got in contact with this boss, and he asked her why she left the company. Her reply was “Do you remember the conversation we had when I asked you if I could take on the leadership role?”
He didn’t realise it was an inappropriate response.
Lisa’s view is this… “We can’t push men into the role of creditors or the guilty ones. To a very high degree, they don’t know how to behave because they’ve grown up and learnt in a male system. They haven’t been taught how to work with women. It would be far too easy to say men are all idiots, they’re not. When you state that what has been said is inappropriate, around 80% say ‘I didn’t realise, I’m so sorry’. We have to be part of the change, not part of the problem.”
Misconceptions of tech…
There are some big misconceptions in tech. When asked about this, Lisa stated there are “Coders and engineers who wear lipstick and high heels.” When she first got into the industry, she was always colouring her hair and having fun with fashion. In order to make a statement, she will never wear jeans and a t-shirt; that feels like a uniform to her. “I only wear dresses, not cocktail dresses though, that would be uncomfortable to code for 8 hours in.”
When Lisa worked for Twilio, assisting them with their German launch, the first thing she asked them was do you have t-shirts with a fit for girls? This can be proven in the subtle things. Lisa simply tells it as it is. “Don’t smile at me when I ask for girls fitted t-shirts. For women, these things really matter and you have to take them seriously. If you preach that you support diversity, you have to talk the talk and walk the walk.”
Another example Lisa highlights are events. It doesn’t always have to be pizza and beer, what about wine and salad? “Okay, maybe not salad” Lisa laughs and continues, “The point is about having options. You’re in this male system, you can’t squeeze another type of person in there if they don’t feel naturally comfortable in it.”
Improvements in diversity…
While reflecting on her career, Lisa describes “You can get really frustrated by it, you can get really sensitive. There is a glass ceiling, and it’s really difficult to smash it.” Over time her approach to adversities for her gender have changed. “It wouldn’t make sense for me to get upset or get angry. I recommend to every young girl to watch the Ruth Ginsburg documentary — RGB. She has the ability to stay calm when she gets confronted by sexist or derogatory statements.” Personally, she finds this hard to imitate. “I swear because I fucking care. But that has taught me a lesson if we scream against it things are never going to change. We’ll always be the bitches.”
She argues that “although it’s not fair, and it takes more time and energy; the only way to make a difference is to argue in a charming way. It’s all about creating a comfort zone, so nobody has to bark, so we can focus on the problem without being emotional.” Lisa has learnt over the years that sometimes you get confronted with comments that you’re just not prepared for, it makes you say “Really? Fuck you.”
“If I was in this situation again, how would I react differently?” This has been Lisa’s internal process for 25 years, and she still assures us she “still swears and screams.” She advises young women to read the Art of War, it teaches you one really important thing, sometimes to win the war, you have to lose some battles. But you have to focus on the big picture. Lisa also explains “I think the thing for women is that you don’t have to be perfect. Society has taught us to be little princesses. That’s why we’re afraid to make mistakes and look silly. But you have to crack some eggs to make an omelette.”
Considering in Germany that until 1974 women had to ask their husbands for permission to work, there is still a learning curve, we can’t expect to have 50/50 equality straight away.
What she’s learnt…
“What I’m always telling my mentees is it’s alright to not be perfect, you can only try. Stay calm, and get your point across. There’s the well-known phrase, those who move mountains started with a single step. It’s helped me a lot. I’m a very impatient person, the world is too slow for me. But I have realised that good things take a while, it’s a process. The most important thing is, whatever you do, do something. Don’t get angry, and say things like ‘I don’t want to do this, it’s unfair.’ Life is unfair, honey.”
Throughout her life, Lisa has had her fair share of jobs, from selling cosmetics to working the night shift in a blockbuster. Now that she’s the one hiring people, she looks for experience in hospitality or sales. “They have the ability to work with people while under pressure, which is what every employer is looking for. We have to hire for attitude and talent not for solely education. Dealing with the implications of the job… especially if you go into this innovative industry, whether that’s engineering or fashion.”
Lisa lets us into a little secret, innovation is about trial and error. You have to deal with a lot of frustration. It’s not for the faint-hearted. “I could have the most prestigious graduate from Cambridge or Harvard, I put them on a laser cutter and they can’t do it, so they sit in the corner and cry. I can’t fucking do anything with that.” On the other hand, she could have someone who didn’t even finish college who says ‘Okay it didn’t work. I’ll figure it out, no worries.’ She would hire the latter. “This is the industry we’re in now. It moves really fast and constantly changing. You have to be so adaptable, with the ability to learn and unlearn, relearn.” Lisa also stresses the importance of being polite. “Don’t be a dickhead. It’s a blend of good manners and being quick to learn.”
She’s regularly asked by employers how to get more women applicants.
Her first question to them is “would the female applicant even like to work there?” Her advice to them is to ask a senior woman to come over to your workplace for a cup of coffee. With a male-dominated team, you’re unaware of if a woman will feel comfortable there. Lang stresses the importance to “find someone neutral and external.” She explains “It’s all about the work culture. Most of the time even if there’s a woman on the team, she’s leaving quickly because you’ve stuck them in a system that wasn’t built for them.” Adding that “your first female hires should be the soundboard and the key to eventually hiring more women.”
Lisa explains that if a woman applicant asks “would I like working here?” to another female who already works there and the response is positive, it’s far more likely she’ll want to take the job. You’ll also attract people who are interested in staying with you for the long term. Some people will hear these examples and complain these steps take too long, they need women to apply instantly.
Lisa’s reply is simple. “This is about change, and change takes time.”