AWS Marketplace

Elektrobit’s Maria Anhalt: Celebrating International Women’s Day and embracing equity

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in 2023, AWS Marketplace is honored to share perspectives from women technical leaders from our AWS and seller community.

This blog series profiles five trailblazing women as they share personal stories of how they overcame challenges in their careers and are leading the charge to #EmbraceEquity in their organizations. They also offer advice to women seeking to grow as leaders in the tech industry.

“Building diverse, equitable, high-performance teams demand a much broader perspective, leadership commitment, and continuous work.”

–Maria Anhalt

About Maria Anhalt

maria anhalt #IWD2023 #EmbraceEquity International Womens Day AWS MarketplaceMaria Anhalt is Chief Executive Officer at Elektrobit, an award-winning global vendor of embedded and connected software products and services for the automotive industry. Maria leads an international team focused on providing car makers with software that transforms mobility, drives sustainability, and enables a more interactive and intuitive driving experience. Maria has received numerous awards and accolades, including most recently the Automotive News 2022 All-Star Award for Software Innovation and Technology Innovators’ Top 20 CEOs 2022 in Automotive Technology.

Q&A with Maria Anhalt

AWS: The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Embrace Equity,” which is about both the individual and about systemically ensuring that policies, practices, and systems provide all individuals access to the opportunities, resources, and recognition to be successful. As an individual woman in tech, what have you seen done to embrace equity on a company-wide level?

Maria: Equity to me means that everyone has access to the tools and opportunities they need to be successful and to advance in the workplace. Equity involves fair pay, access to opportunities for growth, and accommodations in daily work experiences. Throughout my career, I realized that a lack of equity may not be one of bad intent. Often, leaders are not aware of their own bias and lack experience to address unconscious bias, accommodations, societal norms, and behavior expectations or role models experienced in childhood or even different cultures.

AWS: What gender-specific institutional fairness issues have you had to overcome during your career?

Maria: Very early in my professional life, I was exposed to differences in how people think and expect someone to behave, of what is considered “normal” and what is seen as an outlier. I was born and raised in Bulgaria. It was normal that both parents have a career. None of my friends had a mom staying at home. Even my grandmothers had professional lives. My mom studied Physics, and my dad studied Mathematics. At school, we had a woman computer science teacher and a man teaching mathematics. In my first bachelor year at college, we were maybe not 50/50 young women and men, but something around 60/40, in my computer science courses. It never occurred to me that women may be perceived as not being good at science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or that people may think gender played any role in selecting the subject of study.

Fast forward two years later, when I was doing my Masters in Germany. Out of 400 students, only 8 were women. We were the outliers, something strange, something unusual. You cannot imagine how often I had to answer the questions “what made you study computer science?”, “Are you happy?” and “Who asked you to do this?”

My responding to those questions with “Why not?” puzzled people. People commented that grades ought not be important to me, as I will marry someone from the university and not go to work anyway. That was when I realized how influential societal norms were. There is a power to role models and raising kids with the belief you can be anyone, do what you like, and do what you love!

Of course, there were also people who supported women in STEM. Those people congratulated me, saying things like, “Hey, that’s great to hear, you will be a terrific role model!“ Even 25 years later, people ask me how I decided to pursue computer science. I doubt any of my male colleagues get this question.

A second example was as a young software developer with few years of experience, I approached my project manager at the time with a status update. I started the exchange with “I have bad news today. Let me explain what’s the matter and how I suggest… .” He interrupted and asked, “Are you pregnant?”

I learned in those years that there are differences in how people see risks, that there are cultural differences in how people deal with pregnancy and kids, and later that there are even societal norms of what a “good mother” is expected to be. I learned new misogynistic terminology, such as Rabenmutter, which is a slur referring to women as neglectful or unloving mothers. I also learned about the double-bind dilemma, which refers to a situation in which an individual (such as a woman) receives two or more reciprocally conflicting messages, such as women being perceived as being both too assertive and too timid at the same time.

AWS: How did dealing with those issues affect you; what was the outcome? Was there institutional change?

Maria: It motivated me to take time to study diversity and behavior patterns, psychology, and cultures. Putting myself in the shoes of my peers or stakeholders and being aware of their thoughts have helped me to find ways to show that most of these stereotypes have no merit and can actually be a hindrance.

My greatest trait has been I was good at what I was doing. Very good, in fact, and competitive. I became a manager quite early, and I’ve always striven to capitalize on diversity and showcase its benefits. Most of the time I have had very international teams, people with various backgrounds and experience, and I have rotated people on purpose. Success speaks for itself. I like this quote by Susan L. Colantuono, a leadership expert and CEO and founder of Leading Women: “Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary results by engaging the greatness in others.”

Today at Elektrobit, women make up 40% of the management board. We have 71 nationalities at the company. In the past two years, women accounted for 25% of our talent pipeline, whereas most tech companies strive to reach the 12-15% mark.

My experience at Stanford was a true game changer for me. In 2016, I graduated the Stanford Executive Program, in which we studied the science of bias in terms of how it manifests. We did a multitude of tests and observations of ourselves. Across everything–finance, tech, gender–you name it, I was shocked to discover that I carried bias myself. And yes, that made me humble and aware and led to me paying sharper attention. It helped me to teach others and sometimes make subtle changes and work to see different perspectives.

One result is that today I rarely interview alone. Most of the time, I bring in people from various functions with different kinds of experience, including at least one who has no stake in the position in question.

Feedback is one of the most powerful tools to develop people and organizations. Demonstrate restraint and engage in healthy conflict, accept constructive criticism, and make people aware of bias. Building diverse, equitable, high-performance teams demand a much broader perspective, leadership commitment, and continuous work.

Today, we have many more role models of successful women in tech than 20-30 years ago. Most companies have a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practice in place. More and more have instituted formal reviews to ensure pay equity. There are tons of literature, recordings, and conferences that can help build awareness and educate your teams. And finally, there is a demand for even more equitable distribution of roles. More and more people, governments, companies are paying attention to DEI. Still, the progress is at slow speed.

AWS: What advice would you offer to women who strive to grow as leaders in tech?

Maria: Do what you love, and love what you are doing, regardless of societal norms. Mother nature has given you strength and capabilities. Make the best use of those by focusing on results, impact, and showing how you make a difference. Success is your greatest supporter. If you like technology, likely you have strong analytical and problem-solving skills. Use those to determine the root cause of issues ahead you encounter come up with solution alternatives.

Remember that business acumen is essential criteria to advance. Personal greatness is important, and the ability to engage others is valuable. But without business acumen, we cannot advance. Learn the science of business and enjoy it.

Finally, find a way to deal with your inner critic and impostor syndrome. For sure, there are a lot of materials you can leverage and learn from others’ experience.

AWS: What steps can others take to be better allies to women, what can we do to help our advocates inspire more fairness and equity?

Maria: Be role models ourselves! Treat others like you want to be treated yourself. Or even better, threat them as they want to be treated. And I explicitly do not mean women only; we all as leaders must amplify inclusive leadership and engagement.

Make dealing with bias a priority in day-to-day activities, reduce bias in how we evaluate and promote people, and teach others to be on the lookout for bias and inequities. Create a learning organization through continuous reflection, two-way feedback, and active embracing of diverse opinions and experience.

Coach and mentor what it takes to be a successful leader.

More about Maria Anhalt

International Women’s Day and #EmbraceEquity

International Women’s Day (March 8) celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for celebrating women’s achievements, raising awareness against gender bias, and accelerating gender equity.

The International Women’s Day theme for 2023 is #EmbraceEquity. This theme imagines a world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive, a world where difference is valued and celebrated. Collectively we can all #EmbraceEquity.

Amazon is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the company’s diverse perspectives come from many sources including gender, age, race, national origin, sexual orientation, culture, and education, as well as professional and life experiences.

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