You may have heard by now: It Was Never a Dress.

Paired with a striking visual — a public bathroom sign reconfigured so that the female form is wearing pants and a cape — the words have lit up social media recently, challenging the public to shift its perceptions about women.

Arizona-based software company Axosoft says the response to the campaign, which it created “to empower our next generation of developers,” has exceeded its expectations. “We knew it was big, but this has just been overwhelming and humbling,” says CEO Lawdan Shojaee.

Aside from some of the typical online grumbles (e.g. “This is stupid.” “Is this really all women have to complain about?”), the response to the campaign has been largely positive. Still, some have suggested it seems like a slam against traditional femininity. “I wear dresses and I’m proud of it,” says one TakePart.com commenter. “Is there something wrong with that?”

That’s not the point at all, says Sara Breeding, who created the campaign with Axosoft’s Curator of Code, Tania Katan. “Although we’ve imagined it as a cape, why can’t you wear a cape and a dress?” Breeding says. “Why can’t it be a lab coat? It can be so many things.”

Perhaps one reason “It Was Never a Dress” has been so successful, according to Breeding, is that it’s accessible to women and men alike. “There’s nothing anti-men about this campaign,” she says. “A lot of campaigns that try to advance equality blame or exclude men. We wanted to make sure there was nothing favoring one sex or the other.”

So far, more than 18 million impressions have been generated on the #ItWasNeverADress Twitter hashtag, along with thousands of stickers given away–not that Axosoft is counting.

“We weren’t worried about metrics,” says Shojaee. “We’re more concerned about shedding light on women’s voices.”

Giving a voice to women is particularly important to Shojaee, who is a double rarity as a leader in a state (Arizona) and sector (technology) short on female CEOs.

“When you walk into a pitch, a female’s voice is not recognized to have the same impact as a male’s voice,” says Shojaee, who cofounded Axosoft with her husband, Hamid, in 2002. This doesn’t discourage her, however. “It’s just been more of, well, let’s make sure that my voice is heard.”

So how does she ensure her voice rings loud and clear? “I’m concise. I go into meetings prepared. I know what my topic is, and I know it very well.”

Perseverance, too, is key. “I keep going back, even if I felt that I wasn’t welcome there. I tell myself, ‘Go back. Do it again. There will be another day.’ And it’s paid off so far.”

When the Shojaees started Axosoft, they decided Hamid, who had founded two other companies previously, was the most natural choice for CEO. In addition to working alongside her husband building the company, Lawdan pursued other big life goals: Working on her doctorate and having children.

Fast forward to two years ago. Axosoft had started a side project called Pure Chat, which proved so successful they decided to spin it off into its own company.

“We had a choice to make as a husband-and-wife team: Do we hire a CEO for Axosoft, or do we [hire] in-house and [Hamid] goes on to be CEO of Pure Chat?” They chose the latter path.

“Bringing in a CEO would have completely destroyed the culture that we’d spent 12 years building here,” Shojaee says. “The culture and the people mattered far more to us.”

The Axosoft and “It Was Never a Dress” websites echo her sentiments on culture: “We have a team of women and men who care deeply about creating a vibrant tech/life ecosystem for everyone to feel included, celebrated, and like the freaking rock stars they are.”

When asked specifically how she fosters gender diversity and inclusiveness, Shojaee offered the following:

“When you want to hire a certain subset of people, you have to go where they’re at. So I go to events where I can recruit females. I mentor females in the community. I make sure that I get myself out there, and I represent who I want in this company.”

One unique employee perk that’s been a hit with female employees is the necklace wall, a large feature in the office that functions like a jewelry lending library. “You come to work and you had a busy morning. You had to take your kids to school. ‘I forgot to put a necklace on and I would feel nice if I had one on.’ Well, it’s right here for you.”

Necklace Wall (1)

Here’s what else you’ll find at Axosoft:

Work-life balance: “I lead with health and happiness first. Then I know that the product will sell itself.” The company offers employees onsite fitness classes, plus team-building exercises and events coordinated by a director of happiness.

Collaborative environment: “We have a flat hierarchy. We do not have managers managing people. We have team leaders that manage ideas and projects that are on the company roadmap, but there are no managers managing people here.” Katan explains her experiences as such:

“A lot of my friends and colleagues in the arts and culture sector would say to me, ‘What could you possibly do at a tech company, Tania?’ And what they didn’t realize – and what I’m realizing – is that this space at Axosoft is infinitely more collaborative, supportive and playful than any space I’ve worked in,” aside from her career in theater.

Willingness to be human: “I’m not afraid to show my emotions,” Shojaee says. “Whether I’m happy, crying, screaming, excited or not, I share that with my team. They see exactly who I am. I don’t have a different personality in the office. If I need to get up and dance a little bit, the team’s going to see me do it, and they’ll probably join in. And if I need to sit down and get serious, then I also do that.”

Emphasis on culture fit: The Axosoft interview process is about six hours altogether. The first two hours are for evaluating a prospective hire’s skills. The rest is culture fit. Culture is so important, in fact, the company pays new hires a $2,500 bonus to leave within their first 30 days if they feel they made a mistake accepting the job. According to Shojaee, just one employee has taken that leaving bonus since they implemented the policy.

Axosoft and Gutsy Broads share a common philosophy about female empowerment, one that Shojaee summed up perfectly at the end of our conversation:

“One female at a time. We will help each other. We will all get to where we need to get to.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.