25 years ago I was one of 3 women in Engineering Physics at McMaster University. 4 years later, when I began work as a Systems Engineer, there were still fewer women than men. In most of my career in IT, it has been this way. I still don’t see equal representation of gender, even a quarter of a century later.
On a personal level this has never mattered to me. I’ve studied, worked and been successful, and to my mind, gender challenges were not something I ever thought about.
But taking the time to complete an assignment for the course Women in Leadership: Inspiring Positive Change, from Case Western Reserve University, taught by Dr. Diana Bilimoria, gave me a chance to see things in a new perspective.
Our assignment was to interview a woman in our industry and talk to her about the challenges she faced and how she overcame those to be successful.
Here is that interview, along with some of my perspectives:
Jennifer is a retired CIO and she began the interview with her family background. Along with her mother and father who was a businessman, she was brought up with 4 brothers. She admitted there was not as much maternal influence in their household with so many males. She recalled things such as fashion were not important, and her mother taking a more male approach to raising the children. She displayed an aptitude for math and science and this led to studying economics at university. At the time, in a class of 60, there were 4 women. But as these things go, her professor approached her to change her major to Computer Science that “just sort of turned a corner.” Jennifer found her future career.
At this point in the interview I was reminded of growing up with 2 brothers, my own mother not being too focused on the feminine side of things allowing me to get out of learning to make roti so I could study math and physics (I’ve never learned). And then that quirk of fate where in Grade 10, I moved high schools, and the course schedule giving me Grade 11 advanced computer science to take. Yes, I knew that ‘turning of the corner’ Jennifer talked about — where a new fascinating world all of a sudden opens up, just because someone takes the time to convince you to make a daring move.
Early Career & Marriage
Back to Jennifer, who is now moving on to the work phase of life after having set the stage to how she’ll deal with upcoming male–oriented challenges. From a retiree’s point of view, Jennifer clearly saw the years in her career as the most demanding phase. She did get married and her husband’s career required moving. They talked and had a deal: they’d move for his career because in IT she could always get a job in any city– IT was a portable career. Jennifer paused here to say it’s critically important to a woman’s success, who she chooses to marry. The wrong choice can hold you back. If it’s not someone supportive, with shared goals, shared mutual interests, and a matching desire to be successful, then this would be a huge barrier to overcome.
Again at this point, I thought of who I married. We are a match with shared goals. We even took time to write down our goals 20 years ago (all of which have come true). My husband is supportive; he’s pushed me to advance in my career where he saw my potential when I didn’t even see it. I remember him coaching me to ask for a huge 33% raise to bring my salary up to industry average. I thought it was impossible, and he told me to ask with confidence, show no doubt, and give them every reason to say yes. He was right. He was equally supportive when I took a step back in my career to be at home more with the kids. Yes, again I’d have to agree – who you marry is a critical factor.
“Having children is a huge challenge if you’re career oriented”
There are some obstacles that fall to one partner more than the other. Having a sick child typically fell to Jennifer to deal with, for example if she was local or had more flexibility in her career. To deal with this, Jennifer visualized balancing an imaginary rectangle, keeping the pins on the corners as:
- Supportive partner
- Healthy Children
- Reliable daycare
- Work or a Career that engages you vs. just being a “job”
If one of these corners got unpinned, you could manage, but if more than one went out at the same time, things could become too challenging. Having all four in place was ideal.
My own experience shows me I’ve always had bullet one and mostly bullet two, fortunately. But bullet 3 and 4 have been out of sorts quite often – the darkest years were trying to juggle child care with a job I was working over 60 hours a week. In those first few years of balancing children with work we went through all kinds of daycare – live-out nanny, live-in nanny, private school, and multiple home day cares before we found the right fit. With a demanding job to deal with at the same time, it was the hardest time of my career.
“2 Stages in a Working Career”
Stage 1: “The bright young thing”
In Jennifer’s early career she recalled people got excited by her youth and vitality. The people in position of power in her career were mostly men and some do pay extra attention, and are motivated to help – some from a fatherly/helper perspective, some, maybe not. The point was there was attention.
Stage 2: “Now, you’re helping the bright young things”
At some point, you’re no longer looked upon as the bright young thing and are expected to help the new younger set.
This was a perspective, I’d never looked through to my own career. My first reaction was to say no, this was not true. But if I could have Jennifer’s honesty, I’d have to admit as a woman there is a different dynamic when you work mostly with men; there was a lot of ‘velocity’ as a young, bright, woman at work. I did get noticed. And now on the other side of 40, I’d say it definitely has changed. There is a chemistry when you’re younger, but you have no idea of it until you get older, and it’s gone.
Advice for success:
- Be clear you want more. Communicate it in positive ways. e.g. say you want to learn from a person in a higher position.
- Network – make connections. The people in your network are the people who help you.
- Ask yourself – what are people going to say in the room if you’re not in it?
- Will they (a) actively help you, or say positive things on your behalf? Or (b) will they not say anything at all?
- Deciding who will get promoted is often done behind closed doors, and how you’ve worked your network will reflect if people speak up for you.
- Jennifer says she thinks of what her Mom and Dad have told her: “Be careful how you treat people on the way up. You’ll meet them on the way down.”
- People support you – they want to. Give them a reason. Tell people you did a good job. Say you’re up for a challenge. Make sure you develop sponsors.
- Create the impression of value. If the client didn’t know you did it, you didn’t do it. Promote yourself.
- Work the Bias — Recognize it’s there. Accept it and use it. To move up can mean having men sponsor and champion you. If they are biased because of the bright young thing – use it.
- Replace yourself so you can move on. Jennifer took 3 “short” maternity leaves – 3 to 4 months vs. 12 months and came back to higher positions – asking for promotions and being table to take them because she had replaced herself.
- Accept your characteristics. Play at the edge of them.
- Take risks – let go of old jobs. Trust something new can come.
- Women can be women’s worst enemies.
- You can’t do everything. Some say they want it, but don’t do what it takes. It was hard taking less than a year maternity leave but your career is much longer. Know what you want and what you’re willing to do for it.
- Don’t be impatient – when you’re young you want it all, fast. It takes work, and there will be obstacles to overcome.
- Choosing a career that is portable helps.
- Be ambitious. Know the next move.
I feel after this open and honest conversation, that I’ve just seen into a journey. The beginning, middle, and end. There were successes, yes. But there was also strategy – knowing your values, choosing a partner who aligns with you, planning your career moves, even around maternity leaves.
I think the real success here is having a career you can look back on and not feel regret. Knowing all along what you want, and doing what it takes – while still staying true to yourself.
So I asked myself – does being a woman in male-dominated work place make a difference?
Yes, I have to admit, it does. There are different considerations and strategies. And it can be confusing without the clarity Jennifer has, turning back, and looking at herself from the vantage of retirement. I think having a coach, mentor, sponsor, supportive partner (or all of it) is a big success factor. The other success factor is having the clarity and taking the calculated risks that is critical to any upward moving career.
Call to Action
I would recommend, and many of these are suggested exercises from the course:
- Create and write down your personal leadership vision
- Have accurate knowledge of your strengths – ask others, don’t rely on your own perceptions
- Know your values – the VIA survey of character strengths is a great tool
- Know where you may lack self-confidence and plan to work on those areas
- Create a map of the people in your work area or an area you want to move into. Identify who is supportive of you, who is neutral, and who may not support you. Network and build relationships.
- Raise your level of awareness about workplace politics. Understand the culture and unspoken rules.
- Work on improving negotiation skills. In the course we either role-played with a friend or in real-life practiced using the BATNA (Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement) process. Do this before asking for a raise, or other work-related negotiation as a dry-run. Experience builds confidence.
- Work-Life integration. Understand what “pins” are critical for you to be happy. In the visual model picture I took, what label would you put on the pins? How many are there? How often do you check in to see that the pins are in place?
- What does success mean to you?
- Fill in the blanks to begin the process of defining what success means to you:
- To me, success means….
- To achieve this success, I need to ….
- When I am successful, I will be able to….
- Fill in the blanks to begin the process of defining what success means to you: