What prompted you to sign up to be a WIA mentor?
I've been lucky enough to have a wide range of experiences and roles in my career across engineering, operations, product, program management, marketing, business development, and having mentors along the way has been really valuable. Some were not necessarily active mentors, but leaders whom I observed in terms of how they interacted with, engaged, encouraged and motivated peers and employees. Others, including some of my bosses, provided useful insights that helped me better shape my career trajectory. I’ve been fortunate to work closely with leaders in various organizations, and given that not everyone has that proximity, I feel it is important to make time to share some of what I’ve learned.
Why do you think it’s important for both men and women to mentor women in this field?
One reason is that men and women experience the workplace a bit differently, and I think having both male and female mentors is important for all people, regardless of gender. It’s helpful to hear different perspectives to understand how individuals experience the workplace, and - from the mentor’s perspective - to learn how to be supportive in those situations and how to collaborate more effectively. If there's a woman in the workplace trying to advance in her career, and she happens to be in a male dominated environment, it may be particularly useful to get perspectives from both men and women.
So many women in this field say they are the “only woman in the room” in technical meetings. How do we change that?
This is a long-standing question and there are probably thousands of people who've studied this topic for decades and many have offered various ideas or policies. It’s interesting in this context that the 2023 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences went to the distinguished Professor Claudia Goldin, who is renowned for her research on women and the economy, and the factors that influence the success of women in the workplace.
One of the things that I believe she documented is that the career trajectory changes dramatically for women once they have a child, as many step out of the workforce or take a step back in their career, while men typically do not - allowing men to advance faster in their career. There may be other structural factors, as well. For example, women have historically been underrepresented in certain work sectors, not because of capability, but because of social norms. It takes time for society to catch up in order to have full representation in the workplace.
Those are what I would call the global factors that we can’t necessarily solve at a micro level. But I do think there's value in being aware of what the factors are and then doing what you can to support women in becoming more successful and prolific in the workplace. For example, if we know that having a child makes it harder for women to advance in the workplace as swiftly as men, what could we do as a workplace to enable women more easily reintegrate after they take time off?
From my personal experience, I think there's value in giving all employees an opportunity to discuss and understand workplace diversity. For example, sometimes what is perceived as somebody being rude, difficult or hard to work with may be experienced and interpreted by men and women differently. Some of that can be addressed through cultural (as in work culture) training about the types of situations that might arise at work, and effective ways to deal with them, or to be supportive to colleagues in those situations. All of this improves collaboration and the ability to provide women a more conducive environment to be successful. This training could also include providing opportunities for colleagues in different functions to interact in a more friendly or casual setting in the workplace in order to exchange thoughts and observations that might help break down barriers to collaboration and success in the workplace. Those are, to me, low cost activities that could be very beneficial, especially for someone who is in a minority in a workplace.
Having had a seat at the table in many of these meetings, what advice would you give to aspiring women?
Perhaps I wouldn't call it advice, but some thoughts for consideration. From my experience, I've found that people who tend to be more successful in the long term in the workplace are very effective communicators. If I look at the best leaders I've worked with, the colleagues who've risen quickly in their careers, one of the key traits they possess is their excellent communication. What I mean by that is they are precise, accurate and able to communicate in a very efficient manner, and in a way that's easy for people to understand. This is a bit of an underrated quality that I don't think is particularly emphasized for career growth, especially in engineering or operations functions.
The second recommendation that I would have is to be more aware of the fact that you're going to deal with all kinds of personalities at work. Building one’s innate ability and comfort level to navigate different types of work styles and personalities, including tough personalities, and being able to roll with that, can be very valuable. In terms of growth, I've certainly benefited a lot from that, in being able to say, “OK, this is how this person would like to communicate, this is how they like to work. Let's figure out how to establish a rapport with the person and get things done.”
As an extension, something I tell people who have worked in my team is this: if you want to become a leader, make sure that your peers respect you and would be willing to work for you or take direction from you. The more that rings true, the easier your career growth path will likely be. Needless to say, building that kind of respect from peers requires a person to focus on being the best at what he or she does, regardless of the field or functional area.
If you combine the first two recommendations with the desire and the goal to be the best at what you're doing, these three traits will take you a long way in my opinion. Along the way, when you establish mutual respect with leaders, you should feel free to go to them for advice, support or leverage in a way that helps you advance your career. If you want something, find a way to ask for it. You may not always get what you want, but don't hesitate to ask by saying, “I think this is where I'd like to go. Could you help me chart a path to get to this role or this level or this next step in my career?” Work with your manager on a plan. When you're young, you're starting a job, you're doing something interesting, you're not necessarily focused on a career path for the next 10 or 20 years. But once you're working for a few years, hopefully you get a sense for your passion, and which areas you really want to work in for the next ten years of your career. That would be a good time to find somebody whom you respect, who has some experience in the area where you want to focus on, and to talk to them about how you can set a path, versus going about your work one day at a time. What specific things do you need to do in your workplace, in your career, in the next two years or next three years that help you get to this destination in the next 5 to 10 years? That's the kind of conversation I would urge people to have much earlier in their career, as soon as they know what it is they really want to do, because it could save you years of your life doing things which may not be that helpful for you career-wise, and instead channel all your passion, your hard work, everything that you're doing into something that yields the best career return for you.
What can company leaders and managers do better to cultivate female leaders and change-makers in this field?
If you imagine a workplace where, historically, it's been more male dominated and only more recently you're seeing more women, you're going to start with a situation where most, if not all of the leaders, are men. And male leaders might be influenced by other male leaders in terms of how they think they should act, how they think they should behave, how they believe they should communicate, how they should manage teams. Some or many of these things may be different for a typical female leader in how she would want to communicate, manage teams, interact and lead.
One of the ways in which a leadership team can make it more conducive for women to become leaders is to be aware of these differences, to find ways to talk about them, and to help coach both male and female leaders on different types of work cultures and leadership styles so that women who get into leadership positions feel confident being true to themselves, rather than feeling compelled to mirror what they’ve seen in their male counterparts.
This is nuanced, but it is possible that some women feel that in order to gain respect or in order to be listened to, they need to act like other male leaders, and I don't think that's necessary at all. All you have to be is effective. You need to win the respect of people who are in your organization, deliver results and be an outstanding communicator. You can do it in different ways, and having a leadership team that understands that and provides the space for women to lead authentically and exercise their skills is important.
Women in Autonomy
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