As we approach International Women’s Day, it feels timely to reflect a little on some of the topics near and dear to my heart when it comes to women and work.
I recently sat on a panel to speak on women in IT, where I was asked to share my experiences as a woman in the tech industry and field questions from the audience of post secondary students. I have participated in a number of these panels over my 20 plus year career in tech, and it struck me during this recent event how we consistently seem to focus on our many negative experiences, but don’t spend a lot of time highlighting positive experiences – nor do we spend an inordinate amount of time helping men be better leaders.
For this post, I spent some time reflecting on my career, all spent in the IT industry, and while many of the unfortunate and painful experiences crept into my mind, they were met with many wonderful memories of strong, compassionate and engaged male leaders, who truly did their part of make the workplace a more positive experience for me.
I would like to share just a sampling of those stories with you.
Leaving Your Femininity Intact
In one of my first leadership roles, I reported to a Senior Director who had a long history in management consulting. He had worked for many years in the IT and Engineering sector and worked along side many bright women. One piece of advice he gave me during our time working together was “KJ, be ok with being a woman, and all the things that come along with it. Don’t lose your femininity trying to turn yourself into a male.” He shared how he had watched so many women dress like men, act like men, and even read books on how to portray themselves with male body language. He expressed how sad it made him to see.
He made it ok for me to embrace who I am and what I bring to the table as a female leader. I have never forgotten that advice. Today, I am 100 percent comfortable with who I am, and value the differences I have over my male counterparts. We approach problem solving differently, and it makes us a better leadership team because of it.
I took an executive leadership role at one point in my career and went into the role as the single mom of 2 busy and athletic kids. I remember feeling extremely apprehensive going into this role as I would be operating on a team of predominantly males, all who had either no children, had stay at home partners to handle their home life, or at least a spouse to share life responsibilities with.
I was worried about how I would be able to keep up with the rest of them. Would I be treated differently? Would I be given less responsibility? Would I be able to progress within the company at the same pace?
During my first week, I was to have a one-on-one with the CEO of the company. During our meeting, we spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and getting to know one other superficially. He then took on a very serious and direct tone, and said “Kathleen, I understand you are a single mom, and that is something I wanted to discuss with you.” I froze in panic. I had no idea what was going to come out of his mouth, but there isn’t anything that could have prepared me for what he said next. He proceeded to explain that single moms hold a very special place in his heart. He shared that he was raised by a single mom, and he saw first hand the perseverance and strength of the single mom. He went on to share a barrage of statistics around the fact that children of single mothers prove to be more successful in their careers, and often end up in highest paid, and most influential roles in our society. Something I wasn’t even aware of.
This situation is an example of how a leader (any leader) can take the opportunity to know and understand an employee. He took the time to know who I was, and what my life was all about. He was able to immediately put me at ease in my new workplace setting and allowed me to relax into my new role knowing there was no judgement. I didn’t once feel held back in that role or treated any differently because of my life circumstances.
I am still a flourishing senior leader working for this CEO today.
I have many other stories, but I do hope this small sampling sparks motivation for other leaders to critique their own leadership styles and ask yourself; could the women you have led in your career share stories like these? If not, it’s time to get busy making those moments happen!
Happy International Women’s Day!
Kathleen Jay is Maplewave’s VP of Product Delivery. When she’s not helping take over the world at Maplewave, she spends her free time with her 2 kids, helping local non-profits, or participating in Women in Technology initiatives and conferences.