I’ve been in IT for nearly 20 years. In high school, I set my sites on a degree in Computer Science at The Ohio State University and never looked back. While I was attending OSU, I had the privilege of joining the Beta chapter of Phi Sigma Rho, an engineering sorority. I was thrilled to find strong, motivated women with big goals and dreams like my own. Many of these women are still dear friends of mine today. These women were and still are amazing advocates for women in technical and male-dominated fields. During this time, I accepted an internship the summer after my sophomore year at a local engineering and surveying firm. 20 years later I’m still in IT – running my own thriving consulting firm with a wonderful business partner, I love what I do every day, and I work with amazing people that I’m proud to support.
I’d like to think I’m not old yet, but I have plenty of experiences to share from my career path. I’ve been in the front row, watching the evolution of IT in business. As a result, I have to admit that I’m very comfortable in this male-dominated field – to the point that helping in my kids’ classrooms is more likely to make me nervous than presenting to an assortment of business leaders. It’s so commonplace that I’m the only female in the conference room that I’m pretty sure I stopped paying attention to that for a while. A more recent push and growth of support for STEM as well as a swell of support for girls in technical fields has brought the issue to the surface and I’m suddenly and painfully aware of the disparity…*especially* as my interactions have gone from IT staff to IT managers and now to directors and C-level employees and owners of companies. Sports references? We’re gonna knock this one out of the park! Dirty jokes? Yah, they don’t bother me, nor do I take them personally. Posturing, egos, assumptions on my skill set – I’m used to it. Not only am I female, but I’m also told I look 10 years younger than I actually am. I walk into a new client or meet new peers in the industry and I’m told “you speak very well” – like it’s a surprise! I’ve been doing this for 20 years; speaking well is definitely what I’m aiming for…thanks guys!
A long time ago, I made a choice
I can let these things bother me and hold me down, or I can take them as a challenge. It just pushes me even harder to succeed. What is better than walking in a boardroom and unexpectedly knocking their socks off? I know I can do it. I’d like to think I get away with being more approachable because I fall outside of business standards and stereotypes. This means I can more easily define that client relationship based on who I am as a person and not who they expect me to be.
If I could go back to my younger self and give advice…..
There are a few things I would change, for sure. However, I would rather talk about the things I did that I’m really proud of. I didn’t mean to do them; I was just being myself. By no means do I think that there is a magic answer for success, but I would love to share what worked for me in hopes that it gives you confidence to go out there and just be yourself too. Nothing shows confidence more than by being true to yourself, standing up for what you believe in and doing the best that you can do regardless of your circumstances.
Ladies – you know we tend to be great organizers right? I don’t subscribe to the notion that you have to give up your God-given abilities to become one of the guys; take what you’re good at and use it. Early on in my consulting career at a small IT firm, I found myself being the one to organize social events. I just loved hanging out with coworkers that I considered friends. I would also run after work with whomever wanted to go. It was during these times that I would learn more about what made them tick, about their families, and even what some of their insecurities were at their job. I also learned in one of those runs that my current manager felt that I was management material. I remember that moment to this day because back then, I didn’t realize I was ready. It was a huge boost to my confidence and a spontaneous moment that could’ve taken until my yearly review to be exposed in a work setting.
Be open to feedback from someone who is NOT a mentor
There are times when feedback from a superior or a peer can be really hard to take. You know what’s even harder to absorb? Someone you really dislike giving you really good advice. I’ve always been someone who compartmentalizes well; I think I try to find the good in people even when I don’t necessarily like them. I had a manager that I disliked (more clearly, he was the reason I eventually quit that organization). He stopped me one day and said – you are GOOD at SharePoint. You need to do SharePoint. Stop trying to prove you’re as good at the guys [at the more popular technologies] and do what you excel in. He was SO right. I hated that he was right. But he was and it was a career-defining moment.
Men can be your mentors too
I know that compared to men that we have different questions, insecurities, expectations, and communication styles. Every woman should have a female mentor at some point in their career. However, if you are struggling to find the right mentor, you should absolutely consider a guy! If I’m being completely honest, some of my female managers were the least influential in my career and there have been men that were among the best. I read once that mentors find you and not the other way around. I think that’s not entirely true because if you work at it, I do think you can find people willing to help your career. But often, very naturally, you find that a particular manager has taken you under their wing. Mentorship doesn’t have to be something formal where goals are set and regular meetings take place. Consider that if a manager is really hard on you compared to someone else, that its possible they see the potential in you, and they are actually pushing you to be better. Be alert to who is helping you in your organization – who will take extra time to get you what you need? Who is pushing you in a way that results in your best work?
Set clear boundaries
This one is a pretty serious topic. As a business owner whom survives on networking skills and keeping in touch with people for no particular reason other than to stay connected, this one is incredibly important for me personally. It is VERY easy to give someone the wrong impression. Guys can call each other up and meet for drinks. Ladies have a lot more to consider about the timing of that meeting – what we wear and how we present the invite. I once had a mentor that I was no longer able to continue to pay for his career coaching services and he offered to keep coaching me in a limited fashion. We’d meet for lunch and I paid for it, seemed reasonable to me? It became clear he had ulterior motives and I realized that he didn’t have an interest in my career, he had an interest in *me*. It may seem a little naive of me, but I really thought lunch was harmless, and I wrongly thought that he really saw enough potential in my skillset that it was worth his time. All men are not jerks, clearly, but you do have to stay watchful, be aware of your surroundings, and be aware of behavior. Follow your gut – more often than not, you’re probably right.
Like water off a duck’s back
On the opposite end of the spectrum…sometimes you DO have to let it go. The world isn’t perfect. People can be hurtful, make bad assumptions, and make stupid comments. I’m embarrassed to say there have been more than a few times that I too have been guilty of assuming the female in the room was not a decision maker. People make mistakes and maybe the guy who made a bad assumption about you did it innocently, and he might become one of your biggest advocates later on. One of the best things you can do is to give people a second chance. Guess what? Guys have to prove their value too. Don’t be so proud you can’t put your head down and work. Let your work speak for itself. You don’t always have to come in swinging if someone has said something off-putting. Use the opportunity to prove them wrong. Also, keep in mind that the bad guys are still going to be successful sometimes, and you need to get over it and just do your own thing!
Hanging with the guys
Despite the struggles to prove myself and the awkward and uncomfortable situations I’ve been through, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’m stronger for it. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t change things for my niece, or my son’s future wives, or all the girls who want a comfortable and safe place in their career. At the end of the day, I’m realistic that these things don’t happen overnight. Do men need to change? Absolutely! But we need to change, too! Be bold, take risks, speak up, and be clear about what you want. Most importantly, as women, stand by each other. I love the quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Treat everyone with respect, fight for what you want and what is right, be real, and be yourself. You don’t have to tear anyone else down to get where you are going. Spend your time building your network to take with you on the way up!
I want to end this article by thanking the guys in my life who have supported my career – my dad Jerry, who has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, my husband John who Leans In (especially when I travel), my business partners Mark and Jeff for believing in me, and former managers Matt, Jason, and Mike – who have continued to support me and push me to be my best for over 11 years.
I hang with the guys, and if you want to pave the way for more women in technology, you should too. #IStandByYou