There is nothing special about my career path. Like most people’s mine has its highs, lows, and a few dead ends. I have things I excel at (speaking my mind) and things I wish I did better (less rumination would be nice).
What still makes me unique is simply the combination of some technical aptitude and my gender. One day it won’t be the case, but, I am sharing the mistakes specific to the path I chose as a woman in technology in the hopes that others starting out will avoid them.
Avoiding my mistakes is easier today thanks to social media and the online connectedness it brings. I hope you find my advice helpful, at the very least feel free to laugh along at my blunders. Be sure to join the conversation by sharing your lessons learned in the comments.
1) Be Human.
Apologies to Stevie Wonder, but I was uptight and not alright. I was usually the only female in the room, almost exclusively the most junior person in a room full of executives and speaking from a perspective (data) that few understood very well.
I was all business all the time. I needed to be taken seriously and did not allow any of my personality to seep through. I did not dress casually on casual Fridays, and even wore glasses in meetings to appear more knowledgeable (Don’t ask me to justify the correlation between poor eyesight and smarts, if it made sense I wouldn’t be including it in my list of mistakes).
Yes, I built a reputation based on integrity, for getting things done. The downside was that I came off as robotic; uninterested in those around me; uncaring. This was honest, 360 feedback from people on my team. On top of this, it was exhausting, because that is not who I really am.
Now when people meet me, they get a combination of a woman who knows her stuff, admits when she doesn’t, remains curious AND is comfortable making pop-culture references (which, again, sadly date her), laughs at her missteps and shares her lessons learned in a candid manner.
Combine the best parts of your personality into your professional life. Leverage that sense of humour or your flair for creativity. It is always easier to test the waters and dial things back if they do not benefit you. (Your humour should never be at someone else’s expense; if your boss wants less creative flair in a report, follow her suggestion). Tell people about your recent vacation, talk about what you did on the weekend. You are in control of how much you share, so I encourage you to do so.
Today, cultivating a personal brand online is perfect for demonstrating all the wonderful ways your personality and professional life intertwine. You can post insightful industry updates via visually stunning images, topical videos or through in-depth long-form posts that reinforce both your technical chops and a more personal/creative side that may not be part of your everyday work life.
2) Seek Out Female & Male Mentors
I really hit the jackpot early on with fantastic male mentors. They were supportive, gave constructive feedback and absolutely helped to shape my career. For some reason that I have not yet figured out, I did not actively seek female mentors until about halfway along my journey. What I missed out on in those critical years was the enhanced perspective that is gained when you receive mentorship from men and women.
The advice and insight I did receive from male mentors was incredibly useful. It may very well be that some of that advice was different than what they would tell another man, either purposefully being aware of the additional challenges a woman might face; or unconsciously, as part of a conditioned workplace response. It could be that there was no difference whatsoever.
What I do know is that once I broadened the pool of mentors to include males and females I could better see the differences in the suggestions given to me. This is not to say that I receive better advice from either men or women, simply that I benefit from access to a greater variety of previous experiences and therefore have more options to consider.
When it comes to mentors, always be on the lookout and be prepared to play the long game. It took months and even years in some cases for me to be both ready to ask for and receive the insight given. Mentors do not always have to be senior execs: wisdom and experience are earned at all levels.
You will naturally try to find mentors who fit your ideal career goals, but I will challenge you to also look for mentors who demonstrate qualities that you admire, regardless of their title. Consider yourself lucky to receive life lessons from someone who truly ‘walks the walk’.
Do seek a balance between genders. If your mentors are currently all male or all female, identify and lay the groundwork to connect with a mentor who is the opposite. Understanding how your challenges are viewed by respected men and women results in deeper insight into the differences in perception, and subsequent action recommended.
3) Get Involved in Industry Organizations
I learn easily on my own. I dove into courses, books, publications…anything I could to increase my technical and business knowledge. I changed industries a few times so there was always something new to learn, and then once I found data, it seemed that information came from a firehose simply to remain current.
It worked, but I had no one to point my questions to. No one to challenge my understanding of what I learned. (It goes without stating, no LinkedIn Groups or other mainstream online portals to connect through).
When I finally connected with other data professionals, the concerns I had been facing alone became part of the collective frustration that is our existence (Fact: data is not sexy and most people don’t care about what we do until the numbers don’t look right).
The first time I attended an industry conference I was astounded. The disparity in male to female attendees really hit home when we took a break between sessions. The line up for the men’s room snaked down the hall while I waltzed right in! That may sound great, but I’d rather have to wait in line because there is an equal ratio of attendees.
When I started to attend events for women in technology I found acknowledgement, shared experiences and positive reinforcement. I did not have to go it alone. It was freeing and also provided new avenues to increase my understanding of the industry and the possibilities available to me. Women often struggle with networking. Belonging to a Women in Tech group will get you out of your comfort zone (avoiding networking events at all costs) and that in itself, is a huge win for you.
Get involved. As with mentoring, be selective yet broad in your approach. As a woman in tech, join a local or national organization that supports females in STEM fields, and then bring a bunch of coworkers with you. Mentor and champion the women you meet, but don’t stop there.
Sign up for online groups, attend local meetups and industry conferences. Scour the list of upcoming conferences and events and ask to join panels or be a presenter.
Yes, it can still be daunting. These industry events still experience low rates of female attendance – that is the point. Show up and be heard. Get to know the other women who attend, and invite more women to attend with you; nominate yourself for the national boards that plan those events.
These three were my most obvious blunders looking back to the early days of my career. They resulted in extra stress and a feeling of isolation. Care to share your best/funniest mistake and lesson learned? Please start a conversation in the comments below.