It took me a long time to find my voice at work. I finally did it by embracing motherhood. As we approach International Women’s Day, I’m sharing my tips for making teams more female-friendly.
Mary and her daughter on the road. For the past three years, the pair have attended Defcon, Blackhat, and RSA together to minimize time away from each other while Mary pursues her career goals.
I’m a proud cybersecurity veteran with two decades of experience. I've had an exhilarating career. I’ve travelled the world, written patents, hacked into banks (ethically), led teams of rockstars, and earned enough money to have a lot of options in life. I want more women to blaze their own trail in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, particularly cybersecurity and identity. This is an amazing career path for women. While not commonplace, I've led teams where women were the majority – in one case by 60%! I’ve seen what’s possible when you make diversity and inclusion a priority. Here are my top four tips to make your team more evenly split across gender lines.
1. Inclusive networking
The number one thing that has impacted my career journey was building a meaningful network of peers early in my career. This wasn't the kind of surface-level, "I just connected to you on LinkedIn" kind of networking. This was networking where I built trust, became your friend, went to your wedding, and watched your pets when you went out of town. The hard thing about networking in a field with an imbalanced gender ratio is that many of the opportunities to create deep and lasting relationships can be intimidating to a young (and possibly single) woman early in her career – late night drinking, gun ranges, paintball, and sports events. I endured them but wished they weren’t the only options. The networking events that were easier for me included breakfasts, group lunches, and movie premiers. My recommendation is to invite your peers to a breakfast or lunch.These are the most non-threatening meals of the day! Or, turn your one-on-one networking dinners into team dinners so they are less intimidating and more inclusive.
2. Make space
Working mothers face unique situations that are highly personal – like pumping breast milk in an airport bathroom (high five to all the ladies who have been there). Motherhood is hard, especially if you are a brand new, working mother. I recall my first work trip that required leaving my newborn daughter overnight for the first time. It felt like my heart was being ripped from my chest. For leaders with a new parent on their team, I suggest making remote participation available or hosting a meeting in their city and having everyone fly to them. Thinking this way will benefit everyone – not just new parents – struggling to balance personal commitments with work. You will be surprised at how effective people are if you support them. They will support you right back.
It's never easy when you feel like your peers don't understand you. Women in STEM fields can start to believe that their situations or feelings are unique or unrelatable. For example, my work requires frequent travel. I sometimes bring my toddler along, which also means traveling with her grandmother as a caretaker. Bringing my daughter is wonderful because it allows me to do my best work and then spend quality time with her before and after the work day. Not many of my colleagues arrive at a conference with a carseat or share their bed with a toddler. I don’t do this because it’s easy. I do it because it works for my family. Other women will have their own unique challenges. Perhaps they are caring for a sibling or dealing with an unexpected illness. Give them some emotional space to open up about what they need, and empathize so that they don't feel alone. It can be isolating to feel like no one understands your life. And it can feel energizing to realize that your differences are appreciated and celebrated, not simply tolerated.
4. Set an example
I try to be transparent about life as a female executive. As a vice president, I'm in a position that is highly visible at ForgeRock. I purposefully talk about what it's like to be both an executive and a parent. There are many ways to be a professional woman, and I want to be an example of what's possible. I also want to debunk the stereotypes of what an executive “should” be. I've brought my daughter to conferences, dinners, and the office. I made the decision to remove my strict boundary between my personal and professional life when I realized that I had been waiting my whole career for a mentor to share their life, parenting, and career tips with me. I couldn't seem to find that person, so now I try to model that role for others by being more open and vulnerable myself. Once I opened up, I found a large and eager audience that felt the same way I do. In fact, I can spot those women a mile away, and we give each other a knowing glance and often a hug.
Let's keep working on bringing more diversity, empathy, and inclusivity into these innovative and wonderful STEM companies! Happy International Women's Day!