Women in Tech Fireside Chat: Breaking the Digital Ceiling

Women entering the technical workforce often feel alone and the numbers prove it. The International Data Corporation (IDC) reports women only hold 24% of senior technology leadership roles. This comes with an extra punch of a pay gap and a lack of mentorship and support. It’s difficult to see yourself here when you look around and don’t see many people who look like you or share your experiences.

That’s why the MSIS Women in Tech Leadership Series provides resources and connection to uplift and empower women in the tech community.

Cynthia Tee & Rebekah Bastian

Two leading women, Rebekah Bastian, author of Blaze Your Own Trail, and Cynthia Tee, Vice President of Technology, Commerce at Nordstrom joined MSIS for a Fireside Chat to share their own lessons for embracing leadership and breaking the digital ceiling.

Lesson One: Embrace the Non-Linear Career Path

Rebekah challenged the MSIS community to consider the reality of the often-accidental, non-linear career. She presented a visual of her Seattle success story: a job at Microsoft, a move to Zillow, a stable upwardly mobile career, and now an author and business owner. But she said her reality “is more like a career jungle gym.”

Rebekah Bastian

“It’s a really important concept to explore. There’s luck, chance, and unpredictable opportunities. The more that you stay open to that and really embrace the climbing of the jungle gym and taking the swings, the more that you can really be on a fulfilling path.”

Cynthia echoed Rebekah’s description of the non-linear career path.

Cynthia Tee

“One thing I’ve learned from that linear path is that when you follow it, you tend to prematurely pigeonhole yourself and lock yourself out of things that you probably normally wouldn’t think of doing.”

Both women emphasized that milestones don’t have to mean only wins and successes – instead, the changes, detours, and “no’s” are often the experiences that shape your growth almost more than any other. Instead of admonishing themselves over missed opportunities or time spent away from a traditional career trajectory, both Rebekah and Cynthia credit their current leadership roles and job satisfaction to these experiences. Accept and embrace all that comes your way, both the professional and personal challenges. They define who you are, your experiences, and ultimately where you go.

Lesson Two: Practice Self Advocacy

Learning how to self-promote is not always easy, especially in a field where women are traditionally underrepresented.

If you want something, there are many ways for you to talk yourself out of not going for it. Rebekah encouraged the audience to identify opportunities available and ask for them. On this note, she shared, “There’s an old-fashioned notion that to be a leader, we have to know more than the person that we’re managing. I don’t think that’s the case. You don’t need to be technically stronger.”

Bunmi Sofowora

Oluwabunmi Sofowora
Data Science Analyst, Avanade | MSIS Class of 2019

MSIS alumni, Oluwabunmi Sofowora, asked the leaders how they have dealt with people who have failed to listen to their thoughts and ideas.

Cynthia said, “I have sometimes chosen to push back, but not always in a public display. You take your discussion offline. You often have to identify the person that you really need to reach and tackle the issue.”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. You need to focus on the outcomes and ultimately what you want. By practicing self-advocacy, you can open doors to new opportunities.

Lesson Three: Lead at Every Level

Leadership comes not only from the skills and ability to lead but the desire to do so at any level.

Surbhi Kabra
Data Engineer, Amazon Web Services | MSIS Class of 2020

Surbhi Kabra

MSIS alumni, Surbhi Kabra, asked, “How do we choose the right leadership opportunity for ourselves? What are the signs you would suggest that we are actually ready to lead even if we do not have the right kind of experience or the right number of years of experience?”

Rebekah and Cynthia both stressed the idea of building networks, finding a mentor and becoming one, and being open to experiences that may seem off the beaten track.

Cynthia advises you can take the initiative to mentor others and take on projects to demonstrate that you can build experience. She said, “Really ask yourself what five things you could do over the next few weeks to build that experience. Then, go for it.”

Authentic leadership requires being open to being vulnerable and wrong. Cynthia says she has to remind herself there are no stupid questions. The point is when you make a mistake, own it and move forward. It’s also empowering to talk about challenges and decision making. Bringing your whole self to work allows you to pursue your interests and take the first step to become a leader.

Throughout the discussion Cynthia and Rebekah reminded students about the importance of being authentic and intentional in their leadership. Students left the evening knowing that over time they will develop critical allies, mentors, and sponsors who will support them in their leadership journey as they break the digital ceiling! 

 

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