Facing career fears to get ahead was a central message of this year’s IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference. The annual event, which brought together nearly 1,000 women in technology including top executives at Intel and Qualcomm, was held 21 and 22 May in San Jose, Calif.
Speakers had many personal stories and career advice to share, but their overall message to attendees was clear: Build your confidence and demonstrate your value at work.
Do Something ‘Scary’
Paula Tolliver, one of the first speakers, said that when she began her engineering career, she had modest dreams. She’s now Intel’s chief information officer.
“It is possible to be at the top of your profession in a male-dominated world,” Tolliver assured attendees. She pointed to a picture of the bronze Fearless Girl statue, which depicts a child standing defiantly in front of the Charging Bull statue near Bowling Green in New York City. She said she got where she is today by taking several risks in her career, even when she wasn’t sure she was ready.
“You have to go after the challenging, and sometimes scary, opportunities,” she said, “because those are the ones that will really stretch you.” She added that people who want to reach top executive positions need to accelerate their career at a faster pace.
One of the leaps she took that turned out well for her was helping to open a new Dow Chemical office in France, where she didn’t know anyone or speak the language. And two years ago, she left a post at Dow that she described as comfortable to assume a more challenging role at Intel.
In another talk, IEEE Member Nishita Henry, federal technology practice leader at Deloitte, echoed Tolliver’s advice. “Always be a little scared,” Henry said. “If you’re too comfortable, then you’re not growing, you’re not changing, and you’re not challenging the status quo.”
Advocate for Yourself and Speak Up for What You Need
Women earn less than their male counterparts, regardless of experience or hours worked. Although many groups seek equal pay for equal work, one speaker advised attendees not to “wait for legislation or the results of an election.”
Eryka T. Johnson, a brand strategist, author, and speaker, urged women to speak up for themselves by asking for what they deserve at work—especially early in their career. “Women between the ages of 18 and 25 experience the largest pay gap,” Johnson said, “with male colleagues at the same level making up to 29 percent more than their female counterparts.”
Instead of telling your boss you deserve a promotion, Johnson said, be prepared to outline the positive impact you’ve had on the organization. “This may include increasing production, facilitating safer operations, or building relationships with customers,” she noted. You’ll also want to find the “win-win”—how advancing your place in the organization can benefit both you and the company, she said. And if your contributions aren’t so obvious, find ways to make yourself more visible to upper management, she advised.
James Lukaszewski, chair of the Lukaszewski Group, a crisis-management firm, expanded on that idea in his talk, “Influencing Leaders.” His advice focused on how to get your boss—or your boss’s boss—to listen to you. He noted that it should take only about three minutes to get your point across, whether it be a request or a solution to a problem. In the first 30 seconds, he said, you should introduce what you’re going to talk about, explain the situation and why it’s important, and indicate where the discussion is headed.
“Even if you’re continuing a conversation from last week, a busy boss might have forgotten it by now,” Lukaszewski noted. “When you’re proposing something, think about their needs—not just your own.”
Many of the speakers said a business cannot have successful employees without supportive managers.
In her “Power of Change” talk, Qualcomm CIO Mary Gendron said there are four elements of successful leaders: They must be authentic, be present and engage with their employees, be transparent, and uphold a vision.
“I feel much more comfortable being myself,” Gendron said, “and doing so made being a leader easier. It helped me connect with my teams on a personal level, engage them in real conversation, and look out for their well-being. You have to learn to lead using what’s inside you.”
She added that diversity—whether it regards age, race, or gender—is not just about “checking a box.”
“Diversity allows for constructive conflict,” she said, adding that diverse teams are more innovative because they bring different viewpoints to the table.
She said she encourages her team to “speak up and challenge assumptions, even if they’re mine.”