When I started working at IMA, and in the technology field in general, it was challenging being a woman in a male-dominated industry. In fact, I was one of only two women in my graduating class at the technical school I attended, and I was the only woman to graduate at the top of my class. Over the years, I’m happy to say, I’ve seen a change in the field where it isn’t as male-dominated anymore.
One challenge I experienced at the beginning of my career was that my male peers didn’t take me seriously. Here’s my list of tips for women (and men) who are starting a career in technology.
1. IT ISN’T PERSONAL
In a professional environment, you need to have thick skin and not take things personally. Keep your communications and expectations unapologetically clear. People are there to get a job done, not necessarily to make lifelong friendships. And while critical feedback is part of the job, I set the tone from the outset that my interactions shouldn’t be any different because I’m a woman.
With the IT field still dominated by men, I recognized early in my career that it was up to me to articulate my ideas assertively, to assure they were understood and acknowledged, and to demand that my work gets the respect and attention it deserves. It takes time and perseverance to lay this groundwork. But my team came to recognize that I know what I am talking about and that I expect to be consulted accordingly. It isn’t enough to have the capabilities—you need to do the work to earn and maintain the respect of your peers as well.
2. STAND YOUR GROUND
Don’t feel like you have to conform to fit in or to get ahead. No one wants a “yes” man or woman. It’s okay to say “no” and to disagree with your peers and managers. A respectful conversation goes a long way. You just have to know how to appropriately articulate your argument and debate in a healthy way.
3. PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
At the beginning of your career, look for a role that will allow you to utilize the skills you’re confident in—whether it be soft skills like public speaking or hard skills like coding. At the same time, though, keep in mind your weaknesses so that you can build them, continuously learn, and ultimately better yourself. Any good manager, leader, or employee needs to be able to step outside their comfort zone to grow personally and professionally, enhance themselves, and overcome their fears.
4. GET A MENTOR
We all know the value of a great mentor. Personally, I looked to the strong, successful women in my life and constantly asked them questions and bounced ideas off them. I chose leaders who I aspired to be like and tried to emulate the good qualities of each mentor. At the same time, I kept in mind their not-so-good qualities to avoid building those into my work personality. You have to take the good with the bad and learn from both angles.
Two of my most influential mentors over the years have been Pat Stefanczyk, CAE, IMA vice president of governance and volunteer relations, and Doreen Remmen, IMA CFO. Both Pat and Doreen have strong personalities but tend to handle situations differently. I learn something new from them every day.
5. LEAVE YOUR MARK
My last tip is to master your handshake. In business in general, a handshake usually starts and ends a conversation, and you can tell a lot about a person by his or her handshake. A strong handshake can leave your colleagues feeling impressed with your confidence, whereas a “dead fish” handshake may leave people feeling uncertain. I mastered my handshake and have been told over the years that I have a heck of handshake for a woman. I made sure mine is firm, strong, yet endearing.
As you become more comfortable in your skin, in your skill sets, and in the value of your work, you will start to make a name for yourself in your organization and the marketplace. It sounds cliché, but to an extent, we really do control how other people perceive us and treat us. Your peers are going to treat you the way you allow them to, so set boundaries and goals for yourself and stick to them. Listening to strong, successful women helped me realize that I’m one of them. And you can have these experiences, too!