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Speaking Up: Advice for Women in Tech From Canada’s Female Leaders

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In honour of International Women’s Day this past weekend, we took the opportunity to give the floor to three of many women that we admire in the tech industry. While it’s important to ensure that women and minorities in all industries are given platforms, it is especially imperative in a field as male-dominated as tech and IT. 

In the US & Canada today, women make up only 26% of the workforce in tech fields, with that number being even lower for the women who are in leadership positions within the field – even lower still for women of colour and LGBTQI+ individuals. However, as more young women are graduating from STEM programs every year, there are more and more opportunities for women to have impactful careers in this space. We spoke to Maral Taak, North America Automation Portfolio Lead & Global Lead of Cognitive Data Analytics at IBM, Carmela Caterina, Director National Projects, Ops & Planning at Intact Financial Corporation, and Alexis Gordon, Senior Talent Acquisition Partner at Nuance Communications, about their respective careers thus far and their advice for women looking to climb the ladder and shatter glass ceilings in Canada’s tech industry today. 

Q: What is an example of a hurdle you’ve overcome as a woman in a male-dominated industry? 

MT: You have to constantly prove yourself in a male dominated environment. When I started university back in 1995, we were only 7 girls in the entire engineering school for that year of entry. I got constant comments that beauty multiplied by intelligence doesn’t always equal to zero. My point is that respect is gained – you have to gain [men’s] respect one by one. Hold your ground and make sure they don’t cross the line. Don’t think that they should know better or that they know that what they said or did was wrong. You will be surprised by the positive effects speaking out could have. Most men don’t realize the damage their words or actions can have – it’s a constant education, but the majority of them are very very open and supportive.

CC: The hurdle I had to surmount on more than one occasion is being part of various teams confronted with women`s inability to support other women.  We as women need to call out that behavior. As women we need to stand up and support each other,  not oppose each other. Today I have the confidence and experience to call out that non supportive and obstructive behavior, so we have a direct impact on changing the culture for the better. Helping and supporting others on your team or in your company (regardless of gender) will benefit everyone. We need to set a goal to focus on the success and growth of our colleagues and cultivate an attitude of support and encouragement. With this mindset, you will take an interest in the empowerment of all your coworkers — including women.

AG: One big hurdle was learning to communicate differently. Men and women have different styles and reactions to communication. So, I’ve learned to be more fact-based and concise in order to better connect with a male audience. 

Q: What are your tips for women to ensure their voices are heard when they’re beginning their careers in the tech today? 

MT: Speak out and don’t let anyone take your enthusiasm away

CC: We as women need to get out of our comfort zones and speak up when we feel we need to. We must build our confidence one step at a time to be more vocal. How many times did we want to speak up only to hear someone else say or do what was on our mind? We must slowly develop confidence to speak up and learn to focus on how we say things as much as what we are saying. We can improve our vocal impact by practicing the right tone, adjusting our volume, and vocal pace or knowing when to turn it off (silence is powerful too). It is our voice that impacts our presence and credibility. As a leader I encourage everyone to speak up. A book I highly recommend is “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.” by Amy Cuddy. My advice is to seek a protégé/mentor, someone we admire and would like to follow, to seek as a go-to person for advice, to help through our career journey and growth and never stop seeking input from our trusted advisors. Give back too and eventually act as a mentor. This is an incredibly rewarding journey.

AG: I would offer much of the same advice – women may find it helpful to remain fact-based and concise in your delivery as men will respond to that better. You also have to have faith in your ability and talent; there will be tough times and you won’t always have people on your side rooting for you. You often have to be your biggest cheerleader and not be afraid to fail.

Q: What are your management and leadership tips for women leading teams made up predominantly of men? 

MT: To have a successful leadership team you need a balance of men and women as well as members of the LGBTQI+ community. Each individual represents different thinking methodologies and different points of view. Our society is made of people of all genders, so it’s very important for the leaders of the very same society to be made of all genders. So my advice is to not be shy and to bring your opinion on the table. Even if you get overruled from time to time, there is a reason they chose you to be at that table. You are as valuable as men. And keep telling yourself you can set an example for a future shy girl. You can be inspiring to them to reach their full potential.

CC: As a leader, my focus is people! One`s sense of observation and ability to listen and be in the moment should be acute as a leader. It is amazing what we can learn by simply paying attention. True leadership is about authentic empathy, respect, support, communication and transparency. You cannot fake caring for your people. As a woman I use my strengths which happen to be empathy, communication and transparency to make that personal connection and earn the trust of everyone on the team. My tip is to take the time to invest in getting to know your people, observe and listen, and your success as a leader will be facilitated immensely. A humble leader is one who is grateful and serves the team unconditionally. Admitting a mistake and learning from it is inspirational. We must empower our team and have faith in our ability to develop them. 

Q: What would be your advice for a woman starting out in tech?

MT: Always believe in yourself, and don’t let anyone define you. Have self-respect and respect for others. Establish from day one a set of work ethics that defines you. No matter what, stick to your work ethics and don’t let anyone, even your boss or your superiors, make you deviate from your work ethics.

CC: First and foremost, find something that you have a passion for that motivates, defines and drives you. It`s the drive that will provide the underlying strength, stamina and clear focus on what you want to accomplish, the impact that you want to have and the results that you want to achieve. This passion will give you the strength and resilience to overcome the most difficult times. It is the hard times that make you stronger and augment confidence in your own ability.  

Strive for excellence and not perfection. Perfection can be debilitating. Take the time to invest in yourself through continuous education, personally and professionally. Read, practice, rehearse, ask questions, defy the status quo and do not conform when you know it can be better. Be the best that you can be while retaining your integrity and remaining authentic to who you are. One of the fundamental pillars to achieving success in the workforce today, regardless of gender, is learning and mastering teamwork and collaboration. One can reach higher summits working well with others and eliciting collaboration as we span multidisciplinary teams and vast complex networks in our companies. “Talent wins games, Teamwork wins championships”. This is something to remember as lifelong career advice. Also never underestimate the power of networking and expanding your network.

AG: Speak up when you have ideas or need support. You shouldn’t feel discouraged if you don’t see someone in a role that you dream of but instead work to be that person for the next generation.  

How avansai can help

Are you looking to start a career in tech? Feeling stalled and need help advocating for yourself to ask for a raise or promotion? We can help you reach the next level in your career or simply offer advice. Create a Candidate Profile and we’ll help you find your next opportunity. 

*answers have been edited for length/clarity.