Build strong work relationships. Find a mentor, and consider a sponsor. Work hard ― but carve out time for life outside of work. All these things are so important for the advancement of women to the highest levels of an organization, and they are just a few pieces of advice that OpenText senior leaders shared at a recent panel discussion at the University of Waterloo (UW).
OpenText is a proud sponsor of the Women in Computer Science Committee (WiCS) at UW, with a goal to empower women to pursue careers in technology, computing, engineering, and become leaders in their fields. On September 28, Jen Bell VP, Chief Communications Officer at OpenText hosted a panel discussion for female computer science students at UW featuring OpenText leaders Renée McKenzie, EVP & Chief Information Officer, and Tracy Caughell, Senior Director, Product Management.
This candid discussion was full of advice on overcoming challenges like unconscious bias and imposter syndrome. Here are some key takeaways from their discussion that left attendees inspired and ready to take the next step in their careers.
JB: Renée and Tracy, you’ve both shown your ability to thrive as leaders in the technology industry, which has historically been male-dominated. Could you tell us what sort of challenges you have faced while navigating your careers, and how you overcame them?
RM: When I started in the workforce, working in the tech field was not a nine-to-five job. It still isn’t. Technology doesn’t rest ― you have to be available and meet deadlines. At that time, I was the only woman in the room, and I had to explore my boundaries early on. I was a single mother, and I had to leave at 5. I had to pick up my daughter from daycare, make dinner, and focus on being a parent. I was happy to go back online later in the evening, but I had to educate the men around me that I couldn’t stay until seven, I couldn’t do the after-work socializing, or work Saturday at the last minute, because childcare was my responsibility. I had to make sure that they understood those boundaries, and the rationale behind them. I wasn’t doing less than the peers around me, but my time scale had to be a little bit different if they wanted me at the table.
TC: What I noticed in working at a very large global company with over 15,000 employees were the cultural differences. I see this not so much as a challenge, but as a learning opportunity. When I returned to work after my first maternity leave, I was in a part of the world that I’d never been to before, and someone asked me who was looking after my children. I told them, truthfully, that my mother was, and it seemed like everyone breathed a sigh of relief at this “acceptable” answer. I learned that it’s important to be aware that everybody has a different perspective in life, and it’s important to be openminded in places around the world you’ve never experienced before.
JB: That’s very true. And people tend to make sense of our world by organizing it into categories, which gives rise to unconscious biases about various social and identity groups. In the tech industry in particular, gender bias leads people ― including women ― to believe that women cannot build tech skills as successfully as men, or don’t have the leadership qualities needed for a successful career in technology. What do you think we should be doing to overcome gender bias in the tech industry?
RM: First, we need to recognize that unconscious bias is real. We all have biases ― it’s what we learn as we grow up, and we take this forward into the workplace. Secondly, we need to identify our own biases. Do you expect notetaking to be done by a woman in a meeting? Do you accept that the whiteboarding of a technical design will always be done by a male colleague? Write your biases on a piece of paper, and you’ll see where you need to adjust. The next step is to have the voice to call it out, because it’s not only about you ― it’s about what you see around you. When you see someone always deferring to a woman or man for a certain task, call it out. You can do it in private, but when you see it, say something, with courtesy and respect. We all must solve the problem together.
TC: Once you understand that you grew up believing a bias, that’s when it becomes conscious ― and then you need to do something about it, right? When you realize that about yourself, it can be unsettling. There are many ways to handle it, but always handle it with grace. Maybe you decide to rotate tasks among the group to address something you notice before it becomes a problem.
JB: We all celebrate the well-deserved success of women who’ve achieved fulfilling careers as leaders within their own organizations. But sometimes, women have a tendency to feel that they don’t deserve their success ― this is “impostor syndrome”. Have either of you ever been affected by impostor syndrome, and if so, what strategies do you use to combat it?
RM: Imposter syndrome is very real for me. It was something I experienced early in my career: Am I smart enough? Am I fast enough? Is there enough quality in my work? And yet I continued to be promoted. I had those questions in my head because I always wanted to be better and do better.
I thought once I reached a certain level in my career, it would stop. It didn’t. But those voices got quieter because I’ve learned to cope with it. I have a rational conversation in my head to pair those sentiments with the facts: “I haven’t done this task before, but I know I can do it. I have these peers to rely on, this sponsor to go talk to, this plan that I know is going to be effective.” After walking myself through this logical conversation, I come out the other side: “Yeah, I’ve totally got this. And I’m the best one to do this thing!”
TC: It also helps to remember that you got the job because you deserve it. You are really qualified for the role, and you earned it. Keep making yourself better, and then earn your next step. You can’t possibly know everything, but you need the confidence to know that you’ll be able to figure it out.
JB: Great insights from both of you. I would also add that having a network of people that you trust is very important. Your colleagues, whether inside your organization or out, can help raise you up when you’re feeling self-doubt. At OpenText, we’ve created a Women In Technology group, which is an empowering group of women from across the globe, at all levels within the organization. These women come together to raise each other up and challenge unconscious bias, as well as processes and policies to advance the female perspective and female leaders within our organization. I mirror exactly what you said: Find a support network, practice self-reflection, and be kind to yourself. You’ve got this – don’t allow yourself to get in your own way.
I love this next question: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
RM: I was mid-career before I figured out who I wanted to be at work. So, I would go back and ask myself to figure it out earlier: Who do I want to be at work? What’s that persona? How do I want other people to perceive me? What the influence I want to have?
I wanted to be seen as somebody of quality, somebody of commitment, somebody who is not just passionate about what they do but willing to do what it takes for a successful outcome. It’s not just about getting your work done. Think bigger from the get-go. I also decided what I wasn’t going to do at work: I wasn’t going to be a note taker. I wasn’t going to bring in cookies. These things may seem trivial, but for me, they formulated a persona of who I was going to be at work. Of course, it’s followed up with doing your job exceptionally well, putting in the time, and making peer connections. But find out who you want to be in your journey. And value yourself high. Ask for the salary you deserve. You’re smart, you’re educated, you’re successful, and you’re passionate. Never underestimate your value.
TC: That’s really good advice. To add to that, I would say that everybody’s journey is different. For example, I like to be the note taker, because I like the sense of control over what happens next. If I could go back in time and give myself a piece of advice, it would be to make sure to make time for myself. I tend to be a workaholic and push myself to be an expert in everything I do. You can do that, but remember to carve out personal time. To be honest, it’s something I’m still working on.
JB: Very good pieces of advice. One thing that I have really found valuable when I started my career was having a mentor, and it’s something that I pay forward now. Could you speak to a mentoring relationship that you had that was really impactful, or maybe you’ve been a mentor to someone, and it’s been quite impactful?
TC: I didn’t have an official mentor, but there are a lot of women in our organization that are really good role models, and I would look at how they handled similar situations. There are also a lot of men that have been great role models for me. As for being a mentor, sometimes it’s simply encouraging somebody who is struggling. Take the time to ask how you can help. That’s all it really takes in some cases.
RM: Having a mentor is very helpful. I’d recommend going one step further and get a sponsor. A mentor is someone you can go talk to: How would you handle this scenario? What would you recommend? Find someone that you trust. A sponsor is somebody who raises your visibility when you might not be in the room. This encourages awareness of your capabilities not only within your department, but to leaders across the organization. So, when someone says, “hey, I wonder who could do this”, and your sponsor is in the room, they may encourage your leadership team to think about you. This is a really powerful way to help advance in your career journey. And then, you pay it forward.
OpenText is focused on the advancement of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (ED&I), by committing to having a majority ethnically diverse workforce by 2030, 50/50 gender parity within key roles by 2030, and 40% women in leadership positions at all management levels by 2030. Read more about OpenText’s bold goals in our 2022 Corporate Citizenship Report.