6 Career Insights For Women In Tech From The Anita Borg CEO
When Brenda Darden Wilkerson received a call from a recruiter about potentially serving as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology, the world’s largest organization for women in technology, she didn’t think she was qualified and didn’t respond for two months.
She had been an educator for 30 years, including as Director of Computer Science and IT for the Chicago Public Schools and pioneered the Computer Science For All program to educate all 400,000 Chicago Public School children in computer science. During that time, Wilkerson also collaborated with the Obama Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith, on their various computer science education initiatives. But qualified to be President and CEO of Anita Borg? Not in her mind.
Then, as she recounted to me on my podcast, http://greenconnectionsradio.com /" aria-label="Green Connections Radio">Green Connections Radio, recently, she heard her own words to her students playing back in her head. “What made me finally consider it was, here I was encouraging all these young girls to get into computer science and telling them, if they learned, all these opportunities would be for them….So, when I thought about it, I said, now that I’ve encouraged all these young women into the pathway, let me go fight for all these changes that need to happen.…I saw a young girl in my mind saying, ‘Mrs. Wilkerson, you told me that if I learned this…’ ”
That was three-plus years ago now and she’s thrilled to be in her new role at http://anitab.org /" aria-label="Anita Borg">Anita Borg (it turns out that Megan Smith is the one who recommended her for the job).
I asked Wilkerson for advice for women in mid-career in technology and STEM more broadly, and here are a few of her suggestions:
1. Say “yes”: Realizing she was getting in her own way by believing she wasn’t “enough” for the Anita Borg CEO job was a big wake-up call for Wilkerson. If she had not heard her own advice in her head, Wilkerson would have passed up the opportunity of a lifetime. “We want to be more than we need to be to get started,” Wilkerson explained. “The data show that men will take a look at a particular job description, and if they feel like fit about 40% of it, they go for it and try to sell themselves. And if women look at the same job description and they find one thing they feel they’re lacking in then they won’t even try or go after it because they feel they are not the one.….That’s one way we get in our own way, is we don’t try to go after things that we are uniquely the ones that are missing.”
2. Believe you are the missing piece: Here’s what she means. “Think of it this way: We’re what’s missing. We’re over half the population, the table where tech is created has maybe a quarter women, most of them pushed around the lower rungs, not in leadership. That means that our ideas and our strengths are not at its (sic) fullest because we’re not well-represented throughout.”
Wilkerson explained that women’s unique experience is not being considered in the development of important technologies that impact every aspect of our lives – and that can be dangerous. “So when you show up…you’ve got an entirely different perspective than the majority of the folks there, so guess what? You’re what’s missing….We need to show up authentically as women, and share our perspective, because that’s what’s missing… in many of the solutions that are out there today in technology.”
3. Create the club: Women have been conditioned, especially in technology (and STEM broadly) to try to “fit in,” often contorting to do so. “How do we change that?” Wilkerson asks and then answers her own question: “We show up authentically and we be uniquely who we are. We stop trying to join the club and we make the club. It’s like you make your place.”
And bring others along who have also been left behind. It builds a community of supporters in your workplace and that creates its own power. “Show up strategically,” Wilkerson said. “I’m gonna make my suggestions, you’re gonna support me. I’m gonna support you. I’m gonna let down my ladder. We’re going to get ourselves organized. That’s how any change takes place.“
4. “Continue to learn”: The world moves very fast and if you stop learning, you’ll get behind before you realize it. So, Wilkerson emphasizes a key to career growth is “to stay current, continue to learn…Set aside two hours on a Tuesday night, for example, to investigate what are the types of skills I need to advance my career.” She pointed to all kinds of free courses online, including from Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale, in Coursera, Udemy, and other sites.
5. Join a community of women in your field: When you join a professional organization, whether it’s Anita Borg, or the Society of Women Engineers, or other ones in whatever field you’re in, you “learn from each other, and you have access to potential career and networking opportunities, resources and mentorship.
6. “Work from where you are”: Wilkerson reminds us that we don’t need to make a radical career change to make a difference. “Be willing to be a intrapreneur… Bring your passion for what needs to be fixed, because you’re the one who sees it. Work from where you are….You can work within an organization to do amazing things.“
And, as Wilkerson’s own story illustrates, even if you doubt yourself at times, which is totally normal and healthy, trust the opinion of people who recommend you for an opportunity. It might be an assignment, a project, a new job in your same organization or something completely different.
If they think you can do it, go for it and learn as you go.
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