Women Engineers: Be Your Authentic Self to Get Ahead in Your Career

A lesson learned from this year’s IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference

5 June 2017

Be more aggressive. Speak up. Lean in. Those are some of the tips often given to women on how to build their career. But at the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference, held on 22 and 23 May in San Jose, Calif., many of the speakers warned attendees not to follow that advice. Instead, they say, being true to who you are is the key to being successful.

“We’ve been told to be more like men to get ahead. That’s not diversity,” said keynote speaker Sallie Krawcheck. She is CEO and cofounder of Ellevest, an online resource based in New York City that provides women with tools to help them achieve financial goals. “Coming to work every day acting inauthentic is exhausting and can backfire.”

Instead, Krawcheck suggests “leaning in to your natural qualities.” For example, women tend to think more long-term than men do, and often handle complex decision-making better as well, she said. Therefore, they are more risk-aware, and are able to disrupt homogeneous thinking.

The idea of leveraging one’s innate talent reverberated throughout the sessions.

A CAREER SHIFT

Several of the speakers acknowledged they were once in a position that didn’t suit their natural talents, and ended up switching to a job that allowed them to shine. Keynote speaker Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of business development at Microsoft, transitioned from engineering to the business side to follow her strengths. “My identity was that of an engineer,” she said—which made it difficult for her to consider another role. “But while I liked where I was, I didn’t love it.”

During Johnson’s performance reviews, she was told she needed to speak up more. So she’d go to meetings, speak loudly, and elbow her way through conversations. “That’s not who I am,” Johnson said. “I’m a listener and an observer. Speaking up is not my authentic self.” When she finally accepted that about herself, that’s when she decided to take the leap into the business side, and her career took off.

“Nothing is more uncomfortable than watching somebody be someone they’re not,” she said. “We don’t need to suppress who we are. Who I am matters more than who I’m supposed to be.”

Do what makes your heart leap, she advises, and trust yourself.

TRUE TO HER STRENGTHS

IEEE Member Courtney Gras has a similar story. She is the executive director of Launch League, a nonprofit in Akron, Ohio, that helps entrepreneurs launch companies. She told attendees how she worked hard to land a job as an electrical engineer at NASA, where she had dreamed of working since she was a child. Once there, however, she felt like an outsider and didn’t find satisfaction in her work. She quickly realized that something was wrong. She was concerned she had pursued a career that was not right for her.

Gras realized, however, that she might not have pursued the wrong major, just the wrong job. She read the book StrengthsFinder 2.0, which helped her gauge her strengths and weaknesses. She says she was surprised to learn that her natural talents are building relationships, communicating, and influencing people. At NASA, she was using none of those skills.

“We think careers are linear, but they’re not,” she said at the conference. “Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg describes them more like a jungle gym, not a ladder.”

Gras remained in the engineering industry but shifted to sales and consulting, and eventually became a tech entrepreneur. “Don’t let your degree become your glass ceiling,” she said. “If I continued to label myself as an engineer, I would not have the opportunities I do today.”

She concedes that not everyone has the luxury to take time off to figure out their goals, and what type of work environment they want to be in. She also had more than 100 meetings with people in her network to help her determine her direction.

When you’re ready for a career transition, Gras says, try to take time to make the next move, and “don’t panic.”

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