Succeeding in the Virtual Workplace: Women in STEM

December 13, 2020

Women have time and again proven their mettle in the workplace, and yet, for a myriad of reasons, there continues to be a gender imbalance in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) space. Adastra believes that merely providing equal opportunity to men and women is not enough, and that it is our responsibility to inspire and encourage more women to choose a career in STEM.

Our mission of building a strong future for women in STEM is not limited to our own organizational practices, and we aim to promote an inclusive, cross-industry, dialogue for women at all stages of their career. As a first step in this direction, Adastra recently brought together a panel of successful, accomplished women in technology to share their experiences and offer advice on succeeding in the new normal.

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Our Panelists

  • Kelley Irwin, CIO, Electrical Safety Authority and Co-author of ‘Please Stay: How Women in Tech Survive and Thrive’
  • Keran McGuire, VP Technology Infrastructure IGM Financial Inc.
  • Jennifer Gibbs, Head, Global Chief Data Office, TD, recognized in Forbes’ list of Women Defining the 21st Century AI Movement
  • Linda Dietrich, VP Delivery & Technology Investment Planning Counsel
  • Kathleen Rawson, Director of Business Strategy and Planning, Enterprise Architecture & Platforms BMO

The virtual work environment has posed some unique challenges, and the panel deliberated on some questions that are top-of-mind for women as we look to learn and grow in our career.

How does the new normal enable success in your career? What challenges do you face and how can you overcome them?

Many of us have had concerns about whether this remote, virtual way of working will enable success in our careers. Not being able to connect with your team and manager face-to-face on a daily basis has not only impacted the “human connection” but has also made it difficult to get noticed at work. Kelley Irwin, CIO at the Electrical Safety Authority recommends focusing on the upside. When the pandemic started, her team moved the entire organization to remote work overnight, and she was given an opportunity to train the employees on the new tools. “For IT, expectations have exploded this year, and IT leaders have finally got the visibility they deserve. The new normal has allowed IT leaders to step out of traditional roles, take on different functions, and really demonstrate their strength and resilience,” said Kelley. “Connecting people was one of the biggest challenges during this time, and while people in tech have always been good at connecting people with tools, this year has allowed them to demonstrate their ability to connect people as a community, so they can feel like a part of the team,” she added.

Not being able to meet your team every day does not mean that ‘human moments’ are no longer crucial. Kelley emphasized on the need to personally check-in with the people you work with, to take a breath and ask how they are doing.

Keran McGuire, VP Technology Infrastructure at IGM Financial Inc. stated that “The technology agenda in our organization has leapfrogged two years, and we had to quickly develop organizational change management documentation for new technologies, video calling, etc.” Like many other working moms, Keran had to balance her busy work schedule with taking care of her young children. “It is okay to tell people when you need to take a break,” she said highlighting that while this may be a different time compared to last year, many of us are in the same boat.

How do you get noticed at work and achieve excellence in the virtual workspace?

Linda Dietrich, VP Delivery and Technology Investment Planning Counsel, who started a new job in the middle of the pandemic, does not see much difference in getting noticed and established with people in her new remote workplace. “Getting noticed is typically about two things – doing your work well and building relationships and finding opportunities to connect with people,” she said. Since meeting face-to-face is not an option in these times, she started turning on her video during calls. “People need to see you and put a voice and face to a name to get to know you. Video helps in making that personal connection.” To excel at work, she recommends using technology to connect and work effectively with people, and favors calls and video calls over texts and email. “As far as possible, I also try to separate my workspace from my personal living space. I find that taking time to get ready for the day puts you in the right frame of mind for work and helps you be more productive,” Linda added.

Video is a powerful tool to connect with people on a personal note. “In the beginning, people in my organization were not sure about the expectations/protocol regarding video calls and would keep their videos off. I started encouraging them to turn it on, even if only for just a few minutes, to check-in before we got into work-related discussion,” echoed Kelley.

It is important to own your ideas in order to get noticed, and “While it might be harder to get your point across in video, make sure you add to the discussion if you have something of value to contribute,” said Kelley.

When it comes to making connections while working remotely, women need to be more intentional and apply conscious effort in finding opportunities to connect with people. This applies to LinkedIn connections, networking, and volunteer work as well. Kelly advised younger professionals to start by offering help. “Ask your senior colleagues about what they are working on, listen to what that involves, and offer your technical help. This can expose you to new people and things that may be beyond what you otherwise learn. Moreover, it will make people happy and they will be more likely to remember you. Make sure you follow up by asking if it was of value to them and convey that you are trying to learn something from the experience. Don’t hesitate to ask for feedback or a recommendation once you have delivered a good job,” she said.

How do you connect with mentors virtually?

Mentors can play a strong role in defining your career path, guiding you through challenges, and encouraging you to make better choices. According to Jennifer Gibbs, Head, Global Chief Data Office, TD, who has always worked with remote teams, working virtually will provide the opportunity to action some basic networking best practices. “It is important to be intentional in looking for networking opportunities or mentors. Invest time and be thoughtful about who you want to meet and why you want to meet them. Be open and aware of the fact that you can bring them value as well, and that these relationships should always have a mutual exchange of value, so spend some time deliberating on what you bring to the table,” Jennifer advised.

While meeting someone face-to-face is important during networking or mentorship, video calls work just as well. “Ask ahead of time if they are comfortable being on video. In my experience, virtual meetings can enable deeper relationships now that you would also be seeing their home, pets, or family,” said Jennifer.

“Your network is your greatest career asset. Leverage it to connect with other people’s networks by understanding who your bridge connectors (connectors into other people’s networks) are. When you get connected to someone through somebody you know, you are much more likely to get that person’s attention,” she added.

Kathleen Rawson, Director of Business Strategy and Planning, Enterprise Architecture & Platforms at BMO, also mentors interns and fresh hires in her organization. “Mentorship is a wonderful tool, but it can take a few tries to find a suitable mentor. Those who want to learn more on a specific topic, like conflict resolution or tips on a particular type of documentation, can also try to find coaches,” she said.

“Remember that it is up to the mentees to drive the conversation, so it is important to have an agenda and know what you want to get out of the session. Be open to feedback, as it is an opportunity for learning,” Kathleen guided.

What role do men play in supporting women in STEM?

There is no denying that there is a strong gender imbalance in STEM. “If we ever going to get to a place of balance, it will have to be through a combined effort of men and women,” said Keran. “The fact that there are so few women in tech and that you might often be the only female in the meeting room can be intimidating. Demanding hours and overnight implementation work also cause many women to drop out of the field. I was lucky to have a male mentor who not only encouraged me to get and stay in the operations space, but also actively tried to create more balance in the workplace.”

Linda points out that it is not just men at the work who need to support women in STEM. “The support of men is also crucial at home. Men need to encourage the women in their life to explore different areas of STEM. Traditional gender roles need to be balanced, and for women to have a work-life balance, it is important that husbands/partners view the relationship as a partnership,” she said.

What advice would you give to women starting or trying to advance in their career?

Kathleen’s interest in technology sparked early in her career when technology was still new to the banking sector. Since then, she has had opportunities to learn and grow in the same organization. “I advise young women and those looking for a change to be open to companies that will give you an opportunity to add to your toolkit or skillset. Start by doing research about the companies, their hiring managers, policies around diversity, mentorship programs, etc. Prioritize the ones that are aligned with your values and goals. Use your network to connect with people who are in roles you find interesting or people who may know about the companies you have shortlisted,” said Kathleen.

“A job is not just about money. Prioritizing the values and culture is extremely important when it comes to finding a role that makes you want to go to work each day and a company that you are proud to work with,” Kathleen advised.

Jennifer looks at a career as a journey of learning, growing, building relationships, and creating value. “If you are always focused on reaching the next goalpost, you are not paying attention to how you are experiencing things along the way. Embrace all of it – not just the realization of a goal or getting a promotion. Learning happens every day. Even when you are struggling, try to focus on what you are learning at the moment,” she said.

“Learn how marketable you are. Women tend to discount the work they can do easily, without realizing it is not easy for everyone. Those are your superpowers! Focus on the value those things can bring, and learn to tell that story,” recommended Jennifer.

Questions from the Attendees

Women of color tend face more hurdles at work and have to work harder to get access to networks and opportunities. How do you tackle these hurdles?

“Do not give up,” advised Keran. “There are a lot of disheartening moments, but there are a lot of supportive people out there. It is important to find those people in an organization and create a network of people who have your back.”

“Know what you bring to the table and be confident in yourself,” adds Linda.

How do you handle situations where other women are being roadblocks in your career?

Kelley suggested learning quickly if the other women you are working with are ‘friend’ or ‘foe’. “If they are a friend, leverage them. If they are a foe, try and mitigate the negative impact they may have,” she recommended.

Adastra is committed to building a culture of inclusivity in STEM, empowering women who are new to STEM, and supporting those who are starting their journey with the tools and advice they need to navigate the challenges that lie ahead. The panel discussion focused on a small sub-section of the questions that are top-of-mind for women, and we intend to continue and expand this dialogue. Adastra is creating a LinkedIn community of strong, supportive women to share ideas and advice.

Whether you are looking for advice or willing to lend support, join our LinkedIn community: Adastra Women In STEM Network | Groups | LinkedIn

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