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Female Tech Executives: Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Can Open New Doors

'One of the things that we should never compromise is approaching things as women and managing our lives and our careers on those terms because so much of what we perceive as success—a successful doctor, a lawyer, a CEO, a president, for example—are all roles inhabited predominantly by men,” says Fortinet’s Kim Visconti during a panel at the Women of the Channel Leadership Summit East.

Women navigating their careers must be authentic to themselves and redefine what it takes to inhabit senior roles typically occupied by men, said Kim Visconti, director of Southeast channel sales for Fortinet, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based cybersecurity company.

“One of the things that we should never compromise is approaching things as women and managing our lives and our careers on those terms because so much of what we perceive as success—a successful doctor, a lawyer, a CEO, a president, for example—are all roles inhabited predominantly by men,” Visconti said during a panel on leadership skills at The Channel Company’s Women of the Channel Leadership Summit East in New York City Tuesday.

In male-dominated industries such as information technology, it’s sometimes hard to maintain that authenticity, according to Visconti.

“We talk a lot about how we look and how we dress, how we talk,” she said. “What's the pitch of your voice—is it too low, is it too high, is it shrill? Are you too emotional? So what do these roles look like when they're inhabited by women?”

The key to promoting up-and-coming female middle managers and developing the next wave of female leaders lies in empowerment, said Barbara Kessler, global programs leader for Seattle-based Amazon Web Services’ partner network.

“We need to actively look for that woman in the room or that underrepresented person in the room and encourage them, even if it's separately … to take that risk, to take that next big step, to take on a challenge that's maybe outside of their comfort zone, and then follow that through with the right kind of support,” Kessler said. “But we also understand that, intrinsically in our environments, we're very concerned about failure, especially about failure in the face of our male counterparts or being perceived negatively as a woman in the workforce.”

Women also should “flip the tables on the conversation” when it comes to sponsors and mentors, Kessler said.

“We talk a lot about men as sponsors and mentors, but I think that we don't see enough of the opposite of that, which is women sponsoring and mentoring men,” she said. “We're bringing up that next wave of leadership. We need to help men better understand how women think, how they lead, how to work well with us. We need to open that up and turn the tables a little bit and get more men involved in that side of those relationships.”

While there are systemic issues related to women advancing in the workforce, women also sometimes hold themselves back, according to Michelle Pas, director of channel marketing and global programs at RSA Security, a Bedford, Mass.-based cybersecurity company.

“Sometimes I think I'm my own worst enemy,” Pas said. “I've stopped myself from advancing in certain situations. I haven't spoken up in meetings when I knew the answer or didn't feel like I should be interrupting someone. I think as you get more comfortable in your career, you realize someone was raising their hand—maybe a male counterpart, most likely—and they were picked for that next role. Depending on where you want to go—if you want to go laterally or you want to go up the ladder with responsibility—you really have to choose that for yourself and be comfortable with that decision.”

A challenge that women face is balancing all of their commitments, according to Pas.

“A lot of us have responsibilities for our children, as well as our parents, so we're trying to balance all these different roles,” she said. “We're multitaskers, so we're really good at lots of things. But I think that's the challenge. We don't want to push ourselves to move up the ladder because we have all these other things going on, and we're not quite sure how to fit it all together. That challenge of trying to balance it all is also a hindrance.”

Technology companies also need to reach out to younger people earlier in their schooling to foster diversity in recruitment and create a pipeline of diverse potential candidates for the future, according to Lisa Young, vice president of engineering operations at Presidio, a New York-based IT solution provider.

“We all struggle with that,” Young said. “The pool is not giant. We're doing a little bit more to market out for potential recruits. We do monthly recruiting webinars that that are focused on diversity and inclusion.”

That includes quarterly webinars for women and veterans.

“But the reality is … recruitment provides you with resumes for a position,” she said. “You're given what you're given. We need to look earlier in life. So we're doing a little bit more around … community outreach and [getting] more involved in local STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum] activities in some of our markets. We did a drone camp sponsorship up in the Northeast that was for middle-school women to learn a little bit more about technology. It helps build the pool for all of us.”

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