This is the best way to describe my experience both during the 2023 Women in Tech Boston Conference and in the subsequent time of digestion and reflection. Of course, it is nice to break up the work week, to get a change in scenery out of the office, and maybe even to push off the impending and ever expanding to do list at your desk. Still, the refreshment I felt and continue to feel is deeper and more satiating than some sort of pseudo vacation. The two-day affair offered perspective—instead of putting my work life on hold, I was taking a breath of fresh air, opening my eyes, and reactivating muscles that had quietly atrophied.
The first gulp of air I took was just being in a room full of hundreds of women. As an athlete in college, I was used to being surrounded by my team, a very close-knit group of about 30 girls; for years, this was my norm. When I started working at LABUR, I was one of two new female hires, part of a total four women in the company. Since then, we have both brought on more women and I have gotten used to my new norm, and the corporate America norm, of existing in a space with majority men. Still, it was incredible how quickly just being in a hotel ballroom filled with women brought me back into my old comfort zone. I knew immediately I was in a space where I could fully focus on learning, not just doing; this was a space of professional self-development.
After the conference, I was listening to Machiavelli for Women: Defend Your Worth, Grow Your Ambition, and Win the Workplace, by Stacey Vanek Smith, a book recommended during the conference by Shannon Gath, Chief Information Officer of Teradyne. As I followed Vanek Smith connect lessons from 15th century Italy to present day, I realized why it was so easy to settle into the women dominated environment. Vanek Smith focuses heavily on communication for women, what the most effective ways for women to speak, be heard, and be understood are. Unfortunately—spoiler alert—these tips and tricks involve a bit of contortion work by women. What works best is sometimes what feels the worst: smile more, soften the harsh email with exclamation points, frame new ideas in terms of helping the team versus your own improvement, etc. In order to have the best chance of success, women need to twist themselves into a pretzel that is not too small to be ignored, but not too big to draw the wrong kind of attention; not too sweet to dismissed, but not too salty to be bossy. At the conference, no bending, tying, or knotting was necessary, everyone understood. In fact, everyone could unwind, rest and stretch their tired muscles, and relax the constant state of high alert.
Not only did the conference create an environment conducive to learning and development, but also, the conference gave a platform to incredible speakers. Just seeing a woman in a c-suite seat, or as the leader in their field was eye opening, let alone being able to listen to their expertise and advice. With presentations ranging from “AI in Wealth Management” to “How to Design the Career of Your Dreams and Achieve It,” not only did I get a better understanding of the IT landscape outside of our boutique IT firm, I also could understand where women fit into that landscape, and where we could grow. I will admit, not everything I saw was filled with butterflies and rainbows, there were certainly dragons, but seeing the full picture provides opportunities to improve. I was able to step outside of my bubble, out of the fog of my cognitive dissonance, and what I saw, unicorns and ogres alike, energized me.
In addition to her great book recommendation, Shannon Gath’s talk, “How to Unleash Your True Leadership Potential,” highlighted three keys: awareness, trust, and opportunity. The Women in Tech Boston conference certainly helped grow my awareness and build my foundation of trust. Debriefing with my fellow female colleagues, it was clear we were all energized, ready to find and capitalize on opportunities and support one another along the way. The road ahead will still involve contortion work, it will not be perfect or easy, but it will be purposeful.