Reflections on International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month
In recent weeks, I have had several individuals share with me their admiration for the amount of time I spend listening to, advocating for and simply being there for women. Of course I was humbled by what felt like a compliment, but hearing this gave me pause. Why did these individuals see my actions as deserving of admiration as opposed to a core way of how we show up for each other in the workplace, the industry and our lives in general? What path led me to this way of being, how might I expand my impact and how might I encourage others to take a more active role?
This way of being has been part of who I am for my entire working life. When I joined Microsoft full time in 1998, my first manager was a role model for me. Laurie Litwack spent time getting to know me personally as well as to understand my passion and hopes and what unique perspective I brought. She thoughtfully created my first assignment to both leverage my skills and challenge me. Laurie showed me not only what it meant to bring your authentic self to work but also how it felt to be supported. Under her leadership I not only grew in the technical aspects of my role, she also nurtured my appreciation for people. Looking back, this experience was unique, especially for that era in engineering where there were fewer women and even fewer women managers. It shaped my values as a leader and my view on how you best engage people and support their development. It showed me the importance of being present.
Early into my career the VP of our engineering organization, Bill Vegthe, brought a group of women employees together to better understand our experiences in the organization. He genuinely wanted to learn from us what the organization could be doing better to support our growth and satisfaction. At the time, the number of women in the organization was low and this forum was the first opportunity many of us had to meet and spend time with each other. The most valuable thing we learned from the experience was the personal support and enjoyment that came from simply making time for each other. The isolation we each felt melted away when we got to spend time with others like us: creating connections, sharing experiences, learning from each other. We grew more collectively than we ever would have individually, and I personally benefited from both the friendship and wisdom of many of the women in this community: Terrell Cox, Jimin Li, Anna Hester, Farzana Rahman, Deb MacFadden, Molly Brown, Linda Apsley, Betsy Speare. This was true many years ago when this community was created and holds true today even as this community has scaled from a handful of women to thousands of women across our Cloud + AI Division who make up this Women’s Leadership Community (WLC) under sponsorship from leaders such as Bob Muglia, Bill Laing, Brad Anderson and currently Scott Guthrie.
As I grew in my career, the importance of intentionally building connections with other women only became more clear. In the early 2010s as I joined the technical executive community, I looked around and felt a similar experience to my early career days. There were very few technical executives who were women, and we were spread across the organization, meaning we rarely had the opportunity to interact and in some cases had never met! It was out of desire to bring the WLC experience to this group that our Life Without Lines Community of technical women executives across Microsoft grew, based on the founding work of Michele Freed, Lili Cheng, Roz Ho, Rebecca Norlander. This group represents cross-company leadership and as the connections deepened, so did the impact on each other in terms of peer mentoring, career sponsorship and engineering and product collaboration.
Together we are more powerful than we are individually, amplifying each other’s voices.
Although the concept of community might seem simple and obvious in the ongoing conversations about inclusion, the key in my experience is how the connections in these communities were built. This isn’t just about networking for the sake of networking; we come together with a focus on being generous with our time and our experiences, challenging each other and our organization to address issues in a new way, and with the space to be authentic within our own community by not feeling like we needed to be a monolith in our perspectives or priorities. We advocate for one another, we leverage our networks, we create space and we amplify voices of others. This community names the challenges these women face, names the hopes they have for themselves and future women in our industry, and names what is most important to our enjoyment of our work. My job, and the job of others leaders, is to then listen to these voices leveraging the insights to advocate for what is needed in the organization, and drive systemic changes that will create the best-lived experience for all women at Microsoft and in the industry.
I have found that members of the community want to be heard, if you are willing to be present, willing to bring your authentic self and willing to take action on what you learn. I’m reflecting on this, in particular, as I think about International Women’s Day (IWD). From its beginnings in the early 1900s through to present day, IWD strives to recognize the need for active participation, equality and development of women and acknowledge the contribution of women globally.
This year I am reflecting on the need to ensure that our communities of women accurately represent the diverse range of perspectives and experiences of employees and customers. Making sure that even in a community about including others, we are not unintentionally excluding certain groups of women who may not have the same experiences or priorities, or privileges as others. It is a chance to reflect on how I can expand my impact. I challenge all of us to take this time to recognize those who are role models for us and those voices who may not be heard and determine what role each of us can play in achieving this goal for everyone.