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Uniting Women in STEM Leadership

For Suzanne Jacobs, her typical workday includes heading into her office at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC), where she manages a team of seven IT professionals for the company’s “Innovation Garage”, a team she says was created to create positive disruption in the IT space by solving healthcare problems through innovative technology. What’s not so typical, at least seemingly, is that all seven of the employees she manages are men.

On the surface, it may seem against the odds for a manager to have a team comprised entirely of male employees, but it’s certainly not uncommon for women working in tech spaces to be in the gender minority. In fact, only 28% of professionals working in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) today are women, and a whopping 83% of senior roles, like Jacobs’, are occupied by men.

This past June, though, Jacobs experienced a somewhat rare phenomenon: For three full workdays, she was in a room full of STEM professionals comprised entirely of women.

These women, who work in fields ranging from engineering, to analytics, to manufacturing management, were gathered for NC State Executive Education’s inaugural Women in Technical Leadership program, a professional development program designed for women like Jacobs to explore the unique challenges facing women who work in traditionally male-dominated fields.

“I’m the only woman on my team, but it doesn’t occur to me on a daily basis. I’m used to it,” Jacobs said. “And yet when I spent three days in a room full of women, it showed me a dimension of what work would be like if I engaged with women more often. It was very refreshing and eye-opening to be with a group of women in the same field sharing insights and approaches. It was powerful!”

A timely endeavor

Leading up to the June launch, the concept for a women’s leadership program had been in development for several years, according to Dan McGurrin, executive director of NC State Executive Education.

“When I arrived at NC State, I had the opportunity to read studies exploring fundamental problems in the tech field with regard to recruiting, retaining and developing female leaders,” he said. “While North Carolina ranks among the top 15 states nationwide in percentage of women in technology, they continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles. The need has been there for many years, but I felt like the timing was right for us to launch the program this year. We had just developed partnerships with a strong group of female leaders who helped us design the program, and we also recently brought onto our team Dr. Myra Moses, who was exactly the right person to lead this effort.”

In her first experience facilitating an adult leadership program designed exclusively for women, Moses joined Poole College of Management faculty members Beth Ritter and Leigh Shamblin in leading Jacobs and 21 other participants through sessions on topics they felt were highly-relevant to women navigating leadership paths in STEM fields, including negotiation, conflict management, and emotional intelligence.

Program participants also received advice from highly-successful guest speakers and panelists, including Jo Abernathy, CIO of BCBSNC, and Jennifer Martineau, co-author of Kick Some Glass, a book written to “motivate working women who want to stop following someone else’s rules and take charge of their own success.”

In addition to providing training on important leadership topics, which are not intrinsically relevant to any one specific gender, Moses knew it was important to provide these women with an experience that was unique to them. “My primary objective was to help create a space where these women could feel comfortable talking with each other about concerns they have and strategies they can use to help navigate their professional environments,” she said. “Given current societal discussions, I felt that the program would provide an important and timely opportunity for women to share with and support each other.”

When Jacobs’ supervisor recommended her for the program earlier this year, she leapt at the opportunity to participate and learn from the likes of Moses. “I was really eager to learn from these women, what their experiences were, and be able to apply their guidance and experiences towards my own journey in technology,” she said. “We’re actually looking to do some training for my entire team in the first quarter of 2020 based on the exposure from the program.”

New and lasting relationships

While Jacobs and her peers undoubtedly received valuable professional insights from their program experience, perhaps the most remarkable outcome was the relationships they built with each other over the three-day period.

“I was surprised at how quickly the participants began to create a network of support,” Moses said of the group. “They began to connect immediately from the initial sessions, and were incredibly authentic and honest in the way they discussed issues. The connections only strengthened as the program progressed, which was evident in their expressed interest in staying connected through post-program events.”

Given that the women participating in the program are used to being in the gender-minority, one might assume that the comradery they experienced was merely a result of them having the unique chance to share thoughts and experiences in an environment void of men. But that’s not to say that the program was any kind of “No Boys Allowed” club — in fact, quite the opposite, according to Jacobs. “There wasn’t anything in the program that wouldn’t also be applicable to men,” she said. “I think what was distinctive about it was that it brought together a group of women to share our experiences. I didn’t feel like it had any bias towards women, or that there was any ‘us against them’ mentality. It was more about just viewing the content through the lens of being a woman.”

Megan Jones, one of Jacobs’ co-participants and Senior Manager of Customer Experience and Engagement Analytics and Training at Red Hat, stated in a post-program blog post that, like Jacobs, it’s not uncommon for her to be either the only woman or one of only two women in a meeting, especially in meetings with senior leaders. “I learned a lot about myself [through this program] and what it takes to be a successful leader in this industry,” she wrote in the post. “My network of incredibly strong leaders grew by 20.”

Gaining momentum

With the June program in the books, now is when the real fun begins, Executive Education Director Dan McGurrin said. “We are only one month removed from our pilot event, and we already have a number of exciting activities planned to support the first class. Our second class will meet in October, followed soon after by a networking event that will bring together the participants of both classes.”

According to McGurrin, the participants from both the June and October programs will play an integral role in providing direction and defining how the program will evolve moving forward. “I’m really excited to see what they have in store for us,” he said.

Given the feedback from participants like Jacobs and Jones, it seems McGurrin is not the only one excited to see how the program continues to grow, as well as the community it’s fostering and the impact it will have on the landscape for women working in STEM fields. “I look forward to continuing the conversation with these amazing women, and I have a lot of hope for young girls and the future we’re all helping to create for them,” Jones wrote.

As for Jacobs, who has returned to work at BCBSNC with a fresh perspective on what it means to be a woman leader among a team of men, she’s excited to see what comes next. “As a participant in the inaugural program, I was amazed at both the quality of the content and the engagement between everyone involved. I can only imagine how much better this is going to get over time,” she said.