How to be a role model

The chat icon on my laptop started blinking. In the long list of people with whom I had been chatting recently I located the red “1” sign and was surprised to recognize the sender as the personal assistant of my Line of Business leader. The conversation started as usual with the exchange of mandatory greetings. Then she came quickly to the point. “Are you in Amsterdam tomorrow?” “Yes, why?” “We are organising an event for a group of talents and we need an architect role model” “Okay what do you want me to do?” “I’ll send you the template for the one-pager that we are using; if you fill that in you can use it to tell something about yourself and your career” 

I  said that I am pretty skeptical about my career. My “career” isn’t exactly a well lit highway straight to the top of the mountain. It is more like a sandy road full of curves and potholes and the top was never within reach. She warned me not to demotivate the young talents and said that she counted on me. I sighed and promised to do my best. I started filling out the one-pager that she sent me. I dreamed up some content for the four white blocks that were ordered like stepping stones on a road going up, representing the different phases of a career. 

The get-together with the young talents was refreshing. They did not hesitate to ask bold questions.  I do not remember all of them, but one question really stayed with me a for a couple of weeks after. “Would you, as a very senior technical professional, advise me to opt for a technical career or should I rather focus on developing management or sales skills? How well does this company recognize their technical leaders?” This question came from a young lady. I thought for a moment and answered “The only way to survive is by staying true to who you really are. Why would you try to be someone else? In the long run that will not make you happy”

I could not have given them the true story. That would have scared them off. And I am not just referring to the balancing acts in in a family with young children. The mis-fit with traditional patterns was much worse. The jealousy. To feel the reproachful glances from the other mothers in the school-yard, the ones who stayed at home with the kids. To have to disappoint managers who expect a female employee to excel in “female virtues”. To deal with male colleagues who start each workday with a dirty joke, especially meant for you! To work with superiors who do not tolerate any disobedience or criticism from a woman. THAT wasn’t easy.

How did I cope with all of that? And above all : WHY? Why did I do this to myself and my family for all those years? And was it really worth it? 

Some of it was definitely definitely worth it. The classes that I ran all over the world, the students that I had the pleasure of teaching and mentoring in Moscow, Beijing and Dubai, The clients that I worked with to successfully troubleshoot and solve their performance issues in The Netherlands but also in Brussels, Stockholm, Moscow, Turin and Copenhagen, The conferences that I visited and where I presented in and outside my company and some of which were so inspiring and motivating that the energy would last for a whole year. The extremely bright, innovative and supportive people in the worldwide technical community that I have had the honour to meet in person and work with. There were always new  opportunities to go after, new teams to work with and bright horizons to strive towards. And sometimes the intellectual challenges were just fantastic. Nobody can take that away from me.

But does that make me a role model? A young woman in Copenhagen said to me “when I grow up I want to be like you” and I could not help but reply “No you don’t! You don’t want to be like me!”. For in spite of all the recognition that my peers and my clients have given me over the years, the prizes and the patents that I won, I am one of those women who is paid 30% less than their male equivalents and that makes me feel bad, a fraud almost! I have failed to change the attitude of the local organisation into which I report. Convincing the old boys network of decision makers to promote me when I was ready for it was too difficult a battle to fight and besides I did not know where to start.

It feels as if I failed not only this young Danish lady but all other bright young technical women who are knocking on the doors of IT companies…! My next challenge therefore is to do something about that, no matter how small, starting with this blog…

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2 thoughts on “How to be a role model

  1. Dear Lydia,
    Last night I slept rather badly. Maybe because of drinking too much coffee, maybe because I was pondering what you wrote in your blog.
    As you know I worked for 30 years for the same company as you do, even in the same department for a while. I am older than you are and you achieved a lot more in your career than I did. Why? Of course you are more talented than I was, but I think that I and others of my generation paved some of the road for you.

    I was the first one trying to return to my job at the place where we both worked, after having my first child, all-be-it part time. I got into ridiculous circles, like: no you cannot do this job, because you do not have the right level. No, you cannot be promoted because you work part-time. No, you cannot have your full-time job back, because you have to care for your children, and so on.

    This did not stop me from finding interesting assignments all over the world and doing interesting work. I always found nice male colleagues who appreciated my technical abilities and who wanted to work with me. Somehow this must have helped seed the thought that there exist females who are proficient at doing technical work. Each younger female professional will benefit. So, be proud about what you achieved and be a role model!

    Cheers, Ghica.

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    1. Ghica, you were my first role model and the reason why I chose to work for IBM. I feel most honoured to have met you and worked with you. You paved the road. A lot has changed since you left. But we’re not there yet and the fight continues. As a form of protest I will from now on change my signature into “undistinguished engineer” to draw attention to IBM’s formal statements that diversity is supported and that wild ducks are treasured. No, better ” distinguished performance engineer”, as it is more positive! Also in The Netherlands it should be possible for a woman in services to achieve the rank of DE. In practice this is not the case now, at least not without interference from very strong and very supportive international sponsors. And it will take a lot of energy to tear those walls down!

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