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…