ROCKVILLE – Networking, taking “calculated risks” and charting paths to executive positions were among the topics panelists discussed at the “Take a Seat at the Table” event hosted by Montgomery Women on May 16.
Montgomery Women board member Jane de Winter said the panel discussion explained how women can obtain a stronger foothold to leadership positions in the corporate field. The event, which took place in the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus, also helped women in the business world or any career.
“Asking and encouraging people to take risks and encouraging them to stand up for themselves. Culturally, not every woman grows up hearing that message in their own home and in their own culture,” de Winter said. “So, it’s important for women to support each other and encourage that.”
Three panelists – women who had attained leadership positions in their careers – answered questions about how they made it to where they are in their fields as well as some challenges they had to endure.
Asya Smith, COO of SysArc, said she faced negative remarks by a professor when she was studying information technology (IT) at Technical University of Sofia. She used her determination to demonstrate to her professor that she was “better than the boys” – her male classmates – to motivate her to meet her goal.
However, one of Smith’s regrets was her lacking in confidence to show that she was “as good as everybody else” when she was younger. “Just because I’m a girl that doesn’t change anything,” she said.
“It’s not like that anymore, to that extent,” said Smith of gender discrimination in education.
Panelist Jennifer Hester told the audience that she tried a couple of different approaches. First, she gave examples of “calculated risks” she took to fill a leadership position in human resources (HR), including accepting a pay cut and returning to school. Now, she is the vice president of human resources at The Emmes Company, LLC.
Hester said the risk that is involved in requesting a raise or a promotion is that one’s superiors may not believe the individual is qualified. A person can either believe and accept that judgment or she can decide to move on to work somewhere else. The superior agreeing to give a promotion is the other option.
The panelists discussed reasons women are not well-represented in top leadership in companies as men in certain fields. They also spoke on which fields women are more likely to be in those positions of power. One panelist said the fact that some jobs have flexibility through telecommuting compared to decades ago has made it easier. Women who have multiple roles – such as the caregiver as well as primary breadwinner and, in some cases, a manager in the business – can now balance it all.
Earning a “seat at the table” may involve investing time and effort in continuing education. Hester said. Although she had a background in human resources, she lacked knowledge in statistics. Hester decided to pursue an executive master’s degree in business administration at the University of Maryland in College Park. That meant she was a full-time student while working full-time and being a parent “full-time.”
Panel moderator de Winter asked the panelists what fields they are more likely to find women in higher-up positions. Smith said there might be fewer women in certain aspects within IT work due to work schedule; it was not an issue of competence. When she had an office near Dupont Circle, she said she hired a woman who quit in less than a week, saying she felt unsafe working and traveling at night. On the other hand, Smith said she remembers several times when the female candidates she interviewed were stronger at a skill or job than the male candidates were.
Seventeen women attended in the audience. Sylvia Henderson, CEO of MindTeam Solutions and one of the panelists, said the event was “very well attended.” She also said that the discussion, attended only by women, was a “safe space” to ask questions about career goals and strategies. People feel more comfortable discussing such issues as career goals in a group of similar people because they believe they will be understood by their peers, Henderson added.
Alexandra Wong, a county resident, said she had heard recently about a few women leadership events, including the one hosted by Montgomery Women. She just moved to Montgomery County from Puerto Rico and was interested in the issue of women in leadership roles.
Bola Audena, a 38-year-old resident of Rockville near Aspen Hill, said after the event that she came because she recently started a business.
“I almost didn’t make it,” Audena said, adding she was glad she could attend.
Having “a seat at the table” is not a new topic to Audena, so the discussion didn’t change her mind about any issues.
Montgomery Women board member Henderson said that one thing some women tend to not do is ask for something that they need or want. This includes the amount of money that they would like to charge for their consulting services.
Henderson said that in the past, Montgomery Women emphasized women in politics and government; May 16 was one of the first times an event had a business focus.
“I think this just provided a safe space for some women who might not have come to a general career thing to come and hear the advice that they needed to hear,” Henderson said.