Female CEO. Female doctor. Female officer. It’s become commonplace to diminish a woman’s professional standing or status by gendering her role, as if being a woman is the only reason she achieved that level of success. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I realized that being a woman in a male-dominated world meant that I had to work twice as hard just to be seen. Let’s just say that in my 20-year career, I’ve come to realize the undercurrent was always there to some degree.
As a CEO in the tech industry, I am no stranger to being labeled and judged by my gender before I even enter a room. In fact, I’ve come to almost thrive on it; but long before moving into my current role, I have countless memories of being written off, talked down to, ignored or worse by my peers, simply for being a woman.
Historically, women have been expected to hold roles deemed “appropriate” for their gender: teacher, nurse, administrator. As a young woman making college decisions, I was directly admonished by family and peers that aspiring to anything else wasn’t an option. I’m not alone in this though; those women who choose to enter a male-dominated industry often face backlash from those who should be most supportive: family, educators, and their female counterparts.
Now for the numbers. Currently, only 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Although women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields, women only make up 34% of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce, with Latina, Black, and Indigenous women representing less than a combined 10% of the STEM workforce.
In an effort to increase that number, I offer my fellow women three lessons I’ve learned as a female in a male-dominated industry.
Own your power – and free your voice.
I’ve coached and mentored young women for years to free their voice, no matter what stage they are in. Your voice is your power. We can choose to allow other’s gender-based opinions of when and where we ought to be speaking define us, or we can move forward confidently, not letting fear of judgment or displeasing others stifle what we know needs to be heard.
From an interview she did for TIME in 2017, Madeleine Albright reflected on her life in public service, sharing, “I have often been the only woman in the room, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t think I’ll say anything today because it will sound stupid.’ And then some man says it, and everybody thinks it’s brilliant and you think, ‘Why didn’t I talk?’ ‘If [women] are in a meeting we are there for a reason. The bottom line is: If you are only there not speaking, you kind of create the impression that you’re not prepared to be there.”
Be part of the solution for other marginalized groups.
In addition to women, we must make a concerted effort to lift up people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, health conditions or impairments, and the neurodivergent. We don’t win with just more female leaders, we win when we create a diverse workplace for all.
And sometimes, that means humbling out, realizing where we may have blind spots, and learning to empathize with others’ perspectives and experiences. We have to listen without judgment, so we can become part of the solution instead of assuming we already have all the answers.
In my role as Director of Marketing at the Damien Center years ago, I got a crash course in just how many misconceptions and uninformed assumptions I had about marginalized communities. I’d lost dear friends to AIDS, and I was passionate about helping in any way I could. But as a young woman from a very small northern Indiana farming community, where AIDS was absolutely assumed to be a disease that affected only the gay population, those assumptions were completely blown away by the diversity of the actual people coming through those doors needing assistance.
As the DoM, I knew it was my job to ensure that a broader message was shared with the community, so we could remove stigmas and ultimately open up funding opportunities to help those in dire need. We started the Face of AIDS campaign and, thanks to many brave individuals who were willing to come forward and share, we made a difference. We started new conversations, and I saw firsthand how sharing honest, authentic stories had incredible power to change lives, broaden conversations, and effect change.
Focus forward – never stop learning and growing.
By constantly improving and expanding your skillset, you’re broadening the horizon of opportunities available to you. If you hit a glass ceiling in a company, leverage what you know to either change the narrative or find a better opportunity.
There are few better examples of this ceiling than in the music industry, which I’ve been part of for years in multiple ways. To this day, women musicians whose instrument happens to be the voice are referred to as “girl singers,” and we’re subjected to demeaning commentary, unrealistic/damaging image expectations, jokes, and harsh criticism, all the way from elementary school through careers in the professional music industry. The glass ceiling hangs pretty low when the quality of your performance and your level of skill is mostly judged on your ability to pull off a tight dress or a low-cut shirt. I had many band leaders over the years tell me to “stay in my lane” and not voice my opinion with issues of administration or marketing or business, despite my many years of skill in those areas. I needed a different stage.
So, instead of wasting energy on those naysayers and lane-stayers, I focus on building and demonstrating my skill, keeping my cool under pressure, and ensuring I’m operating at my best every day by using all the tools I’ve gleaned through the years to set a solid example of what I like to call “wise mind.” I read a lot of Stoic philosophy, and one of the 8 main ethical notions they held is that wisdom is the root virtue. From wisdom springs the cardinal virtues: insight, bravery, self-control, and justice. Instead of dwelling on what I can’t control, I do my best every day to focus on wise choices like building knowledge, understanding the facts, and being open to sage advice shared by others who have already been “face down in the arena,” to quote Brene Brown (who was quoting Teddy Roosevelt). That focus has put me on a different path, on a different stage, where I can have an opportunity to change the narrative for all women.
I am incredibly proud to be the first female CEO in our company’s 20-year history. My hope for the next generation of workers is that they face far less gender discrimination in whatever field they choose to enter, whether historically male or female dominated. I’m passionate about doing what I can do to help us get there, one conversation and innovation at a time, which is why at VisionThree, we’re working to empower all underserved and/or undermined populations to see themselves in any role they can imagine.
Heather Jackson is the CEO of Indianapolis-based immersive experience company VisionThree.