Career success is often a product of personal action, as well as supportive influences from those at home, school, and on the job. How does one leverage this influence early on in a career? How can women in a largely male dominant field such as technology, truly build confidence and competence that will help them succeed in technical leadership roles?
In continuation of our Strength in Numbers series, we feature Rachel Whitcomb, Vice President of Supply Chain Technology at Target Corporation. Rachel shares transformative insights into the role mentors can play in shaping their mentees’ careers and key principles to achieving career success early while overcoming obvious and invisible barriers.
MNAiC: Tell us a bit about your role.
RW: As Vice President for the Supply Chain Technology Solution Portfolio for Target, I get to work with and lead a global team of about 300 engineers who build and operate the software that is used to manage Target’s inventory ordering pipelines, our distribution centers, and our transportation network. It’s the best job I have ever had! I also have had great opportunities at Target to get involved in things I am passionate about. One of those things is hiring and developing really incredible talent. For several years, I have played a sponsoring role for our Technology Leadership Program, where we seek to recruit, hire and accelerate the growth of entry-level engineers. It’s a fabulous role that enables me to stay connected to people who are early in their careers, and play a direct role in their personal career development while also helping Target build a very strong and very diverse talent pipeline.
MNAiC: What were the greatest influences on your technology career choice, and direction? If something specifically happened that triggered your career decision, what was it?
RW: As much as I hate to admit it, my mom made me do it! When I was in college, she watched me stumble from major to major, trying to find my home and finally intervened. She reminded me that I love math and logic and problem solving, and there are fields that will capitalize on those strengths. I took my first computer science class at the end of my sophomore year and I loved it, and I committed to the program. This was definitely another lesson in: “Listen to your mother!” Even though I loved it, I may not have stuck with it, had it not been for a really influential female professor, Barbara Kaiser. I was one of only a handful of women in my computer science program and, beyond that I didn’t easily fit in with my peers. I didn’t play video games, didn’t own a computer, and I didn’t know the movies and cultural references of my peers. My professor took a special interest in me – she wasn’t satisfied with me simply achieving a computer science degree – she wanted me to excel and to love it. She engaged me in developing a women in science and technology group at my college and she invited me to engage with more junior comp sci women to draw them into the program and help them see how they can fit in. She all but completed an application on my behalf to participate in an amazing fellowship that led me to participate in some research for NASA.
MNAiC: As a whole, women in tech in the U.S. leave the industry at a 45% higher rate than men, further reducing the potential for women to assume leadership roles within tech. What do you think are some of the unique challenges women face in this male-dominated industry?
RW: A Pew Research Center study from last year found that 50 percent of women who work in STEM jobs say they have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, compared to 19 percent of men in STEM jobs. Add these things to other common themes – feelings of not fitting in, juggling parenting and working – and it may seem not worth it to women to stick around to face more obstacles for the same (or lesser) outcomes.The environmental challenges are difficult enough but could be further compounded by the challenges women face from within – with self-confidence. Whether rooted in an actual lack of confidence, or maybe in a difference in ambition or expectation, or possibly just in personality tendencies, I routinely see men speak loudly, demand recognition and promotion, and build forceful allies in ways that I rarely see women do. In my case, I don’t think this behavior is rooted in a lack of confidence about my abilities, but rather a lack of expectation that everyone laud me for those capabilities. It leads to the same outcome, however – I may not speak up as loudly, I may let others take the praise, I definitely won’t demand the promotion, and I may appear to not have confidence. As a leader of people, I fight hard to be aware of and manage against my biases, and I regularly need to check myself to make sure I am not giving all of my attention to the squeakiest wheel or the loudest team member.
MNAiC: Have you ever had to overcome (or help other women overcome) these challenges? If so, what did you do?
RW: I have learned to address the things I can most control – the internal voices and having confidence in myself and my value as a technology leader. One of my life choices was to have a family….and a large one by today’s standards. I have four young children, and being their mom is my first and highest and most fulfilling priority. But working full time and being their mom (and doing both well) means that I have to be really efficient and make trade-off decisions every single day. And I resist the urge to apologize for that because I know that being a good mom makes me a better team member and better leader for my team. Believing this and remembering it is the best tool in my toolbox to combat any kind of bias.When I coach young women, the most common theme of my coaching is “take more risks.” The implied corollary is “have more confidence; you can handle it.” It’s difficult for anyone, and especially for women who may already be prone to self-doubt, to put themselves in a situation they have never been in before. But the greatest learning, the best opportunities, new connections, and, ultimately, the most interesting and challenging career path is found by taking on jobs you don’t yet know how to master. The most difficult job I ever had – one I definitely wouldn’t have taken had I known what it really was – is the job that, upon reflection, has had the most significant impact in shaping the leader I am today. I shudder at the thought that I might have missed this opportunity due to fear or lack of confidence!
MNAiC: What do you think are 3 things MN Businesses can do to help remove these barriers in order to promote and retain more women leaders in technology?
RW: First, it’s important for businesses and business leaders to accept the fact that this is a large and complex problem and there isn’t one solution that will fix everything. I too often see tactics and actions discarded because of known or even just anticipated side effects. I am definitely not arguing that consideration of the implications of actions shouldn’t be taken – they absolutely should. But if we wait for a perfect solution to take any action, we are paralyzed.Second, I think it’s important for companies to evaluate and address systematic bias – the stuff that shows up in the data. Are women paid equally for the same job, and do we have a process that increases the likelihood of that and one that checks us for mistakes? Are women hired and promoted at the same rate as men? Do we have fair interview and evaluation processes? And a process to check ourselves to make sure we haven’t strayed from it? Do women have equal access to the best opportunities, best leaders, best teams, best training, best visibility, etc.? How do we ensure that women are talked about in talent conversations in equal measure? Do we have easy and well-known ways for women to gain support when they are facing discrimination or bias? These are the systematically enforced problems that we can tackle with tactics that are clear and measurable. There is no excuse for us not to, at minimum, know what our data tell us and what that means for our team members and teams.And, third, we simply must grow the number of women in technology in total. I see most organizations zeroed in on recruiting, but I would like to see more focus on retaining the women who have already made a commitment to the field. Flexible working and maternity/return-to-work policies, sponsorship for women-led and supportive industry groups (and not just for the purposes of recruiting), and development programs for women focused on leadership are examples of this. At Target, we have initiated a program called eMIP dedicated to growing leadership skills to prepare our lead level engineers for management positions. The program is a mix of formal training, on-the-job guided experience, and a cohort for peer learning. We have intentionally selected participants for the program from underrepresented populations, including women. What we have learned is that a good portion of the women entering the program already have the core competencies for a management position….which means they either weren’t recognized for that or didn’t recognize it themselves! Through this program, women experience valuable skill growth and mentorship, and we are quickly growing our female technology leadership at Target!
MNAiC: What can young aspiring women technologists do today to prepare themselves for a future career in leadership?
RW: Well, I have to start with advice for ALL junior technologists, regardless of gender: Start with the fundamentals! Learn to understand problems, organize your thoughts, think outside of the box, and support your thinking with logic and reason. Learn to learn quickly and foster your passion for technology. And practice the hard stuff – make your mistakes early!Seek out mentors and be open when they find you instead. Women, especially, need not just mentors but advocates. We need people who will force us to demand more and push harder. We need models that show us a way to lead that is consistent with the personalities and lives and ways that we operate in the workplace. We need voices that remind us of our capabilities and contributions, and help us connect those to what we value most so we can have rewarding and fulfilling careers that we stay in through all phases of life. And finally, be unapologetic for being different – for having a different background, a different opinion, different preferences; for having made different life choices; or for having different personal priorities. We need to recognize that it is our differences that make us exceptionally good at our jobs and uniquely valuable for our teams. Holding tightly to this truth makes us unwilling to accept less and more likely to push for more. And it creates resilience when we do hit a roadblock – small snubs, negative internal voices or overt discrimination.
MNAiC: What advice would you give to women who aspire to advance their career in tech?
RW: Find mentors who advise and advance you. And demand that you advance yourself.Take more risks. Have confidence you will do great! And if you don’t do great, recognize it, learn the lessons, and move onto the next thing – that’s OK, too!Only apologize for things that you actually want to change because you recognize that the change is consistent with your goals and values. Then work on changing those things. No apologies for being who you are and who you intend to be. Remember your team and company are lucky to have you – expect them to know that!Surround yourself with others who are equally committed to doing really interesting, challenging and exciting work. When teams are working on really challenging problems and motivated to do the work well, they have less time to be worried about whether everyone looks the same.In closing, I want to highlight that I discuss and consider all of these challenges with an undertone of great optimism. Today, organizations are seeing the absence of diversity more completely than ever before and truly understanding why change is needed. Leaders of organizations, of all genders, are speaking out and taking real and meaningful actions. Women are connecting, and it is becoming much easier to find what I like to refer to as “pockets of goodness” where the gender mix on a team or within leadership falls within a healthy and normal range and the team culture is vibrant as a result. And I couldn’t be more motivated and inspired by the young women I meet who have, in their youth, accomplished more in tech than I have in almost 20 years. I believe it is on the backs of these young women that we will see positive change snowball and technology advancement accelerate even more! And it makes me truly excited for the future!
ABOUT TARGET CORPORATION
Target Corporation offers high-quality, on-trend merchandise at discounted prices. The company traces its roots in Minneapolis to 1902, and today serves guests at more than 1,800 stores nationwide and at Target.com. Since 1946, Target has given 5 percent of its profit to communities, which amounts to millions of dollars a week. For a behind-the-scenes look at Target, visit Target.com/abullseyeview or follow @TargetNews on Twitter.
ABOUT MINNESOTA ASPIRATIONS IN COMPUTING (MNAIC)
MNAiC collaborates with businesses, organizations and schools to inspire, support, and empower young women in high school to become our next, best Minnesota technology talent. Want to get engaged with the Minnesota Aspirations in Computing program? To learn how your organization can support the computing interests of young women in Minnesota and lead the movement to disrupt gender equality in tech, contact Russell Fraenkel, Director of IT Career Pathways and Partnerships, Minnesota State – IT Center of Excellence, at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (612) 659-7224.