Finding support as a new senior (woman) leader

Originally posted Dec 16, 2015

As a female Senior Engineering Manager at a tech company, I’m in a weird spot. There are lots of women role models ahead of me who I look up to, and who I’m fortunate enough to call mentors. There are a bunch of women who I mentor, too, and many more women just entering the industry.

However, I’ve found it difficult to find peers. Though I’ve owned my own company, I don’t consider myself C-level. Though I sit at the big kids table a few times a month at work (and make sure to sit AT the table), I’m not director-level, so I’m not in all the big kids’ meetings. Though I’ve had a number of career accomplishments (publishing a book, keynoting conferences, being named a thought leader/poster child for Web Performance work), they’ve happened at a relatively accelerated pace (I’ve been in the industry for roughly eight years, and am self-taught).

There aren’t many women at this level. I can see them all ahead of me, waving, excited that I’m still here and haven’t left the industry yet, wanting to support me. I can see a bunch of other women achieving career markers that I achieved a few years ago, too, and I’m working as hard as I can to pull them up with me. I get lots of coffee with other women in the industry in an effort to try and create more of a peer support network, but frankly it’s hard.

Given that gap, it’s been important that the company I work for, Etsy, supports me in staying in this industry, and supports me as I further my career. I realized that a lot of the ways in which Etsy has supported me are invisible (or implicit), and it may be helpful to other women or other companies if I more explicitly enumerate the kind of support I’ve found helpful from my employer. I’m eager to hear from other newly-senior-women-leaders about the kinds of support they’ve benefitted from as well.

Implicit trust from senior leadership

For reasons that are unclear to me, senior leadership at Etsy has let me:

I’m highlighting the implicitness of this trust because I think it’s important. It’s quite clear to me how Etsy benefits from my career advancement, or going out to speak at conferences, or the book. I think it’s clear to Etsy’s executive leadership at well. But I’ve never had to have a conversation about it with them. I’m also very good at my job, and hold myself accountable to kicking a lot of ass in my role at Etsy before I go out and do other stuff. But, again, I’ve never had to say that to anybody.

Senior leaders who have done their homework

I’m a believer that women are over-mentored, and under-sponsored. It’s true that I’ll always work with people who haven’t read about privilege, learned about unconscious bias, or identify as feminists. But I consider myself incredibly lucky to work with a number of male senior leaders who have done this homework, and to whom I don’t have to explain Feminism 101.

I’ve had to go to senior leaders with some really rough stories of discrimination and targeting, and the vast majority of their reactions were ideal. I’ve had to ask a senior leader to stop using ageist language with me, and he immediately understood and did so. A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting with a bunch of senior leaders and saw a presentation that included a really questionable image. A few hours later, I had a one-on-one with one of the most powerful people in the meeting. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hey, how’s it going?

Him: Awesome. You?

Me: Yeah fine. Hey, you know that slide in that meeting?

Him: Ah, yeah.

Me: Can you ask him to change it?

Him: Yeah, let me do that right now.

He opened up his laptop, wrote and sent the email, closed it, and asked if I was okay. I said I was, and we moved on. I never had to describe the slide; he knew exactly what I was talking about. I never had to explain why I took issue with the image, I didn’t feel obligated to share my feelings, and I didn’t have to give him more specifics in order for him to take action. I felt - and feel - incredibly supported because this leader has already done his homework. (And I know he followed through: the presenter immediately changed the image.)

Male allies who are helping me in creative ways

Speaking of people doing “the homework”, I work with a number of engineers who also are fairly well-versed in the state of women in tech. It has been incredibly refreshing to go up to a male engineer after a meeting and say, “Hey, I noticed that you were repeating what that woman engineer was saying, and people were listening to you, not her” and have that engineer immediately understand the problem, thank me, and work diligently to change his behavior.

Because I do some “second shift” work, I get invited to a lot of diversity-related meetings. There was a period in time when it was consuming my calendar and my brain, and I began to loathe it. I just wanted to be able to focus on my actual job, but I also knew that it was valuable for me to attend those meetings and share my voice. Around the same time, I had coffee with another engineer who identifies as an ally, and who had earned my trust. I vented to him about the heft of diversity work, and in a spur-of-the-moment inspiration, I asked if he could start coming with me to the meetings so he could do the work for me.

He agreed with eagerness. I started inviting him to all those meetings, and I sat back and watched him participate. He said all the things that I would have said if he hadn’t been there. He added a whole new depth of insight that my burned-out brain couldn’t. He had the energy to give, and he’s done the homework (and continues to, always) - he enabled me to be able to go back and focus on my actual job. He wasn’t coming in and white knighting; he was deferring to what I found helpful as I articulated it.

Things have balanced out for me much more since then, but I still rely on him if I get burned out on second shift work. It’s clear to me how much his help, and other engineers’ continuous learning about these issues, is keeping me in tech.

Etsy knows it’s not perfect

It’s become clearer to me as I reach my three-year Etsyversary that, had I not felt this particular kind of support from the company I work for, I probably wouldn’t still be in tech. I’ve had it up to here with this tech industry nonsense and feel the “death by a thousand cuts”. As a new-to-senior-leadership woman without a large peer group to lean on, it’s been really important to have these implicit layers of support from Etsy leaders and engineers.

But people (especially leaders) at Etsy will tell you, Etsy still has a long list of work to do to be more inclusive and diverse. The company isn’t perfect, and will be the first to admit how much more there is to do. I’m privileged to be in meetings where I get to hear the really honest frustrations and the hard, invisible work happening to change things. I’m in a privileged position, and hope to be able to use this privilege and support to do much more. I’m eager to help other women at Etsy find this kind of support as I found it, too. Hold me accountable.

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