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Let’s Get Real: Authenticity and Resilience in the New Era of Work


Let’s Get Real: Authenticity and Resilience in the New Era of Work

Ragan Cohn, CAE, Executive Director, OATUG

Five phenomenal women in technology took the stage at Ascend 2021 for a panel discussion on the topic of authenticity and resilience in the new era of work – a timely topic given the dramatic ways work and life have changed since the start of the pandemic. Lines between work life and home life were blurred for some and obliterated for others; the challenges of being a “working parent” and perhaps especially a “working mom” became infinitely more complex overnight; and how we view work in the context of the totality of our life experience has changed for many.

In the midst of all that, these panelists shared an hour of insights that for this audience member illuminated five key takeaways.

Resilience is Golden… and It’s Here to Stay

Certain core characteristics have intrinsic importance in the workplace: integrity, dependability, team-orientation, initiative and the like. Whatever constituted your short list of must-have qualities among team members and employees, chances are good “resilience” now holds a spot there, too. The pandemic infused pressures into the workplace that were unprecedented in both their nature and their duration. Our workplaces and our teams have been forced to adjust again and again to continually evolving circumstances. Decisions have been wrestled with, “finalized” and then changed again…and again. Further, what we once presumed was temporary has begun to feel like it just might be with us for a while (if not forever).

Under those circumstances, resilience – the ability to recover quickly from difficulties – has emerged as a critical quality. In the new era of work, it’s an ability we all need to consciously cultivate. Many women in technology have stories to tell about overcoming biases and barriers during their careers – working a little longer or a little harder to be seen and heard, losing out on promotions to less qualified candidates, being criticized at work for fulfilling obligations at home and at home for fulfilling obligations at work. Then when the pandemic started, work and home lives were upended in all new ways. Panelist Paromita Ray recounted the challenge of losing the physical separation between work and home that had long created natural barriers between the roles we fulfill: “When our homes became our offices, we lost all separation between work and home life. Many of us had to help children with schoolwork between meetings and had aging parents at home who no longer understood we weren’t available to them throughout the day just because we were at home. It wasn’t easy, but we learned quickly to put in rules and coping mechanisms to deal with this. We rose to the occasion.”

In fact, all those trials hone our resilience if we let them. And chances are, everyone reading this is much more resilient today than you would have expected you could have been back in March 2020.

Whether or not you have a natural proclivity to adapt and change, recognizing and purposefully cultivating resilience in yourself and others will be a key contributor to success in the new era of work.

Authenticity Matters…More than Ever

Perfection is a standard of which we all fall short. (Even Mary Poppins was merely “practically perfect.”) Given that, it’s better to be authentically imperfect than to expend precious time and energy constructing a perfect façade.

As panelist Carolyn Garner put it: “When you take your whole self to work, people can appreciate and respect that.” The inverse has implications as well, she noted: Working to conform to the image you think others expect often leads to depression, stress and low employee engagement.

The good news is there seems to be a deepening appreciation for the diversity of our life experiences and perspectives. Also, after a year of Zooming into each others’ homes, there’s no more pretending that we don’t have interests, obligations and challenges outside of work. Sharing some of that with coworkers – giving them a glimpse into who you are as a person and not just as a “worker” – not only makes you more relatable to them but makes them feel freer to be their authentic selves as well. That builds trust, deepens empathy and ultimately positions us to be more successful together.

In fact, panelist Sheryl Johnson said she looks for opportunities to share painful things – her failures and her challenges – with team members when they’re struggling and need encouragement. “Transparency is so key,” she said. “Women should not feel they have to be perfect or have it together all the time. I look for opportunities to share what I’ve learned, how I’ve turned painful experiences into something good…Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerabilities. People relate to that.”

Panelist Yvette Cameron noted that this is something women in technology have often purposefully eschewed, working hard to command respect in the workplace by putting up shields and facades to fit in with the men with whom they work. She credits male allies who over the years who encouraged her to be authentic instead and truly capitalize on her unique set of talents, skills and attributes to achieve things she wouldn’t have thought possible.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail…It’s How We Grow

Part of becoming more comfortable with sharing authentically is growing comfortable with failure. This is, in fact, a recurring theme among the greats in a wide range of fields.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison, on his long journey to inventing the light bulb
“Do not be embarrassed by your failures. Learn from them, and start again.” – Richard Branson, innovator and entrepreneur
“Remember that failure is an event, not a person.” – Zig Ziglar, management guru

That list of quotes could go on at great length, but here’s just one more:

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” – JK Rowling, best-selling author

That last quote is especially insightful and supports a point Garner made during the panel discussion. She said: “Failing is the only way we make it. Those are our stepping stones to do something bigger and better. We can always find another job if we fail.” If we stay comfortable – if we stay small – we will never realize the fullness of our potential or maximize our impact on the people and world around us.

To build the courage to take risks (and yes, even fail), Garner encouraged audience members to take two important steps:

  1. Work to know and appreciate your worth. Invest time in introspection, personal development, mentor relationships and other activities that will help you appreciate the true value you bring to the workplace. Once you understand what a true asset you are, you’ll find you feel much freer to grow into your full potential, taking the risks along the way that will get you there.
  2. Find truth-tellers. Actively seek feedback from people who will honestly help you see your strengths, what you need to work on, and where your real potential lies. Always be actively seeking to grow to the next level.

Work Has Changed…for Good and for the Better

In ways large and small, work has changed dramatically and in unexpected ways since the start of the pandemic – and in many respects, there’s no going back.

Remote work has been something of an equalizer in meetings, bringing always-remote employees and previously-in-office employees closer together and on more equal footing. It’s also made it easier for some to see, be seen and be heard. Panel moderator Cara Capretta observed: “Every square is the same size on Zoom. No one is sitting at the head of the table.” Johnson also noted that there’s less pressure on any one person to volunteer as notetaker, a role women frequently felt a misguided pressure to fill as a means of demonstrating value to the team.

Collectively we have clearly demonstrated that for most people and most roles, work truly can be done effectively from home. That’s enabling some companies to reduce overhead as they shed office space and its associated costs. It’s enabling employees to reclaim commuting time and related expenses, a benefit to all and arguably especially working mothers. The expectation of work-location flexibility is likely with us to stay, and is something employers will have to continue to address to remain competitive talent recruiters.

From a women in technology standpoint, the most important work change of the last 18 months may be relief from travel-heavy schedules. Johnson, who spent much of her career in consulting, observed that there’s long been good parity between the genders in consultancy up to the point at which women start having families, to care for high-needs children or to support aging parents. Now that we’ve demonstrated that so much of our work can be done collaboratively but without meeting face-to-face, we just may see fewer women dropping out of the workforce and thus more women ascending into senior positions.

Pay It Forward…There’s Still a Long Way to Go

Our panelists agreed: opportunities and roles for women in technology are growing more abundant as awareness of and commitment to improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace (generally) and in technology (specifically) has become a priority. However, there’s still a long way to go.

Earlier this year, a report from talent firm Revolent revealed that representation among women CIOs is up a meager 2.8 percent since 2018. And by some measures, things have actually gotten worse. A “Rebooting Representation” report published by Pivotal Ventures and McKinsey & Company showed that the share of Black, Latina and Native American women receiving computing degrees dropped by one-third over the past decade to just 4 percent.

With growing awareness of the issue and a growing number of organizations promoting interest in STEM among girls, there’s reason for optimism. But that optimism will be realized only through action.

Ray challenged the audience with a call to action: “Too often we come to conferences, talk about these things, but then don’t take action. Don’t let this be one of those times. Go back home, visit a local school, talk to the girls there, and encourage them. Pass this message on, and make a difference.”


Ascend 2022

Ragan Cohn

Ragan Cohn

An accomplished association management executive, Ragan Cohn, CAE is the executive director of the Oracle Applications & Technology Users Group (OATUG).