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Persistence is the Key to Success

Much has been said about the most important factors to achieve career success as a woman in technology. Focusing on results, talent, speaking up, developing a personal brand, negotiation, networking, and mentoring, come to mind. One factor that I have come to think is not talked about enough, but absolutely critical is persistence.

Much has been said about the most important factors to achieve career success as a woman in technology. Focusing on results, talent, speaking up, developing a personal brand, negotiation, networking, and mentoring, come to mind. One factor that I have come to think is not talked about enough, but absolutely critical is persistence.

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What does being persistent mean? One the one hand, it is a cliché to simply say “don’t give up” to a woman in technology who is feeling isolated, unheard, is experiencing significant barriers to advancement and the negative effects of bias and stereotyping, along with insane work-life commitments. Many do throw in the towel, and turnover rates for women in technology reflect this. On the other hand, all the successful women I have talked to, when asked about how they made it, point to resilience or persistence in some way:

        Nora Denzel, SVP, Intuit, on a panel at the 2009 Grace Hopper Celebration, advised envisioning one’s career not as a “path” but an “obstacle course” – if you expect the obstacles to come and see them as part of the journey, you will not feel daunted by them. That perspective has consistently helped her thrive in her career.

        Linda Apsley, Director at Microsoft, when I asked her about critical success factors, pointed to resilience first, what she sees is “the ability to roll with the many experiences you will encounter in your life. Be willing to stay focused on your goals regardless of voices that might discourage you.”

        Judy Priest, Distinguished Engineer at Cisco, pointed to the same thing. She says: “A successful career is a marathon.  Tenacity and perseverance will be rewarded.  Stay with it and don’t accept a dead end.”

There are countless of other examples. I expect to hear more stories of persistence and resilience next week at our annual Anita Borg Women of Vision Awards Banquet, where we will honor three women for their lifetime achievements in leadership, innovation, and social impact.

Dan Pink has famously said that “persistence trumps talent”. Does persistence trump bias and stereotyping and other organizational barriers? I don’t think persistence is enough (we need to fix the system first and foremost), but it certainly is a necessary condition to success in an industry that is not always welcoming to women. A big driver of that persistence is self-confidence. Women in technology consistently defy stereotypes – it takes a lot of self confidence to keep going when those around you don’t expect you to succeed. That means overcoming the imposter syndrome, the psychological phenomenon by which women are less likely to internalize their success. Indeed, research shows that men tend to attribute their own success to their own skill and effort, while women tend to attribute their success to external factors. It gets even worse when you are a woman in a male-dominated world and your competence is constantly being questioned. And if you are a woman of color, you get a double-dose of having your competence questioned constantly.  In a standing room only panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, our “imposter panel” made of highly successful women in technology, talked about how they overcame their own imposter feelings and provided several tips for women. Go on and read the list of tips from this talk, compiled by the University of Washington Women in CS and Engineering blog. The next time you encounter a major roadblock, think of it as another obstacle on that course that is your career. And keep running.

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