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How my gender-neutral upbringing made me a better leader

The chief innovation officer of RingCentral talks about how the experiences that shaped her growing up led to her career success.

How my gender-neutral upbringing made me a better leader
[Photo: Michał Parzuchowski/Unsplash]

As the only child of Ukrainian immigrants, I credit the gender-neutral way my parents raised me with a lot of my success in the tech sector today.

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Undoubtedly, factors like steering me to play with Legos contributed to my fascination with engineering, and practicing piano for two hours daily taught me a lot about discipline. Other aspects of their unique parenting approach have contributed markedly to my confidence today with leading in a tech space that, traditionally, has been male-dominated.

For example, my parents urged me at a young age to participate in sports, which have been a lifelong love for me. They could have relegated me to traditional sports for girls such as gymnastics, but instead they encouraged me to pursue any sport of interest. I played badminton and Ping Pong alongside both boys and girls. Then, I fell in love with speed and with ice skating as fast as I could. I wasn’t interested in figure skating, so I ended up playing ice hockey with boys.

They encouraged me to play chess, which also ended up paying big dividends in my growth. When we first came to America, my parents sent me to summer camp at Tawonga, outside Yosemite in California. It was awkward at first, but when a boy challenged me to a game of chess, my summer started to turn around. After I won the game and beat his friend, too, we all became fast friends. Our focus as we played more chess together was not on a player’s gender, rather, on the skill required to win.

Confident in my natural abilities, I was undaunted by the size and gender of those around me. That confidence came from a mix of real skill as well as from my parents fostering a belief in me that I could do anything I set my mind to do—something that has carried over in my life beyond sports.

Today, I’m the chief innovation officer at RingCentral, and I can see how my gender-neutral upbringing paved my path toward success in tech. I had played hockey with boys and beat them in chess, so that meant that I knew how to work with men toward a common goal. And there was no question that I belonged in the game, especially because I had the skills. By teaching me to focus on my passions and abilities and not on preconceived notions of what was appropriate for my gender, my parents helped me grow the confidence to show up in any arena focused on what skills I brought to the table, regardless of who else was seated around it.

To pay it forward, I incorporate much of my parents’ gender-neutral approach into the way that I lead, aiming for all of the employees around me, regardless of their gender, to know that they belong in the game too.

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When my company hires, we look for talent while also accounting for all forms of diversity. We’re careful to account for factors like unconscious bias in hiring as well as in team building.

The communications and collaboration products that my company makes are designed, in part, to flatten hierarchies and to give coworkers room to connect in ways that are effective for them. With women more likely to be interrupted in meetings, offering a platform on which thoughts can be articulated without interruption means that no one’s ideas are drowned out or poached.

When leaders pay attention to making the playing field as level as possible, traditional factors that adversely impact women give way to higher success for the entire company. While gender matters holistically, the specific gender of a person performing a task—whether it’s scoring an ice hockey goal or coding new software—matters far less than whether or not they know and care about what they’re doing and can do it well.

When news broke recently that every S&P 500 company now has at least one woman on its board, I and many female executives like me took a moment to celebrate just how far we’ve come. My upbringing and career focus may have been gender-neutral, but I still remember a time when I was the only woman in the room at tech events, something hard to ignore no matter how I was raised.

I never defined myself as a girl who played ice hockey; I called myself a hockey player. I never bragged about being able to beat boys in chess; I beat other chess players. In college, it’s true that I was one of only a few women studying computer science, but, at the end of my path, I received the same bachelor of science degree as every other student in the computer science program, and my gender wasn’t indicated. Diversity matters, and language matters too. My parents’ focus on raising me in a gender-neutral way yielded my confidence in any space, including my board seats today in what continues to be a male-dominated tech industry.

Kira Makagon is RingCentral‘s chief innovation officer, a serial entrepreneur, and a fierce advocate for women in tech.

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