One of the highlights of the HR Technology Conference and Exposition for me over the past couple of years has been the Women in HR Technology event. A half day event occurring on the first day of the conference, it brings together some of the most successful women in the space to address questions like how do we attract more women into tech and HR tech roles, and how do we help those in the field overcome the challenges of working in a historically male dominated field to thrive and ultimately grow into leadership roles?
One of the sessions on this year’s agenda is a panel discussion with several highly successful and highly regarded women in the HR technology space called “Climbing the Leadership Ladder.” In advance of the session I had the chance to catch up with some of the panelists.
Here’s what Kathryn Minshew, CEO and Founder of The Muse, had to say about her own leadership journey, what we all need to do in our workplaces to support women, and how the culture at The Muse creates not just a female-friendly workplace, but a better workplace for all.
I’m Kathryn Minshew, the CEO and Founder of The Muse, a career platform that supports over 75 million people looking to craft meaningful careers. I get to work with an incredible team every single day, building the go-to-destination for people to research everything they need to know about companies and careers. We also give companies the tools they need to share their story and engage top talent.
Simply put, we believe that life’s too short to hate your career. We also believe that people and organizations should focus on finding the right fit—so rather than telling our users which companies are “the best” (or the worst!), we highlight what makes a company’s culture unique with employee testimonials, office photos & videos, and culture insights. This empowers candidates to explore all their options until they find what they’re looking for (e.g. a company that aligns with their individual needs and values) and helps organizations connect on a more authentic level with the right people for their team.
What did your specific leadership journey look like? How did you get to where you are now? What were some of your stumbling blocks, and what/who helped you to achieve your success?
I’ve had an incredibly winding road to where I am today! I started my career determined to become an ambassador or work for the CIA, but soon realized - after working in a US Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus - that field wasn’t for me after all. Then I became a management consultant, working for McKinsey for a few years and traveling all around the United States, before taking a nonprofit role with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and moving to Kigali, Rwanda. After that, I got involved in tech and eventually founded The Muse.
One lesson you could take away from my early career experiences is that the straight path isn’t always the best path. I’m really happy with my diverse experiences, and I learned so much from each one. That said, it wasn’t easy while it was happening - often I felt lost or like I didn’t know whether I was moving in the right direction. It can be helpful to realize that feeling is very common, and you often won’t be able to connect the dots (and realize why it all makes sense!) until you’re looking back on your career in retrospect.
In terms of stumbling blocks, there were many: I had to learn multiple new industries and lexicons every time I changed careers, and several of the skills required didn’t come easily to me at first. But I focused on relentlessly learning and experimenting, and I think that was a critical factor in ultimately succeeding. I also wasn’t afraid to fail. Actually, let me reframe that - I was afraid to fail, in that I had all sorts of fearful and uncomfortable emotions about the idea of failure, but I didn’t let it stop me from trying things anyway. I kept trying and learning, even if I knew each experiment or move might not work out. I was OK with the fact that I might not succeed or might end up looking dumb and silly. And that has made all the difference.
You will be participating in a panel discussion at HR Tech called “Climbing the Leadership Ladder” as part of the Women in HR Technology event. The description of the session says “The research is unquestionable: Companies and the economy perform better when they fully engage women. The presence of women leaders in the workplace sends a strong gender diversity message, attracting and encouraging others to reach for similar opportunities while providing role models and mentors.” Yet despite the research, we are still not there, and promoting more women into leadership roles, especially in technology, still seems to be an ongoing issue. What do you think are the biggest challenges and how do we get better?
Women have made huge strides but the frustrating reality is that we still have a long way to go. We’re trying to disrupt deeply ingrained stereotypes and outdated habits that keep women down—and it’s a movement that takes collective, constant, and conscious effort.
To give one small example, women in the workplace are often still subjected to “background work”—tasks that happen every single day in the office but don’t necessarily advance your career. These are things like planning a happy hour for your department or being assigned to take notes in a meeting, tasks that women are often asked to take on by default. It may seem harmless on the surface, but this type of background work takes away from time that could have been put toward working on a reach project, which then could have led to a promotion—so it has long-term career impact. One simple way to start consciously breaking this habit is to rotate these responsibilities between everyone on your team and even the playing field.
In addition, people of all ages and genders have to educate themselves about the way that unconscious bias works, and then consistently work to overcome it. Most of us still unintentionally associate leadership characteristics with the masculine, and many people unintentionally react with suspicion or hostility when a woman breaks certain gender norms. I even catch myself unintentionally reacting in biased ways at times, and I’ve dedicated a large part of my life to the advancement of women! Research proves these gendered dynamics and unconscious biases are deeply entrenched in our society, and they hold women back in very real ways. The more we recognize and look out for the insidious effects of unconscious bias, the better we’ll be able to combat them.
What are you doing specifically at your company, The Muse, to develop and promote more women? What advice would you offer to HR professionals trying to make a difference in their own companies?
We try to lead by example. We’re a female-led company with two women founders and an executive team that’s over 50% women, so everyone who joins The Muse sees and interacts with women in leadership roles every single day. We’re also very conscious about how we treat our employees and how we support people of all genders with our policies. One example of this is our "Baby at Work" program, which we implemented to help ease the transition back into work after being on parental leave. The program encourages and allows parents to bring their new baby to work several days per week, and we have a dedicated room and supplies at the office to make it easier. I’m really proud of it—and people love having our littlest Musers around the office!
I also believe that if you want to make an impactful difference for women, your efforts have to go beyond gender. At The Muse, we want everyone of all backgrounds and diverse perspectives to feel like they can bring their whole, authentic selves to the office and be successful. Our core values root us in being accepting and empathetic—and that makes us more than just a female-friendly workplace, but a better place to work as a whole.
For HR teams, this also means recognizing that fostering a diverse workplace isn’t a top of the funnel or bottom of the funnel problem: it needs to be embedded in everything you do. It’s not enough to look for an application rate that’s a certain percentage women, or aim to promote a certain number of POC each year—because those initiatives might not solve the right challenges for your organization. You have to think about it holistically, identify your particular pain paints, and weave diversity *and* inclusion into your hiring needs and promotional/leadership tracks.
What advice would you give to women who are on their own leadership journeys, especially those trying to advance in traditionally male-dominated industries like tech?
One great piece of advice I was once given is to think outside the box of traditional mentorship. I like to frame it as building an informal board of advisors, with different people who can help you in different ways—versus just one mentor that you to go for everything. So, yes, reach out to people with similar backgrounds to yours who are successful and have seasoned experience—but also don’t be afraid to seek mentorship from people who may seem totally unfamiliar (or people at your exact same level - their strengths and weaknesses are likely to be different from yours!). Connecting with people outside your field can unlock a fresh perspective and help you challenge conventional wisdom. Beyond that, having a network of champions from a wide range of backgrounds will open up opportunities that you otherwise might have never imagined or encountered were you to keep a more narrow mentorship mindset.
Having a peer group of people who share your goals and aspirations is also really empowering, for women especially. When you’re all in the same boat trying to figure things out for the first time, it can be easy to feel like, “how are we supposed to lift each other up when no one knows what they’re doing in the first place”—but that’s the beautiful thing about turning to your peers for guidance. You’ll experience a lot of the same things, just at different times, so you can compare notes and help each other in really valuable ways. Even if that means one person has to learn the hard way first! -- because, ultimately, it evens out.
You can hear more from Kathryn along with the rest of the Climbing the Leadership Ladder panel during the Women in HR Technology event on Tuesday, September 11th at 9:30AM.