Making room at the table
Being a professional leader takes more than business acumen and a stroke of luck. It often requires the ability to build a supportive company culture and the audacity to pursue new ideas from those with different experiences.
As CEO and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, Lucy Sanders knows this firsthand. We talked with Sanders about cultivating values and supporting inclusion in the workplace and how to learn from professional failures.
Much of your career has focused on a commitment to innovative technology, and your current role focuses on supporting underrepresented communities in computing. Why are these areas an emphasis for you?
Lucy Sanders: I first started working on underrepresentation in computing while at AT&T Bell Labs as an R&D lead. At that time, my organization partnered with Colorado School of Mines on a program to assure Indigenous students had pathways into engineering, science and math. Over the years, I became broadly interested in the path of all those who are underrepresented in computing and engineering. What can we do, either as practitioners or nonprofit leads or researchers, to make sure these disciplines have representation from a broad range of identity groups? They will bring many great ideas and lived experiences that can lead to new discoveries, new products, new services, etc. So as an innovator—which I consider myself to be—the potential really excites me, and I can’t wait to see what they bring.
What have been some the challenges you’ve faced, and what did you learn from them?
Sanders: I’ve received great mentoring in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have a number of wonderful allies—people who are supportive of bringing everybody to the technology and engineering design table.
Of course, there are challenges. Whenever you are a member of a minority group in any context, you’ll most likely face cultural challenges. For example, a person who identifies as a female in engineering, an African American in computer science or a person who identifies as male in nursing may find it more challenging since these cultures often have large majority populations. Likewise, whenever you’re in the majority group, you have an obligation to create a more inclusive culture for those who are not in the majority.
When I got my computer science degree, there were very few women in the discipline, and the challenges were tough. I had to work harder. I had to grow my own skills. But then again, I have to hand it to Bell Labs—they were also doing hard work to create an inclusive culture and not just putting it on my back to be tougher or better than everybody else.
As we work to create inclusive cultures, we need to focus on removing systemic barriers that make it difficult for members of marginalized groups to succeed and not on solutions that suggest they have some type of deficit that needs correction before they can fit into a biased system. Of course, everybody benefits from professional development, but professional development should not
be confused with making our cultures more inclusive.
Would you say that cultivating those values within a business starts at the system level rather than the personal level?
Sanders: I think it’s both. As engineers, we like to say, “Is it this or that?” But it’s both. Individuals can do a lot, and in fact, they’re very important, because if you think about inclusive cultures—either in a classroom or a company—it’s our everyday interactions with students or on a work project team that cause people to feel like they either belong or they don’t. However, it’s also important for top leadership to really understand what inclusive cultures are and how to work inclusive leadership into their skill sets.
What was a time when you failed, and what did you learn from that failure?
Sanders: To me as an engineer, there was true and there was false. And there was right and there was wrong. And I think that’s very normal for engineers, because that’s how we’re trained to solve problems and come up with the best solutions. The failures I’ve had have been mostly centered around not recognizing the gray space and not understanding that it’s not always that binary. I would sometimes offend people, because I would say, “Well, this is just plain wrong,” but I hadn’t taken the human perspective into play. What I’ve learned is, if you want your ideas implemented, you’ve got to take both the engineering perspective and human perspective and intersect them.