Is it a Glass Ceiling? Or is it more like Foam Core?

By Audrey Van Belleghem


Last Thursday I had the pleasure of speaking at Stanford's Women in Electrical Engineering (WEE)/IEEE Conference.  The theme of the event was "Breaking the Glass Ceiling: How to Navigate the Ranks in Today's Workforce".  Among an audience of Stanford students, professors and bay area professionals, we discussed problems often faced by women in the technology field – issues with gender bias, lack of a female community, and unequal opportunity for advancement.


When commenting on the environment at NetApp, I pushed back on the notion of a "glass" ceiling.  While climbing the rungs of the corporate ladder, it does get more difficult with every step, but a glass ceiling seems completely impenetrable.  I likened it more to foam core than glass – because it's possible to break through it!  At NetApp, I also don't feel the barrier is only faced by women.  Breaking through to the executive level is difficult for anyone. 


So why are there fewer female executives than male in engineering?  Frequently, the choice is ours.  We first self-select out of engineering as a field of study, then some of us self-select out of advancement due to other priorities or opportunities where we can invest our time.  Though there are situations where we should consider "Leaning In" more, and we did have some comments on Sheryl Sandberg's recent publication, there are still situations where discrimination exists, and some Stanford students shared unfortunate incidents they have faced and asked for advice.


Other topics we touched on were: how can you be both liked and respected (more important to go for the latter, and the former will come); what is the dual career ladder (it's an opportunity for advancement in both managerial positions and technical individual contributor roles); and the value of an MBA (there are many advantages to an MBA especially to achieve executive level ranks, but honestly if you have a graduate degree in engineering from Stanford, you'll probably be fine)


Much appreciation to the co-conference presenters who contributed a wealth of experience about their journey to success:  Anne Hardy, Vice President at SAP; Judy Priest, Distinguished Engineer at Cisco Systems; Karen Leonard, HW Engineering Manager at Microsoft; and Barbara Gee, Vice President of Programs at the Anita Borg Institute.  And many thanks to Uche Monu of Stanford University's WEE Board for running such a first-rate conference!


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As I am a working women and I work for an IT company I get to learn very good article about problems often faced by women in the technology field. It was a real fact based study that you have done and I loved your post. Thank you.

It gets more difficult every step, break the administrative level is difficult man. But honestly, this is incredible.

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