Being the only two women in the room forged a special bond between two C-suite tech trailblazers

Women in tech often share stories about how challenging it is to be the only woman in the room, but occasionally you can use it to your advantage. For Gayleen Gray and Fariba Rawhani, being the only two women at a CIO dinner a few years ago forged a special connection. As Gayleen, Assistant Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, McMaster University, likes to say, “Two women evolving in different universes found one another.”

Fariba Rawhani, senior vice president and CIO, Teranet Inc.

Adds Fariba, Senior Vice President, and CIO, Teranet Inc., “Professional women like us have had fascinating but challenging careers and have been on similar journeys. We have immense understanding and appreciation for those who have been on the same path. Maybe we’ve worked in different industries facing somewhat different challenges, but similar learnings. I know what Gayleen is experiencing.”

Not only do they share a fascinating list of achievements as trailblazers in tech, but they are both passionate gender diversity advocates, quietly leveraging the power of the C-suite to support women in an intelligent and intentional way. They are guided by the notion that change begins one step at a time, and small actions can make a huge difference.

Fariba likes to call her focus on advocacy a sisterhood or women’s collective. “By sisterhood, it doesn’t mean we love our brothers less. But there’s a different bond between women. At work, I view women as my sisters. I want to ensure they’re protected, and their unique needs are heard. When I was coming up, all my mentors were male. There were no female mentors, and I am doing my best to change that.”

Gayleen Gray, assistant vice president and chief technology officer, McMaster University

Gayleen’s advocacy is framed by an abundance mindset. “There is enough work and enough opportunity for everybody. Just because you had to claw your way to the top doesn’t mean other women must do the same. There is a real need for people who work hard and leverage their talents to their best advantage and to the organization’s advantage. They give of themselves without feeling like they must change to meet other’s expectations.”

Gayleen and Fariba recently shared their knowledge at the Red Hat Canada 6th annual women and leadership event, on a panel moderated by emerging leader Alessia Grano, Sales Account Executive, Red Hat. For the first time in over two years, Red Hat women’s community in Canada met in person with advocates of all ages to reflect on how the pandemic has been an inflection point. We sat down after the event to capture the pearls of wisdom from Gayleen and Fariba to inspire women as they navigate the new hybrid workplace.

Supporting women = flexibility

When you’re a woman in the C-suite, you can influence how politics are shaped, and you can advocate for flexibility. Covid has amplified the importance of empathy and understanding in policymaking and culture to keep employees engaged and support women who are balancing so much from their office.

“I say this to my team: ‘If you can’t be here two days a week because your child is sick or your elderly parent needs help, family is priority number one’,” says Gayleen. “I know the females on my team are giving 120 per cent. They don’t need to explain why they need flexibility. I trust them. They’re hard-working people.”

Adds Fariba: “I do the same. Sometimes you must navigate the politics and the boundaries to help women. It’s not because I don’t respect the established norms and the inner workings of an organization. Life is difficult. Not everyone has family support, money, or someone to step in at a moment’s notice. I want to be there for my staff. I care, and I am focused on building cultures that are flexible and accommodating which foster loyalty and reciprocity.”

Giving credit to women where it’s due

Gayleen and Fariba know women are often hesitant to take credit for their contributions. They are trying to reverse this troubling trend with a laser focus on showing appreciation, recognizing the contributions of their female team members/colleagues, saying thank you and giving them the stage.

“At times, your nurturing behaviour can go against you,” says Gayleen. “I facilitated a Higher Education Women in Tech CIO panel recently, and we all agreed women spend a lot of time apologizing, undermining ourselves, and diminishing our work. We don’t want to appear too showy. Why is that?”

Adds Fariba: “That’s why women leave workplaces. They give, and they can’t take. No one has to put a woman down because she’s so busy doing it herself. I praise women openly. I don’t let anyone say anything negative about them. I may give feedback quietly and confidentially, but not in public. I think the negative self-talk is how you chip away at yourself. You say one negative thing about your female colleagues, and the collective loses. You must protect the collective. Within the safety of the collective, you need to give women proper feedback. If women don’t get good feedback, they will continue to work like crazy without achieving their aspirations or the positions they deserve.”

Embrace your voice and celebrate how unique you are

Fariba’s story is fascinating: born in Turkey to Iranian parents, educated in Europe, arrived in Canada in her early 20s, continued her tech studies at Vancouver College and eventually earned an MBA from the Ivey School of Business. She became a vice president before she was 30. Even with this long list of successes, it took Fariba a long time to find her voice and she wants to be a role model for others.

“English is my first language, and I may have an accent, but people still say, ‘Where were you from?’ I’m from Iran, but that’s not my society. I haven’t visited Iran in years. I’m Canadian, but I feel I am a citizen of the globe, which is the benefit of living your life in many countries and being exposed to many cultures. This paradox changed me and inspired me. My life has been a series of journeys and learnings. Nothing was ever handed to me. I didn’t have family or cultural connections, but I created a huge network. When I ask for help, my network is there for me.  I am there for them. For women to succeed, they must choose their battles and turn to their sisters for help. You can’t do it all yourself.”

You don’t need to be rooted in tech to succeed

Gayleen is an English major who recognized a niche for her skills. She knew she could use her communication and curiosity competencies in any role, and sought technical credentials through various certifications to find her place in the growing IT sector. It provided a solid foundation.  Now, with over 23 years of experience, she has never felt a need to know everything about tech.

“That is impossible,” says Gayleen. “I know some women feel this way, and it holds them back. It’s okay to be vulnerable and say you don’t know. We all have agency. Mine is people, strategy, budget, and leadership. I need to know what matters from a strategic perspective or an organizational perspective. If I don’t understand, I say, ‘Can you explain?’ Who doesn’t want to educate somebody about their area of knowledge or expertise? If I go to one of my developers and ask about how something technical works, it creates an opportunity to make connections and to better understand what people are doing.”

Be bold and fearless

Fariba and Gayleen both embrace challenges. When Fariba is asked for her opinion, she knows her voice counts and must be heard. “There are moments in my life when I needed to put something on the record. I need to share the truth. That’s who I am. Sometimes people don’t want to hear that, but we must stand up for our beliefs. Don’t be marginalized, and don’t let anyone else be marginalized. I dream of a world where only your essence matters, not your gender, race, colour, age, or social standing. Rather I want all of us to be appreciated for being unique individuals. There isn’t anyone like you. I dream of this for my daughter, and all our daughters and sons. Our superpower as women is our sisterhood and our desire for a better and fairer world.”

Gayleen loves to support women to be fearless in those big moments of uncertainty. “Don’t be fearful, be fearless. We hold ourselves back when we don’t trust our own abilities. You’re going to land on your feet. I don’t know anybody who’s made a change in their career and said, ‘I wish I’d waited longer.'”

Gayleen and Fariba hope that by sharing their stories, they will  inspire other women to surround themselves with peers they admire, relate to, and want to emulate.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Alix Edmiston
Alix Edmiston
Alix Edmiston is an award-winning Corporate Communications Consultant and a passionate gender diversity advocate. She holds a certificate in Women's Executive Leadership from Yale University.

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