When McKinsey conducted their annual study on women in the workplace for 2020, they found that for every 100 men promoted and hired to manager positions, only 72 women are promoted and hired.
Women occupy a much smaller portion of the workforce, especially higher-level positions. When they are promoted into these higher-level roles, it can be intimidating to be one of the only women in the room. That’s why we sat down with Vidya Peters, previously the Chief Operating Officer at Marqeta and currently a Board Member at Workhuman, and Quyen Pham, Vice President, Sales & Marketing at Swoon, to discuss some of the challenges they have faced to help others going through similar situations.
Throughout this interview, we discuss making an impact, being diverse women in leadership, navigating biases and advice for young women leaders.
Speaker 1: Vidya Peters | Previously the Chief Operating Officer at Marqeta and currently a Board Member at Workhuman
Speaker 2: Quyen Pham | Vice President, Swoon Consulting
Moderator: Megan Hari | Director of Marketing and Sales Operations at Swoon
Megan: What is a leadership lesson that you have learned that is unique to being a female leader?
Vidya: I come from India, and as a woman growing up there, I constantly heard what I couldn’t do. There are such strong expectations of who you are and who you should be that I ended up turning that into an advantage.
In the workforce, especially early on, I would have people tell me that I don’t know marketing, or I don’t have experience in product management, and I never really paid attention to it because that’s what I was told my whole life. Being told “you can’t” created this inner strength and resolved to say, “I absolutely can. I don’t even know what you are talking about.
I have been able to weaponize that and get into any space with a learning mindset. To ask questions and say that I might not have all the answers, but I will figure it out, grow, and master this area, whether you believe I can or not.
Quyen: Being a first-generation immigrant from Vietnam, it’s different in how we look at gender. For example, my dad would say that the best chefs are men, and my mom would secretly whisper in my ear, “but you can be different.” It was a fascinating dynamic, to say the least. My mom had a magical way of influencing my dad to get things done while making him feel like she was partnering and backing him up. She also had a way of empowering me by saying that whatever it is that I wanted to do, just to go out and do it. Essentially, they risked everything they had to come to America with my brother and me, so she was basically saying that if I wasted any opportunity, it would have been wasted for them to take all that risk to get us here. For me, that was always very powerful. It wasn’t just something that I wanted to do, but kind of this obligation because of how much my parents risked. It’s a bit of a chip on my shoulder to say you can do more, you can impact more, and you can influence more, but it’s something that I still carry with me.
For a while, I think this created conflicting expectations for me, and I really struggled around what a woman should be, and not only that, what an American woman should be and what a Vietnamese woman should be. I think the love was always there, there are different biases, and that was an unconscious bias for my dad. He didn’t realize what he was doing and my mom in ways, too. It raised many questions, and that’s why mentors have been such an important thing for me. I’ve always chosen strong women to surround myself with, people I could look up to, but where there’s also mutual respect.
Quyen: How are you ensuring that your voice is heard when there are more men than women in the room in leadership or executive meetings? How do you make sure that you have equal opportunity to discuss your viewpoints and that they are being weighed the same as your colleagues’?
Vidya: Equal opportunity is an incredibly challenging goal for anyone, not just women or women of color. If you think about a boardroom or any meeting room for that matter, whether you like it or not, every meeting is dominated by a few loud voices or prominent personalities. It’s never equal opportunity in any room, meeting, or situation.
I’ve never vied for equal opportunity, but I have vied for the most impact in that room. What I want to ensure is that my voice is heard and that I use my voice to make the most impactful points at the right moment. I think this is important because some prominent or dominant personalities equate the show of voice with impact, and that’s rarely the case. Sometimes, it’s the person who was quiet for 30 minutes before they speak, but when they speak, they just decimated 30 minutes of discussion that preceded it. You don’t have to be the loudest or have an equal share voice; that’s not the goal. You want to ensure that when you speak, it’s super insightful. That’s going to get people to turn around, question their assumptions, and question the course with which they just fired down a particular path. I would encourage people to have that level of thoughtfulness and fearlessness to have the most significant impact possible.
I encourage women to speak at least once if they go to a meeting. If you haven’t spoken, there was no point in you being in that meeting. You want to ensure that you’ve spoken and contributed to that conversation in a high-impact way, and maybe you speak more than once, but it shouldn’t be less.
Megan: What is the greatest risk that you have taken as a professional?
Quyen: The most significant risk that I’ve taken would be the move to Nicaragua to open a boutique hotel with my husband, pre-pandemic. Working anywhere at that point in time wasn’t really accepted. It wasn’t like I was moving to New York when the office is in San Francisco. I was moving to Nicaragua, a developing country, where I’ll have to figure out internet issues and all of that. It definitely took a unique type of leader and company to say that if I could perform, succeed, lead the team, and build what we needed to, then it didn’t matter where I lived.
For me, this move was important. Both my husband and I wanted to do it, and there was going to be this balance if I could do both. I truly felt that I could bring more to the table if I made the move, and after that, it was all about convincing others. Thankfully, I was able to make the move, but this is by far the most significant decision and risk that I’ve ever taken. It can be career-limiting to say, “I want to be an executive, but I’m going to do that in Nicaragua while being a part of a company that’s headquartered in the States.” It was tough.
Vidya: Looking back, I had been at Intuit for a little over six years and had just given birth to my second child, my daughter, and I had this opportunity to join MuleSoft. It was a little-known company back in 2015, and a few things made it quite different. I had a nice role at Intuit and many great people that I was working with.
What ends up happening after you’ve been at a place for a few years is that you’ve built credibility and respect within that company, allowing you to work off that great foundation and focus on great work rather than establishing those relationships. So, there was this risk from going from a very well-known company, where I had a lot of social capital built up to where I had none—going from a consumer and small business software space to an enterprise software space and from a product marketing role to a corporate marketing role where I had absolutely zero knowledge or experience. On top of all that, I had just returned from maternity leave. There was the question of if I wanted to take that risk and what we would do with the new baby.
I remember talking to my husband about it, and he encouraged me to do it. We were young enough at the time that if it didn’t work out, everything would be fine, and I could always go back to a bigger company if I wanted to. If it did work out, think of everything that I would learn in a new marketing aspect. I could familiarize myself with a whole new part of the technology industry as well. He also assured me that he would help more with the baby, which when you have a partner that is willing to pitch in and help you take those risks, it just ends up working out better.
It came down to that I could stay at Intuit and grow 15-20% every year, which would still be amazing with such a young company, or I could go to MuleSoft, roll the dice, and see where it takes me. I’m so glad that I made that switch, even if it was the most challenging experience and transition of my life. When you take those risks and are doing something incredibly hard, the most significant growth happens, and that’s why I’m so glad that I made that move.
Quyen: What does that division of labor look like for you and your home right now with two young kids?
Vidya: The division of labor has varied a lot and has gone up and down over the course of our marriage. My husband has had roles throughout his career where he’s had to travel more, and I’ve taken on more of the childcare. There were also times like at MuleSoft where I had to work more, and he’s had to help more with the children.
We moved to the Netherlands a year ago. This is where my husband is from, and we have a great network of friends and family here locally. However, I don’t speak Dutch, but I’m learning. With so many things that need to be done in the local language such as, parent-teacher meetings, doctor/dentist appointments, bringing the kids to the library to pick out an age-appropriate book to read, he’s had to take on more of that for the time being.
When I was young, I always wanted to be in a relationship where things were completely equal, and now, I think that’s an enormous pressure. Life is long, and there are so many ups and downs that we go through. Since I’ve been married, I’ve been focused more on equality over the long term. If you can get to as equal of a relationship in that regard, it’s healthy. I have sort of given up on getting equality in every moment. I just don’t think that’s practical, nor is it what we need as human beings to get through some of those twists and turns in our career and personal lives.
Megan: What has been the most empowering aspect of being a diverse female leader?
Vidya: The unique lens that we bring to the workplace is the most empowering for me. When I was at Intuit, the maternity leave policy was two weeks of paid leave. Since the people setting the policy were primarily male, they thought that between state benefits and paid family leave, two weeks was plenty. However, I went through two maternity leaves like that, and when I came back from my second one, I told them that it was unacceptable. If they wanted to see more women in leadership roles without giving up the idea of having a family, they had to change it, and they were so receptive to it. We were able to go from two weeks to around five months of paid maternity leave, and all it took was someone with that lens, who had gone through that experience, to say that it was unacceptable.
Another example of that unique lens is how executive team meetings or senior manager calibration meetings will describe the performance of certain people, particularly women or minorities, using certain verbiage. They will use certain adjectives that are stereotypical of a majority, managerial, or leadership persona. Sometimes, all it takes is one person to question if that’s still relevant or essential to the role. We want to be incredibly careful about the assumptions we make when evaluating people, and I’m privileged to be a part of those conversations. I can raise questions and shine a light on some of those assumptions because I don’t believe anyone is doing it out of ill-will; it’s just how they have always thought. So, with the unique perspective that we all bring, we can ask those individuals to help us understand their reasoning and question if that still applies, which will help us create a bit more of an equal workplace.
Quyen: For me, it’s the difference in thought that being a woman and BIPOC plays. Having a unique perspective – not being a quintessential American, not a quintessential Vietnamese, not a quintessential woman – because you grew up with such different thoughts. The path to leadership is quite different for everyone but being able to voice my opinions and having them be heard is something that I think is incredibly special and makes it all worthwhile.
I have been in leadership positions within companies where I have not always felt listened to. I was in such a vast minority of single-digit percentages of being a woman and a minority woman on top of that. It can be exceedingly tricky. When I was early on in my leadership journey, I remember in these forums, where it was difficult to get my voice heard. It was a very male-dominated and white male-dominated room where they were talking about sports and so many other things that I could care less about. It would be challenging to interject and begin to speak about business and things that push the company forward because you start to be viewed in a unique way. They begin to view you as very decisive and overpowering, which are wonderful things to describe men, but not necessarily women as we have a unique stigma around that. I believe that challenging that aspect in many areas has been an interesting but fruitful way to impact that room.
Megan: Do you have any advice for female leaders in those types of rooms or positions where those powerful words that typically describe men are seen as negative when describing women? Also, how can a woman navigate those types of situations to have the best outcome?
Quyen: By no means am I an expert; this is just how I’ve done it, as I don’t believe anyone is doing anything out of malice. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt that whatever they’re doing is just what they know. They’re trying to contribute in their own way. It can build anger, and it can become negative very quickly. So, it’s essential to take a different lens and think to yourself that this is how they know how to operate and what can I do to make sure they understand that I just have the company’s best interest in mind? For me, it would help to meet them halfway, where they’re comfortable. So, for me, to get them to listen, I learned about who the top golfer was. This way, they could at least see and hear that I was in the room, and then, I would flip the conversation to where it needed to be. I built that personal relationship so they could learn a bit about me and what was meaningful for me, so it went both ways. You want to see what they’re interested in and share what you’re interested in, so you build that relationship, figure out how to work together, and ultimately influence each other.
Meet Our Speakers:
Previously the Chief Operating Officer at Marqeta and currently a Board Member at Workhuman
Vice President, Swoon Consulting