There's a recurring theme among successful leaders that Verizon's Nicki Palmer wants women in telecom to adopt: Don't be afraid to fail.
"If you go one direction, and you fail, don't be afraid of failure. Learn from your failures and change course," advised Palmer. " ... If you are afraid of failure, you're never going to get anywhere. You're never going to try things and you're never going to have big successes, which is what we all want, right?"
This week, Palmer, chief product development officer for Verizon, joined Rachel Rea, SVP of operations at Boingo Wireless, for a virtual fireside chat hosted by Boingo Women, an employee resource and networking group. She shared her advice for women in telecom navigating a traditionally male-dominated industry. Palmer has played a lead role in Verizon's 4G and 5G network deployments and product development, previously held the role of CTO at Verizon, and has been with the service provider for over 20 years.
Large global technology firms will only have female representation of about 33% in 2022, up about 2% from 2019, forecasts Deloitte Global. The number drops when female representation is broken out further – only 25% of women are forecasted to fill technical roles, up from 22.4% in 2019.
"The last I checked, the numbers are around two-thirds of the practicing female engineers have a father or brother that is also in the field," said Palmer. "And that just goes to show you that the women that have done this, like you and I today, had a role model at home … but we can never all have the right role models in our own home. So, it's an important thing for us to think about for the future pipeline."
As women in the telecom industry work toward parity in representation, particularly in technical roles, they can't let fear get in the way of their career goals, said Palmer. She encouraged the audience not to underestimate their abilities, and also to think about how they can acknowledge and then move past their fears.
"Fear, in my experience, is what gets in the way for men and women. But I certainly see it a lot with women – the fear of not fitting in, fear of saying the wrong thing and standing out, fear of not being part of a team, fear of not coming across the way you think you should, or not looking and sounding the way you think you should. Those are all de-railers."
When she finds herself stuck in a cycle of catastrophic thinking, Palmer said she imagines the worst-case scenario and realizes that the potential outcomes of her decisions are usually not as bad as she initially thought.
"Fear ends up being the enemy to any kind of meaningful job satisfaction, progression or reaching your goals," she said.
In her career, Palmer has also learned that it's OK to be wrong – no one is expected to know everything about their role at a company out of the gate. Curiosity is a great trait for engineers to foster as it shows employers a desire to learn new skills and improve business processes, said Palmer.
Identifying the decision makers in an organization and finding out where key decisions are being made is another way to make a bigger impact and gain more of a voice in the future of the business, explained Palmer. Earlier in her career, she noticed male leaders making critical business decisions while they gathered during smoke breaks. She initially felt left out but started attending those informal meetings, which became an opportunity for her to network.
"I realized early on that that's where the actual decisions were being made," she said. "And I wasn't there. I didn't take up smoking, but I did join them."
Knowing when to blend in with existing business practices that aren't ideal for fostering diversity of thought and representation, and knowing when to challenge those norms is a balancing act, said Palmer. "It's a decision process, when you try to determine, 'Am I going to dig my heels in on this and try to make it right? Or am I going to try to blend in a little bit and make change from within the system?' "
Women in telecom should also broaden their definition of what constitutes success at work, she explained. Focusing only on climbing the corporate ladder and achieving a specific title can close women off to new opportunities.
Overall, the environment for women in telecom has greatly improved since she started in the industry 30 years ago, said Palmer.
"Today, most men out there want to help women succeed in business and in industry. We still have our challenges, but it was a very, very different environment."
While much has changed and progress is being made, women in telecom aren't out of the woods yet. The pandemic has also been less than kind to women in the workforce struggling to balance work while supporting their families. "The pandemic has affected women more than men at a 19% greater rate," said Palmer. "Women are leaving the workforce in droves. And 68% site burnout as a key factor. The pandemic is layered on top of an already occasionally rough situation with all these other responsibilities and stressors, and a ton of uncertainty."
- Verizon SVP Debika Bhattacharya on the credibility conundrum for women in comms
- 'Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,' Google's Joshi advises on women leadership programs
- Podcast: Women in Comms Spotlight – Verizon engineer on the value of being a 'relentless doer'
— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading