Female executives discuss succeeding in male-dominated industries

By Dan Nakaso
San Jose Mercury News

Business women constantly ask Cynthia Stoddard and Rebecca Jacoby how to find balance in their lives and the question came up again — twice — when Stoddard and Jacoby spoke at a recent businesswomen’s luncheon in Menlo Park, Calif.

They told the 50 women at the luncheon that each of them has to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, which will help them find the courage to make their lives more balanced.

Stoddard is chief information officer and senior vice president of NetApp, and Jacoby is chief information officer and senior vice president of the IT and cloud and systems management technology group at Cisco Systems.

They arrived at their positions by different career paths.

Stoddard, 56, was born in South Hadley, Mass. She described herself as a “math nerd,” noted she can’t swim but likes to sew and made her oldest daughter’s prom dresses and competitive ice-skating outfits. Her family has a cabin and she goes downhill and cross-country skiing once or twice a month. “I ski just to see the mountains.”

Jacoby, 51, is from Hayward, Calif., and has followed Bruce Springsteen concerts across the country. She notes that in one week, she saw him perform in Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland and Oakland.

The eighth of nine children, Jacoby has 21 nieces and nephews. She has run two marathons and has had a 20-game San Francisco Giants ticket plan for about 25 years.

In a joint interview, and in their speeches, they shared similar perspectives on succeeding in a tech industry dominated by men.

Q: How can more women break into the ranks of middle management?

A: Jacoby: You’ve probably heard the quote from Madeleine Albright: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I subscribe to that. One of the things that annoys me is when I hear women tell me how women are hard to work with.

Stoddard: Girls, females, aren’t getting the right base of math and science at a young age. It’s tough as a girl to be a math nerd or science nerd. It’s easy when they’re little, but you kind of get a label, and I remember back when I was in high school, people would say, “There’s the science and math nerd who knows all the numbers.” It takes a strong personality to handle that.

Q: What does it say that women in business ask about finding balance in their lives?

A: Stoddard: I would say it’s an equal struggle for men to find that balance. Work can consume your own day but you have to be able to say, “I’m going to leave the office and have this personal time to be with my family.” I feel I never missed anything that was important in my girls’ lives because I always built my schedule around those personal moments that they had. But you have to be pretty strong to do that, because you can be consumed by your work schedule. You have one life and part of your life is at home and part of your life is at the office.

Jacoby: The only cure for it is to say that I’m comfortable with who I am and the decisions I’ve made. But it’s a maturity journey for women to make that decision. There’s a different point in your life, maybe in your 30s and late 30s, that you get comfortable with it, so it really is a journey.

Q: Did your birth order in large families play any role in your careers? (Jacoby was the eighth of nine children. Stoddard was the third of four children.)

A: Jacoby: My brothers and sisters were told, “Make sure you take care of the babies.” So we were raised as if we were special. If you have a family that convinces you that you’re special, that gives you a big advantage in life. I grew up in an environment in Hayward, Calif., where most of the people did not have that supportive environment.

My mom raised us alone after my father died when I was very young. I learned most of what I’ve done as a leader by watching her keep nine kids under control while still letting us be really independent. The most important thing I learned from my mother is: Life is good. Be optimistic. If you want to be a happy person, just pretend that Plan B was Plan A. Having that approach to things is really critical. I was fortunate to learn that from her.

Stoddard: My mother always said, “Do your best and you will be successful.” There was a high vote of confidence and encouragement. My mother always told me that, “If you’re alone at night, put your head up and walk with confidence.” I hung out a lot with my grandmother. She was a little lady, 4-foot-11, and she was from Czechoslovakia and never spoke English. As her granddaughter, my role was to translate what she wanted into English. That’s helped me communicate with a lot of different people in the world. I had to develop listening skills as a little child.

Q: Why do you both emphasize that women in the workplace need introspection and have to be able to honestly identify their strengths and weaknesses?

A: Jacoby: Being a different person at work than you are at home is a recipe for disaster. You have to be true to yourself and be that same consistent person. Being conscious of your strengths is a very, very important way to live your life and develop your career. If you have a talent, it’s not like you want to run around telling everyone. But be honest with yourself, at least.

Stoddard: You have to do your own personal inventory. When people look at me, what would they say? What do I think of myself? When you’re able to do that, you can showcase your own abilities as an individual. Define your strengths, define where you want to be. Take your career in steps and build on that breadth of knowledge to get to where you want to be.


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