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Women’s Leadership Conference: Focus on the Work, Not on Fitting In

Executives Share Insights on Career Advancement, Professional Development

Networking at the UMass Lowell Women's Leadership Conference 2019 Photo by Joy LeDuc
Networking time is a key part of the UML Women's Leadership Conference.

06/21/2019
By Katharine Webster

Be true to yourself – because it will help you in your career, several speakers told the nearly 300 women who attended the fourth annual UML Women’s Leadership Conference.

Lorna Boucher ’86, director of marketing at Instinet Holdings and the opening keynote speaker, described how in her first job as a consultant, she worked hard to be taken seriously in the male-dominated financial services industry. So she wore pantsuits and glasses and pulled her hair back into a severe style.

“One day, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘I’m in drag!’” she said.

Lorna Boucher '86, director of marketing at Instinet Holdings, kicked off the 2019 Women's Leadership Conference at UMass Lowell Photo by Joy LeDuc
Lorna Boucher '86, director of marketing at Instinet Holdings, advised women to be true to themselves instead of worrying about fitting in at work.

Boucher let her hair down, shed the glasses and started wearing more colorful, comfortable clothes – evolving a style she calls “business boho.” Here’s what she discovered: When she wasn’t so preoccupied with fitting in, she could focus more energy on her actual work.

Boucher, who won Markets Media’s 2017 “Marketing Maven” award for women in finance, said she has likewise learned to use her sarcastic sense of humor at work, especially to disarm bosses who are inclined to bully their subordinates.

“When you think about a brand, it starts from within. It’s about being true to yourself,” she said. “You need to use your personal background, your unique take.”

This year, for the first time, the conference included a special focus on the tech sector. Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who founded the conference in her first year as chancellor, spoke about the university’s efforts to level the playing field for women in the STEM disciplines. Moloney just won an award from the Massachusetts Higher Technology Council for her pioneering work in web-based learning and integrating entrepreneurship into higher education.

In a workshop on demystifying the tech industry, three women in senior, nontechnical positions debunked some common myths about high tech companies, like that you have to work insanely long hours. 

Lalitha Gunturi, associate general counsel at NETSCOUT, spoke on a panel about the high tech industry, at the 2019 UMass Lowell Women's Leadership Conference Photo by Joy LeDuc
Lalitha Gunturi, associate general counsel at NETSCOUT, encouraged women to pursue careers at high tech companies.

Ann M. Barry, director of global risk management for Juniper Networks, said she worked in the retail, government and financial services sectors before taking a job at a tech firm. She has stayed with tech ever since, in part because of the more flexible hours – and the excitement.

“It’s cutting-edge,” Barry said. “The work is challenging, and the benefits are great.”

Jane Circle, senior manager at Red Hat, said she got into tech “by accident” while earning her master’s degree in opera performance. She loved it.

“You’re working with all these people with great ideas. No coding is required for great ideas,” Circle said.

Lalitha Gunturi, associate general counsel at NETSCOUT, earned an engineering degree in college before going to law school. After working as a patent attorney for a law firm for a decade, she joined a tech company. She said she likes the less hierarchical structure, and that her role has expanded from simply offering legal advice to acting as a partner and project manager.

“It’s very collaborative. You feel you’re more valued,” she said. “Because of my role, I know a lot about what other people are doing, so I can connect them. I spend most of my time communicating and collaborating.”

Sophie Vandebroek, head of emerging partnerships at IBM, with UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney at the 2019 Women's Leadership Conference Photo by Joy LeDuc
Sophie Vandebroek, vice president of emerging technology partnerships at IBM, with Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who just won an award from the Massachusetts Higher Technology Council.

Moderator Elissa Magnant, visiting professor of management in the Manning School of Business, noted that women still only make up 26 percent of computing professionals in the U.S. At high tech firms, men dominate the technical jobs while women gravitate toward other positions, in part because if women lack one skill listed in a job description, such as coding, they won’t apply.

The closing keynote speaker, Sophie Vandebroek, vice president of emerging technology partnerships at IBM, holds 14 patents and is heavily involved in the company’s research on artificial intelligence, quantum computing and blockchain. 

She spoke about the importance of building relationships and support networks, both at work and for her family. Her first husband died young, leaving her to raise three children on her own while building her career at Xerox, where she rose to chief technology officer.

“There are so many things you think are important in life, and they’re really not important,” she said. “The most precious thing is time, because you absolutely cannot do everything.”

Women of all ages and career stages attended the 2019 Women's Leadership Conference at UMass Lowell Photo by Joy LeDuc
Nearly 300 women of all ages and career stages attended the conference.

That means prioritizing and saying “No” a lot, she said.

“You give up things, like my kid is wearing the same t-shirt to preschool three days in a row,” she said. “I stopped writing Christmas cards.”

While she didn’t fuss over her son’s clothes, Vandebroek did step in when she discovered that her daughter and several friends who were good at math had been relegated to the regular fourth-grade math class, while the advanced math class was packed with boys. Vandebroek organized the other girls’ moms and demanded that the school move them up.

“It’s something unfortunate in this culture that parents need to stay on top of,” she said.

Especially if they want their daughters to go into tech – on the coding side.