Celebrating Women’s History Month: Women Senior Leaders from Duo Share Their Stories
At Duo, we celebrated Women’s History Month with a panel discussion on International Women’s Day, featuring women from Duo discussing the importance of challenging biases and misconceptions in pursuit of a more inclusive, gender-equitable world.
The panel consisted of five women senior leaders from Duo:
Jackie Castelli, Director, Product and Technical Marketing
Connie Dimitroff, Director, Go to Market
Megan Furman, Chief of Staff
Amber Lindholm, Head of Design
Iva Blazina Vukelja, Senior Director, Product Management
Bringing it all together was moderator Aubrey Blanche, Senior Director of Equitable Design, Product & People at CultureAmp, who helps organizations like ours build equitable processes, products and experiences to create meaningful, sustainable change.
We’re sharing some of our favorite quotes and lessons learned from the discussion:
Unique Paths to a Career in Technology
Iva Blazina Vukelja, Senior Director, Product Management, had the opportunity to take on a VP role at a startup. It made sense on paper, and it was a good next step based on her career trajectory. However, it would’ve required moving to another new country, building a life and learning a new culture again. Iva decided not to pursue the opportunity — which took her to where she is today:
“Sometimes we perceive that our career path is supposed to go in a straight line — there are expectations of society, our friends, our peers. But the reality is what’s ahead of us isn’t a straight line — it’s a starfield out there. There are many exciting, fun possible paths. It’s the essence of freedom that we have today, which wasn’t always there and wasn’t always granted.”
Amber Lindholm, Head of Design, was close to 30 and wanted to expand her options and what she was working on. She pursued a role at a world-class design consulting firm and was offered a three-month internship with no guarantee of a permanent position. Taking a chance on the opportunity, Amber and her husband relocated from Chicago to Austin, a city that they were unfamiliar with and where they had no other personal or professional roots.
“I believed I could take this leap and turn it into a larger opportunity in the future. In the short term it might not have looked good on paper, but I was able to work really hard and turn it into a full-time job at the end, and it opened doors to incredible opportunities and relationships.”
Megan Furman, Chief of Staff, went to graduate school for political science, but it wasn’t until she put her studies to work that her goals came into clear focus. After working for the Department of Defense and with other smart people who lacked the tools to help them answer the questions they needed to answer to be safe, she saw her future in tech.
“I had been leading one set of products, and that was important to me and interesting, but at the end of the day making sure our people are OK is so much more impactful.” For example, while mentoring someone about how to lead a program, Megan discovered that the way a customer spoke to her mentee was sexual harassment, and she immediately took actions to address it.
Tradeoffs Women Make in Service of Career Progress
Jackie Castelli, Director, Product and Technical Marketing, talked about the importance of women simply understanding that they’re more likely than men to have to weigh work-related decisions: “The obvious one is always, ‘I want a promotion, I want more responsibility,’ but you also need to understand that usually this comes with more work, and more work means less time for yourself, your family, your self-care. Are you comfortable with accepting this kind of tradeoff?”
However, she also pointed out this works in reverse; you can choose to prioritize something other than career advancement. Jackie shared an experience similar to Iva turning down a VP role: “I had a very technical career but wanted to get into product marketing. In order to do that, I had to take a demotion. I did it, but the tradeoff is seeing other people move forward with their career faster than I am. There’s no right answer; you have to do what’s good for you.”
Amber put it in a different perspective: “I don’t necessarily think of it as tradeoffs, but there are so many decisions that you have to make all the time that impact how you focus your energy.” As a career-oriented person in her 20s, she was unsure whether she wanted to add the role of “mom” to her identity.
Ultimately, Amber decided in her mid-30s to start a family and is incredibly grateful to now have three children. She also acknowledged the implications and challenges of being a parent, especially as a woman, that demand a lot of her mentally and physically. For example, she worked in a high-pressure, always-on consulting role, working until the night before having her first child. Immediately it was clear that lifestyle would no longer work for her.
“I had to figure out how to say ‘no’ to certain things, or ‘not right now.’ Thinking through those decisions, I have to really prioritize what I can spend my time on now, what’s most important to me, and understand that even though I can’t do everything right now that I want to, there’s plenty of time to do those things.”
Experiences With Imposter Syndrome and Working Through It
Aubrey Blanche, Senior Director of Equitable Design, Product & People at CultureAmp, who moderated the discussion, shared the story Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. It details how “imposter syndrome took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women.”
To address imposter syndrome, we don’t need to “fix” women, but rather we need to focus on workplaces — making space for a variety of leadership styles and recognizing that diversity of backgrounds and perspectives is just as professional as the “Eurocentric, masculine and heteronormative” model we consider the norm. Another powerful way to deal with imposter syndrome is to shine light on it and speak it.
Megan reflected on her experience transitioning from Head of Operations to Chief of Staff: “When I first took on this new role, getting comfortable — with my voice, asking questions — took adjustment. I was feeling like, ‘Do I belong here?’ and there’s this amazing team of people who all told me the answer is, ‘Yes.’”
She also addressed the importance of pushing her boundaries, and understanding that there are layers to strengths and weaknesses: “There are things I’m really good at — those are in my comfort zone. And then there are other things that are a stretch for me, and other things that are kind of panic-inducing. Being conscious of that, and knowing that I’m building opportunities for myself where some things I’ll be great at and some things are gonna be really new — and I can’t expect the new things to feel the same way as the comfortable things, and I wouldn’t want them to — helps a lot. I also think about strengths and weaknesses. The things that are my strengths will also have a flip side that can be a weakness — being aware of that and working on that while remembering I have this weakness because I have this other strength.”
Iva often experienced imposter syndrome earlier in her work life, which influenced her to push things forward for people earlier in their careers as she advanced professionally. However, she realizes that as a woman, she risks being perceived as aggressive or abrasive, which can put a limit on her career growth: “There’s a lot of self-management to overcome the self-doubt and what I’m gonna call ‘internalized discrimination.’ It’s not necessarily that somebody will discriminate against me, but I’m expecting that they might because of what I’ve seen.”
This “internalized discrimination” often manifests in the differences based on gender that people approach job opportunities, as Iva observed: “Men will reach for more, and then learn the role and excel. Women will want to learn and get comfortable, and then want to reach for more. If a job posting has 10 bullets, a man goes, ‘OK, I check five of these. Good, I’ll apply.’ I’ve personally had to push women to apply to similar positions where they meet eight out of 10 requirements and think they’re not qualified. This is my plea: Please, ladies, if you want it, reach for it. At the worst, you’ll learn something about yourself, what they require for the role. Don’t negotiate against yourself!”
Intersectionality & Women Leaders Lifting as They Climb
Aubrey highlighted that Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how sexism and racism combine to define and shape Black women’s experiences. As discussion around intersectionality has grown, it’s been used to understand different interlocking oppressions.
There’s no such thing as an intersectional person, but everyone has intersections that are unique and important — where we have advantages we can be allies; where we have disadvantages we can look to connect with our communities to understand the systemic barriers holding us back.
Connie looked back on how allies helped shape her career, and how as a senior leader she gets to return the favor. “We all have a specific set of privileges and disadvantages. This hits home for me because the allies I had helped me grow. I grew up in a blue-collar, food-insecure household. I was surrounded by folks who had jobs, not careers. I was the first one to go to college. I wasn’t polished — I learned you just do what it takes to get things done. We all come from different backgrounds, and it’s because of allies — and the proximity they gave me and what they saw in me — that helped me learn, grow and be successful in a complex environment like Cisco.”
“My allyship practice shows up in two ways. One is more informal, and I think everyone can be an ally in this way, through day-to-day interactions in meetings or side conversations with others who I know can influence their career. I always create a safe space for everyone that I work and interact with for them to be themselves — that’s an important part of allyship. I also put others in a position to succeed and help them get what they want — inviting folks to a key meeting where they want to be involved or where they can be in a position to shine. More formally, my allyship is focused on giving back what was given to me. Participating in any forum like this, and doing other internal programs for mentorship and job shadowing so that I can grow my network and be an ally for many more people along the way.”
Advice for Work and Personal Life
The panelists each shared key words of wisdom:
Amber - “Listen to how you describe the things you’re doing. If you hear yourself often saying ‘should,’ this feeling of obligation, pay attention and ask yourself, ‘Is this really something I uniquely need to do?’. This saves me a lot from signing up to obligations that really aren’t serving me or helping me prioritize what I really need to do.”
Connie - “Live with intention and mindfulness in each moment. Just be present in that moment. Drive fierce prioritization, don’t try to do it all. From a career standpoint, ask yourself, ‘What are the two or three things that I need to prioritize in my job today, this week, this year?’ As you’re being mindful about your career, take the time to do the same for your personal life, because you need to put your mental and physical health first. If that’s not right, the rest doesn’t matter — and at the end of the day it’s you who gets to shape your life. If you don’t take the time to do it, no one else will do it for you.”
Iva - “Early in my career, I didn’t think about what I could achieve. I was just happy to have a seat at the table. Everything is on the table for you! You can set your mind to whatever you want to achieve, put your energy into it and plan around it. Temper that with time and understanding yourself and what matters to you. Ultimately you need to know what you want out of your life. Keep learning as you level up, and understand the boss at the end of all those levels is you. That’s who you have to understand and win against.”
Jackie - “Do not compare yourself to others. Nothing good ever comes out of that, and comparison is really like a self-imposed trap. It works great if you’re on top, but you’ll never be on top all the time, and that’s really going to ding your confidence. It’s useless and pointless — your path is your own, your values are your own. You know what you’re doing, and you’re doing it for yourself. You’re your own boss, so there’s really no need for you to compare yourself to others unless you want to feel bad. Don’t do that!”
Megan - “You’ll have to say no to some things — sometimes personal, sometimes work. Your ‘no’ can be an opportunity for someone else. It’s like, ‘No, I don’t have the capacity to work on that right now, but here’s an amazing person who I’m sponsoring who would be really excellent to work on that thing,’ or ‘Here’s an opportunity that’s not right for me right now, but here’s this other person.’ Taking the time to be really mindful about those things is a wonderful thing that you can do for yourself, because you’ll feel good — and a wonderful thing to do for the people around you, because you’ll be lifting them up.”
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