Three casual young businesswomen having a meeting with laptop in a modern office loft

How women in technology can build confidence in career-defining moments

In the third EY Women in Technology webcast, leaders share how adversity led to insights and new opportunities.

In brief

  • Women in technology can build confidence during periods of adversity.
  • Leaders share how they make connections and make their voice heard.
  • Leaders urge women to take on strategic roles no matter what stage they are at in their career. 

In the technology sector, there is a well-publicized and very real confidence gap between men and women. A Harvard study found that women in their first year as computer programmers scored their skills at 2.6 out of five. Men, on the other hand, scored their skills at 3.3 out of five. Women only rated themselves highly after eight years of experience.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, published in 2013, and subsequent media campaigns showed women’s confidence as the key to being promoted — as opposed to waiting for an organization to change its policies and processes. There are pivotal moments in anyone’s career where confidence is needed to make tough decisions, to lead or to take a career in a new direction. This confidence can be a driver for women to have the experience they want. So how can women build their confidence and take advantage of the opportunities presented?  

In the third EY Women in Technology webinar of our “In the Spotlight” series, Sonia Sande, EY Americas Consulting Talent Leader, brought together Janet Scott, Chief Information Security Officer at Organon, and Elizabeth Butwin Mann (Liz), EY Americas Technology Consulting Strategy and Execution Leader, to discuss how building confidence in career-defining moments is critical to helping women thrive in the world of technology. They emphasize the importance of connecting with peers, silencing the inner critic and using adversity to advantage.

Janet’s story: From computer science to a career with purpose and passion

Janet’s story is particularly intriguing. She was initially set on a medical career, but it was too expensive. Instead, she studied psychology, found her aptitude for computing and graduated with a computer science degree. Still passionate about medicine, she applied for a role at a medical systems company.

Although her interview wasn’t successful, she asked them to reconsider. They did, and her IT career working for pharmaceutical company Merck and its new spin-out Organon has allowed her to follow her passion. She uses technology to enable medical research and make clinical trials more successful. Her career is filled with purpose and passion — all because she had the confidence not to take “no” for an answer.

Related webcast

In the Spotlight: Build confidence in career defining moments

In this episode of the "In the Spotlight" webcast series, senior technology leaders share insights on how to thrive as a woman in tech and build a successful career.

09 Nov 2022 | 16:00 your local time

    Liz’s story: From 19th century lit to 21st century IT

    Liz showed a similar determination to find a career she loved. As an academic with an interesting background in Spanish and neurobiology, she took a leave of absence from her PhD in 19th Century Literature to try for a role in corporate America: “I had a lot of begging to do because my resumé said I was not someone anyone in corporate America really wanted to hire,” she said.


    Given a chance to join a team helping to turn around a struggling financial services institution, she focused on the organization’s technology challenges – despite having little or no experience beyond being able to switch on a computer. She discovered that many of her IT colleagues were similarly unprepared, so she used a willingness to learn and to ask questions and identified people with the right expertise, to start making improvements. She retained an external firm to support her priorities, and ended up working for them full time, serving her financial services firm as a client. The business was subsequently acquired by EY.


    Liz’s and Janet's stories show that being determined, not willing to take “no” for an answer and being open-minded can help you get started.

    Building confidence through adversity

    Being open to new opportunities can lead to some career-defining moments. Originally from the suburbs of Ohio, Janet stepped out of her comfort zone to live in Prague for an international opportunity with Merck. It was a move that would shape the rest of her career and produce a major career-defining moment. 


    On what seemed to be a normal morning in the office, Janet received a message from her tech team containing the sinister word “ransomware.” Despite being in a global leadership meeting, she left her seat, shutting her computer and grabbing two incident responders on her way to the operations room. On the wall was a list of countries and the number of calls received from each region. The head of operations turned to her, saying, “You’re the most senior person in the room — what do you want to do?”


    As the list grew rapidly by the minute, she instructed him to shut down the whole network. At that moment, Janet took stock of the gravity of her actions, recognizing it could be a career-limiting move. She knew, however, that it was the right call and that the organization’s lifesaving work couldn’t stop. It took several weeks to return to anything like “business as usual.”


    Liz saw screenshots on social media of the ransomware attack. She rushed to the local office in an effort to assist the team, only to find that every system was down. This event had an immediate impact, not only on the technology systems, but on the people who use them. 

    What matters most is what is best for the company and your customers — or in this case, the patients. That mindset will give you the confidence to make even the toughest decision.

    It was a terrible moment. Everyone pitched in where they could; even senior leaders were bringing food and snacks to people working around the clock.  Everyone was focused on one thing — getting lifesaving cancer treatments and other therapeutics to patients. This was happening to an organization with world-leading security programs. It would take a few years to rebuild after an experience like this.

    Although such moments can be hugely stressful, taking responsibility is an opportunity to show real leadership. “What matters most is what is best for the company and your customers — or in this case the patients,” Janet said. “That mindset will give you the confidence to make even the toughest decision because, if nothing else, you know you did your best.” 

    Surrounding yourself with the right support network

    When faced with a challenging problem, quiet confidence inspires leadership. When confidence is lacking, it’s important to recognize how you are feeling and why, and whether you can look at the challenge from a different angle.

    Janet, for example, isn’t comfortable speaking to an audience on stage. She has therefore taught herself to focus on the content rather than listening to her inner critic: “When I talk about Merck, I’m passionate about that, so it stops the voice talking about me. I know that if I force myself to do things I am uncomfortable with, my skills and comfort levels improve over time.”

    Connecting with peers

    Another way to silence the inner critic is to find safe relationships to discuss concerns with your peers. Liz recalls learning about the “Stiletto network” — women of similar age and experience with whom she can safely discuss practical issues, such as preparing for difficult meetings: “Part of what helped me through the years was having those few, very trusted relationships that allowed me the safety to have a very transparent conversation about my vulnerability,” she said.

    Sponsorship and mentorship can also provide a positive voice with different influences: a mentor volunteers to help, whereas a sponsor is invariably someone you seek out and build a relationship with. For someone to actively sponsor your growth and work on your behalf, you have to earn it through determination, the quality of your work and by demonstrating that you’re a person in whom someone wants to invest their personal and political capital.

    People will hear you if you know your subject and bring something new to the table. Whether your voice is soft or loud, speak up and make it meaningful.

    “It’s a special relationship,” Liz says, “and those who have sponsored me in my career have been game changers, but it has to be taken with some humility.”


    Janet didn’t have a single mentor, but many people helped her along the way. She advocates learning by observation: “I look at people and figure out how their actions made me feel; I don’t want to do that to anybody else. But here is how somebody else made me feel; I see what they did differently and how I can model myself after that person.” 


    Being heard

    Observing others has other benefits. Women in technology often say that although they have good ideas and knowledge, they struggle to get their voices heard.


    There are courses in negotiation or conflict management, but for Janet, the no. 1 skill is listening: “If others know you’re listening to them, it changes the conversation, and people are far more willing to listen to you. Rather than projecting or enforcing your view on another, it’s about having a conversation.”


    At work, women are often the minority in the room, and men can be inclined to take over the conversation. Room dynamics, however, are changing, and a diverse range of perspectives is recognized as essential to solving complex challenges.


    To get noticed, ask great questions. In a meeting, everybody wants to be heard, so they often state the obvious or repeat whatever someone else has said. Liz says to think about what a good question would be and be brave: “You get noticed when you ask good questions because it starts a conversation,” she said.


    “People will also hear you if you know your subject and bring something new to the table,” she continues. “Whether your voice is soft or loud, speak up and make it meaningful.” 

    Strategic balance

    Wherever you are in your career, even on a career break, which can be career-defining, Liz and Janet both advise to keep developing your soft and hard skills.

     “There was a period in my career where I decided the kids come first, so I took a part-time job for a few years. And I loved it,” Janet said “To make the workload manageable, my boss suggested a job share; it worked really well with [a co-worker] and myself handling the work between us. During that time, I was pretty strategic because I wasn't going to do that job forever, so we took on different responsibilities and roles to keep learning and growing. I was promoted within a year of returning full-time.”

    By contrast, Liz didn’t ever stop working: “The team used to tease me that I was texting during labor — but that’s not a good thing for everyone!”

    Interestingly, she learned an important lesson from her children. In kindergarten, they were taught that making mistakes is a part of life and should be celebrated. And raising children means you will make mistakes, and you must live with them.

    “I forgot stuff, like my children's lunches for trips away, and occasionally missed a school pick up,” Liz said. “But then you realize that the people around you recognize you're trying to balance things, and it's not always going to be perfect. That balance is actually a dance, and we do it all through every stage of our children’s lives.”

    At any stage in a career, even if taking on temporary work, take on roles that are strategic and offer new opportunities. Be determined. Be open-minded. And be kind to yourself. Above all, remember it’s the desire to keep learning that helps propel a career forward because, in doing so, you are preparing for those career-defining moments.


    Women who are breaking barriers and advancing their careers in technology roles urge their peers to be determined, open-minded and kind to themselves.

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