I had heard about FLITE—Female Leaders in Tech, Everywhere—but to my shame, I had not made the effort to discover how this social enterprise operates or what it achieves. That is until I had the opportunity at the What’s New in Electronics (WNIE) Live show at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, UK, to sit in on FLITE’s networking event held on September 25. It turned out to be an inspirational eye-opener.
Aware of being the object of some curiosity as I self-consciously crept in as the lone old bloke in an audience of dynamic women, the FLITE team made me feel comfortable and welcome:
Gayle Paterson, marketing and communications professional, Claire Saunders, managing director of WNIE, and Kirsty Hazlewood, WNIE content creator. I resolved to learn as much as I could with the intention of helping spread the word.
Founder Gayle Paterson explained that FLITE’s objective was to raise the visibility of females in technology, manufacturing, and engineering by celebrating their achievements and learning from their experiences. FLITE further aims to encourage more women to enter the industry by generating conversation and connecting people to that conversation, which might be about gender parity and equality in the workplace, for example. FLITE addresses the current reality with a vision to attain a future state where these conversations would not be necessary.
Gayle Paterson invited leadership and confidence expert Alison Reid to give a keynote presentation on overcoming fear and cultivating confidence as a means of unleashing leadership potential. She began by exploring the origins of natural behavioural patterns and quoting mistakes made by cavemen about tigers in bushes. If a caveman thought there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, the perceived fear of it facilitated his survival, whereas if the caveman thought there wasn’t a tiger in the bushes when there was one about to pounce, his chances of survival were much less. She concluded that we evolved to keep making the first mistake over and over again to avoid making the second one. Thus, our natural survival strategy had been shaped by fear, and our response to external stressors influenced by what we had learned to fear. In effect, we were perfectly designed to lack confidence. “It’s not confidence that got you here today; it’s fear! Touched a worm lately?”
Reid commented that the human brain was both very primitive and clever but was not fully developed at birth. Although the fight-flight response was instinctive, the brain was malleable rather than hard-wired; life experiences and environmental influences informed the rest of our physiological and psychological responses to stress. It was still not easy to overcome the natural patterns of behaviour that had evolved to keep us safe from danger.
Reid then explored several management and leadership scenarios, commenting that common underlying fears held many talented managers back from realising their full potential as leaders, including fear of being found out, fear of rejection, and fear of failure. The increased challenge and exposure that came with leadership meant that the strategies that had once helped them succeed as managers no longer worked, yet only a minority of leaders experiencing fear voiced their concerns.
Moreover, using a series of case-study examples, she defined three typical management personalities—perfectionist, people-pleaser, and procrastinator—and examined their characteristics and the basis of their fears and inhibitions, many of which had origins in their childhood experiences. Glancing around the audience, it was clear from body language and facial expression that most of us present could identify with at least one of her examples!
Reid also quoted Michael Neill: "How many thoughts do we have in a day? Once you know it, you can start managing it! We think we are experiencing reality, but what we are really experiencing is our own thinking." But not just the brain in isolation—Reid explained that the brain effectively included the whole body and that we were programmed to look for threats. It could be easy to forget the physiological effect on the rest of the body, and the consequences of tension on thought processes. Short relaxation and breathing exercises activate the sympathetic nervous system and release some of that tension. These exercises could have a dramatic impact on a person's way of thinking by making more considered and constructive decisions when faced with a personal or professional dilemma. Again, she emphasised that the brain was a malleable organ, always able to change, not just when growing up. "Don't think that whatever you are now is the way you are always going to be. We're not hard-wired!"
I found listening to Alison Reid’s keynote to be a stimulating and inspirational experience, challenging my way of thinking and provoking a lot of self-analysis. I am sure that many in the audience had similar feelings, and they were young enough to make some changes as a consequence—if only I had had the benefit of this kind of teaching 40 or 50 years ago, I might have developed the confidence to be a leader rather than just a fixer of other people's technical problems and a reporter of other people’s successes! Reid chose a most appropriate wrap-up quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
When the applause died down, and Gayle Paterson had thanked Alison Reid for her contribution, she invited FLITE voice Laura McBrown to share a member view on her world. McBrown described her career path from studying electronics engineering as the only girl in the course—"I learned a lot from that!"—through becoming a PCB design manager and director of contract electronics manufacturer G&B Electronic Designs. She detailed some of the challenges, obstacles, and prejudices she had met and overcome along the way. G&B Electronic Designs had an all-female board and a 50/50 gender split on the payroll: "Women can do manufacturing and do it well!"
Gayle Paterson reviewed the objectives and benefits of FLITE and the help and support it offered. FLITE aimed to build a platform based on real-life experiences to help raise the visibility of females in technology, and continue to develop a global community and knowledge network through which women could raise positive awareness and share best practices, success stories, and achievements, with the shared goal of empowering themselves and future generations. Members were encouraged to coach and mentor other ambitious females entering the tech world, and help them see a successful career in technology as a viable and attractive option. FLITE organised events and published articles, blogs, and promotional pieces to ensure members were kept up-to-date and in touch with influential and inspirational females.
During the current year, at the request of members, FLITE had explored subjects such as lack of tolerance, saying no and meaning no, and how to cope with mean-girl and unkind-boss situations. Paterson's closing sentiment was, "See something nice, say something nice." She also quoted Thumper the rabbit in Walt Disney's Bambi: "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nothin' at all!"
I was invited to participate in a panel debate on key takeaways with Laura McBrown, Gayle Paterson, Alison Reid, and Claire Saunders, but was far too shy to join! As I said, this is just one old man's observations.