A 15-year Cisco employee, Bernadette Wightman took on her role as President of Cisco Canada at the end of 2014. She’s originally from the UK, but has managed organizations in developed and emerging markets across the globe. Her over 25-year career in the IT industry has led to numerous accolades: she was named Business Leader of the Year by Women into Science, Engineering & Construction (WISE); honoured as one of the UK’s most influential women in IT in 2011, 2012 and 2013; and named among the 500 most influential people in the UK in 2014 by specialist publishers Debretts. We asked her candid questions about success, self-doubt, and being a woman in the tech industry.
By Stephania Varalli, Co-CEO, Women of Influence
Stephania: It was about 25 years ago that you entered the IT industry, when it would have been even more male-dominated. Do you feel that being a woman has impacted your career?
Bernadette: The question about women in tech is difficult for me, because I find it very hard to point to a time where I’ve been disadvantaged, which doesn’t mean that I don’t believe other women have. And it’s not that I haven’t felt surrounded by men, in a male-dominated industry—I’ve obviously felt that. What I don’t feel is that I’ve been discriminated against.
When you started your career, did you aspire to get to where you are now?
I so wish I could say yes to that, but no. Everything in my life has actually been shaped by my son. I had James at a young age, and everything I did was making sure that he wasn’t disadvantaged. Now I’m older and he’s older, and my ambition is attached to having good fun and learning new things.
What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since taking over as President of Cisco Canada?
Move faster. In this world you’ve got to move really, really quickly. We’ve built a trust as a team, we’ve built a process to do that—how we meet, how we make decisions, how we have conversations.
Do you think that’s because you’re working in a major tech company, and tech is constantly evolving, or is that across the board? Do you think that leaders nowadays just need to be able to move quickly?
I think it’s across the board. All of our customers are living in this world that is becoming more and more and more connected. The possibilities out there for companies are enormous, and the ones that move faster will get to them quicker. So, we happen to be in technology, but it wouldn’t matter what job I was doing, I’d feel exactly the same.
When you came to Cisco you had worked in the UK, Russia, and more. Moving here, have you found anything unique about Canadian culture?
I love the absence of cynicism that I feel here, that you get in some other countries. I love the work/life balance that people have. Everyone is very committed to work, my team are highly engaged, they always give me what I ask for, but they still make sure their families are a priority.
About 30% of math and computer grads are female, so the pipeline is relatively small. Do you think in order to change the gender balance in tech, we should focus on the pipeline, or do we need to more female leaders, to make change from the top?
I think it’s both. This is a parallel thing, it’s not a serial thing. I also think that’s allied to loads of different changes, like maternity benefits, like flexible working—where work is something you do, not somewhere you go. And I think younger women need to see those female role models.
What advice would you give to a woman working in tech who did have aspirations to move into a leadership role?
Sheryl Sandberg talked about leaning in, and I do agree with that advice. She talks very eloquently about being at the table. I do see it occasionally with women—they wait to be noticed. You actually can’t wait to be noticed. If you talk to senior women, they often have taken on the tough job that nobody else wanted. You need to find an opportunity that gives people the opportunity to notice you.
Do you ever have moments of self-doubt?
You know my biggest moment of self-doubt? It’s always when the video camera is on. I absolutely hate it. You can’t speak to me before and you can’t speak to me after. We all have those things. But I want to pick up on the confidence thing—because I’m not confident. You know what I am? I am courageous. I do things in spite of not feeling confident about them. I couldn’t explain to somebody how to be confident, but most people can find a courage. There’s usually something in your life. Again, my courage is around my son. I know what it’s like to be a young mum, and there has been moments where I’ve had to be courageous around my son, so I know what that feels like, and I know I can do that.