To celebrate International Women’s Day 2022, we sat down with Kathleen Abernathy, Non-Executive Director on BAI’s Board of Directors.
A passionate leader with an impressive career in the telecommunications industry, Kathleen has extensive experience in both the public and private sectors. Previous roles have included her appointment to Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission in 2001 after being nominated by President George W. Bush. Kathleen also sat on the Board of Directors at Frontier Communications where she subsequently served as Chief Legal Officer and Executive Vice President of Regulatory and Government Affairs. Additionally, Kathleen previously chaired the ISO New England Board of Directors. Aside from her role at BAI since February 2021, Kathleen is also currently a Director of DISH Network and Somos.
Hear from Kathleen below to gain her invaluable insight into the important lessons she’s learnt over her career and the advice she has for women in the industry as we work to #BreakTheBias.
What advice would you have for women starting out in business?
First thanks for reaching out to me and I appreciate the opportunity to share some lessons learned over my years in the industry. There are three points in particular that stand out for me: you must be thoughtful, strategic, and commit to building a strong network of relationships and people you can lean on for support.
The first point requires some self-reflection. Think about what sets you apart from your peers and then build on your strengths and counteract your weaknesses. I knew coming out of law school I was going to be good at some parts of law, and in other parts of law I was going to be mediocre at best. Know where you shine and the areas you need to work on.
Then, you need to think strategically along the way. You must be able to identify the skills required to reach your goals, even if this means you must pivot and face change. We live so long now and there are many opportunities throughout our working lives, so it’s okay to take detours. Factoring this into your longer-term goals will help you set up for success so you can accomplish your goals.
The last piece of advice and perhaps the most important is making networking a priority. About 90 percent of the jobs I’ve had throughout my career came through a connection, so I am a big believer in building resources and networking to find new opportunities, seek advice, support and mutual respect with your colleagues. In saying that, don’t mold yourself into something that doesn’t work for you. Be aware of why you’re making these connections. By being authentic you will build stronger and more valuable relationships.
What have you noticed has changed for women in the workplace over the course of your career?
The biggest change I’ve seen is that senior leaders are now more familiar with and understand the value in working with a diverse spectrum of individuals – leaders are much more comfortable than with a diverse work force as compared to when I started my career. I have female friends ten years ahead of me fighting to be heard in rooms where it was mainly men.
When I was at law school and college, around half of the class were women. There was much greater diversity both socially and economically than for the generation of women who came before me. I was growing up in a different world from what my father or my mother. There were no women in management positions in my father’s company.
I also worked in government which was one of the first public places to embrace women in leadership roles and so you had a greater depth of women in management positions. As a result, the work force was diverse and occasionally dominated by women leaders. I remember once in the 1990’s a man in government said to me, “You women go into the restroom and talk about policy issues, and I don’t know what’s going on”. Four out of five of us working on a particular policy issue were women so we didn’t think about it, we just happened to run into each other and start talking. So the good news today is you have a new generation of leaders who have built their careers in a much more diverse environment than their parents and are able to be part of important conversations.
On the other hand, by human nature people want to surround themselves with people who are like us. It is very hard to get people out of this mindset and to recognise that a team is stronger working with people who are different. You will have a weaker team if that’s how you select people who think and act alike. It’s very hard to push yourself but it’s something that must be done.
Thinking of the theme for International Women’s Day in 2022, why do you think it’s important to #BreakTheBias?
That’s a no brainer. I think it’s important because everyone comes to the workplace with bias. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the way you grew up and a result of the environment in which you were raised. For me, breaking the bias is about enabling women to succeed in positions that are often denied to us. It’s about making sure we’re not pre-judged about what we can and can’t do based on our sex. Breaking the bias allows women to have opportunities to excel so that we’re judged based on our performance in the workplace, not how we look or based on our gender.
In saying that, women also need to hold each other to these same standards. I don’t want to be the leader who couldn’t break my own biases whether that be race, age, physical appearance, or social and economic background. We need to understand and appreciate each person and the value they bring. Failing to recognise and address your biases towards women and other minority groups lessens your access to a depth of experience and wisdom that others have to offer.
What do you see as the current challenges for women in the workplace? What have you seen that has been effective to improve gender equity in the workplace?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen is a reluctance from senior management in some organisations to embrace a changed way of recruiting and hiring. Well-established companies have more difficulty in this area compared to newer companies as it can take courage to step out of that comfort zone of what is familiar and take risks. We are seeing that newer organisations are doing better at this as they know more diverse people, so they tend to hire people who come from all walks of life. Having diversity front of mind from the outset will lead to better outcomes. There’s no point hiring people who are all the same.
Another challenge I’ve seen is that if a company hires a specific individual in a role to create change and develop programs and initiatives that embrace diversity, all of the good work developed by the individual can be lost within a year if that person leaves the company. If the commitment to celebrating and amplifying diverse voices doesn’t permeate through the entire organisation and on every level so that it becomes an integral piece of corporate culture, you can find yourself back to square one with the loss of a single individual. It’s disheartening, but I’ve seen it happen.
What are the key ingredients for influencing culture, especially in a global organisation like BAI?
A lot of people are promoted to leadership positions because they’re smart, hardworking, ambitious and are consistently high performers. However, being good at your job doesn’t automatically make you a great leader. In the best companies there is a focus on training the next generation of leaders. I was never taught how to be a leader. It is something I had to learn for myself. In my experience, giving people the training they need early on in their career to be effective leaders is absolutely critical to creating a strong company culture, and one that values and celebrates diversity.
This starts with human resources departments and how you recruit people to ensure you are bringing in the right talent to your company. I don’t want to work with people who are just like me; what value does that bring? I want to work with people who are different and who can bring new perspectives and as a result complement, and push me to be better.
Who are some women that inspire you?
There was a partner in a law firm who took me under her wing and told me something incredibly valuable that I needed to hear – that I’m better than I thought I was. I also had a relationship with a female CEO who showed me the importance of networking and learning from others, which is why I’ve made it such a focus throughout my own career.
There have been some wonderful women I’ve had the privilege of working with. Women who took the time to help me get to the next stage and offered support and advice. That’s something I’m passionate about and want to give back to other young women.