Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “One of the more damaging myths is that to succeed women need to adopt a male persona”, with Tina Vatanka Murphy, Chief Revenue Officer for GHX
One of the more damaging myths is that to succeed women need to adopt a male persona. Western society often assigns strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness as male qualities. We’ve spent decades measuring leaders by these attributes. However, there are qualities typically thought of as female, such as fortitude during adversity and prioritizing and finding clarity in the face of chaos that are equally important to lead. Women have a keen ability to read a room and pull out the best that each person has to offer. These are remarkable strengths that, when understood, trained and honed, can become the foundation for strong leadership and innovation. I’ve seen women bring together several complex and seemingly unrelated factors into a simple, cohesive thought that breaks conventional beliefs and pushes the team in a new, innovative direction. While this isn’t new or novel advice, it’s time for women to take pride in our qualities typically thought of as feminine, know them as strengths and use those qualities to lead.
I had the pleasure to interview Tina Vatanka Murphy.
As chief revenue officer for GHX, Tina is responsible for overseeing all customer-facing functions, including global product and market development, sales, marketing, and customer operations. With over 20 years of experience in healthcare and technology, she has a proven track record of instilling a customer-focused culture that delivers value to GHX and its global customers.
Tina joined GHX shortly after its inception in 2000 and has held a variety of leadership roles, most recently serving as senior vice president of global product and corporate development. Tina’s ability to drive innovation, meaningful change and strategic alignment across diverse stakeholders has provided a solid foundation for the company’s continued growth. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business from Indiana University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’d love to say that I had a distinct vision for my career, but like many young people, I was primarily focused on getting a foot in the door. What’s interesting is that short-term focus remains a hallmark of my journey. As a young woman in an industry with very few female role models, I never dared to envision what was possible. Instead, I focused on near-term fulfillment, which for me involved finding the next challenge and doing my best work.
In fact, after I received my first promotion to manager and a male friend suggested I was on my way to vice president, I laughed. When he asked why, I didn’t have an answer. I had never thought about ‘rising through the ranks’ because it seemed outside the realm of possibility. With each subsequent promotion, I knew I would be successful in the role, but equally convinced that role would be the pinnacle of my career.
Interestingly, a successful track record was not enough to open my mind to the possibilities that might lie ahead. When I reflect on my career, my greatest hope is that women do two things. First, dare to create a career plan regardless of who has come before you in a chosen industry. Don’t be afraid to think big and create a roadmap for your future, one that extends beyond today. Second, and more important, celebrate and take pride in your successes. Use that energy to reaffirm that you’re capable of achieving those goals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting story isn’t a single event, but rather an amalgamation of many events. As surprising as it seems, I had to learn to shed the unconscious beliefs I held about women, about myself, and of the limited view of what I could achieve.
For years, I wasn’t aware that my vision of a strong leader was male. So while I could take pride in what I’d achieved, I was measuring myself on a scale where I’d never win.
A turning point for me was when I served as president of GHX’s European business. I was the company’s first female president and was told that female presidents were few and far between in Europe.
When I got to our European headquarters, I found a number of hard-working and well-intentioned male leaders. The culture, however, was characterized by conflicting motivations that interfered with GHX’s ability to give customers what they needed and deliver results for the company. I arranged a leadership meeting designed to break down these walls. The guidelines for the meeting were simple: all titles would be left at the door and we’d dress casually. My goal was to create an environment where ego and showboating would be put to the side and open-minded curiosity about how we could collaborate around a single, yet critical goal of delivering for our customers was invited. We achieved that goal and the meeting set the trajectory for what would be a successful organizational transformation.
After the meeting, our CEO remarked, “When you have a complex problem that needs to be solved, it’s best to put a woman on the case.” He told me that I brought something other than the typical male approach, primarily analytical. I enabled the team to look at the same problem from different viewpoints and this drove our success. It was one of the proudest moments of my career because the CEO was affirming not my work as much as the strength in the way women approach complex challenge resolution. Women don’t often receive that type of validation for their leadership abilities. In that moment, I realized that I had a responsibility to other women to share the highs and lows of my career, even the limitations of my thinking early in my career, and in doing so help to pave the way for other women to be valued for their unique voices.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started out, I didn’t have perspective on what it meant to be a woman in the workforce. Worse yet, I joined a male-dominated industry, which meant men influenced my perspective. Some of my early experiences were absurd, such as the time I was told women couldn’t wear pants to meetings, even though three feet of snow had just fallen in Boston. As I scraped snow off my car — in pantyhose and heels — I never questioned why. I was extremely frustrated, but I accepted the status quo. These beliefs went well beyond attire. I remember the time my peers declared that women made decisions based on emotion, and that minimized the value of those decisions. I didn’t agree, but I was young, and I internalized that message. The mistake I made was accepting the absurd, and then believing those views regarding my own limitations. I encourage young women to challenge long-standing, often incorrect perceptions, and prove they are merely myths.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
GHX’s draws its strength from three principles: an empowered employee culture, an inspired mission, and a focus on the customer.
GHX hires smart, courageous, diverse teams with the goal of creating an empowered culture that rewards taking thoughtful risks and learning from outcomes that don’t go as expected.
Our leaders have defined a vision that inspires and drives innovation. Several years ago, we hired a new head of human resources, who began her tenure by interviewing each member of the leadership team. She reported back that while we had some challenges, she’d never seen a more passionate team rallying around such clarity of mission. The healthcare industry’s challenges are well documented, from increased regulations, rising costs and shrinking margins, to an aging population. We understand why we are here and how GHX can help.
GHX also stands out for the way we place the customer at the heart of our decisions. At GHX, we want every employee to fully embrace the importance of putting customers at the center of everything the company is doing with an understanding that what they do affects patient care. This is healthcare, and it matters. Recently, a hospital administrator shared with me that because of its partnership with GHX, he’s been able to use the costs savings from their supply chain initiatives to invest in additional clinical staff, which helps them better meet the needs of their patients.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Recently, I have been focused on addressing unconscious bias in the workplace with a goal to knock down the barriers and “group think” that come as a result.
At GHX, I have established a focus group of women to understand how we can better empower our female leaders. Our goal is to create a trusted, comfortable setting where women can discuss, share and work through barriers relating to career development, job satisfaction, work / life balance and personal fulfillment.
These meetings have taught us what it means to be a woman at GHX. They have also taught us we need to take time to understand our own biases and how they drive our behavior. Women are not immune to making decisions based on unconscious bias. Early in my career, I interviewed a man that I believed was a perfect fit for a role. Later, as I reviewed my notes, I realized he didn’t fit the criteria. I realized I favored him because he looked and carried himself like a CEO. It’s easy to see the absurdity; however, I share this story to show no one is immune. In the absence of disciplined thought, we all can fall prey to poor decisions guided by our biases.
This year at GHX we will hold educational seminars to drive greater understanding of our biases and the tools required to avoid making hiring or promotion decisions based on bias. These are new, complex and often difficult conversations. To drive profound change, we are laying out ground rules about how we will come together to create a safe, open environment and learn without judgment. We are all at different points in our journey and true change comes only through a culture where the team can be vulnerable and not fear repercussions as they seek to understand and speak about topics like race and gender bias.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Yes, and no. Many pioneering women have made significant contributions to the field. Pioneering women weren’t included in the curriculum when I grew up. Yet, Sally Ride was front and center in my daughter’s sixth grade curriculum. I’ll never forget when she came home, excited about the fact that women could go to space. As my daughter learned more about Sally, our admiration for her grew, particularly her decision to inspire more women in the field.
While today we celebrate a number of thought leading women, my goal is for more women to enter the technology and STEM field, and lead as only women can. Today, the gender gap remains widespread in STEM. In the U.S., women make up more than 50% of the college-educated workforce, yet only 28% work in science and engineering fields. That pattern repeats globally.
As the demand for STEM expertise continues to grow across the globe, I see tremendous opportunity to break down long-standing barriers. There is already concern that the workforce will be unable to meet the STEM demand by 2025, and I want women to answer that call. Those of us in the field and beyond need to inspire and nurture the next generation of pioneering women. To do that, we must address the underlying issues that keep more of us from entering the STEM field.
The first is advocacy. STEM is part of most school curriculums, but we can’t leave it at that. Quite simply, we need to get the word out that a career in STEM can be both exciting and rewarding, giving women the opportunity to affect positive societal, environmental and economic change through their work. One of the ways we can do this is show them through ongoing, hands-on opportunities within the field. We can do this in conjunction with schools and local organizations. We need to be open about our experiences, the rewards as well as the challenges. And more important, we need to provide a roadmap for the next generation, so they know how to navigate a career in this historically male dominated field.
The second issue we must address is how to create an environment that does not just leave space for, but actively invites diversity of opinion and thoughts.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Bias. Unconscious biases affect how others perceive and treat us, as well as how we evaluate our own potential. Biases develop at a very young age and they are as damaging as they are difficult to spot. I once observed a math lesson at my daughter’s pre-school. My daughter was struggling and when the teacher arrived at her table, she said, “That’s okay, girls typically pick up fractions later than boys.” In her misguided attempt at empathy, she was transferring her bias and limiting my daughter’s perception of what was possible.
Defeating stereotypes is still an enormous hurdle for women. Women and men have spent a lifetime hearing that men are “naturally” better at math and science. Women see a field dominated by men, where male accomplishments receive more attention and are held in higher regard than the work of women. Over time that idea subconsciously takes root. When my daughter was three, she asked if God was a boy or a girl. I dropped everything to give her that perfect answer about love and faith. I avoided any mention of gender. When I was done, she looked at me and said, “Well, I think it sounds like a boy name.” I love sharing this story because it illustrates our deeply embedded beliefs about male and female characteristics.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the more damaging myths is that to succeed women need to adopt a male persona.
Western society often assigns strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness as male qualities. We’ve spent decades measuring leaders by these attributes. However, there are qualities typically thought of as female, such as fortitude during adversity and prioritizing and finding clarity in the face of chaos that are equally important to lead. Women have a keen ability to read a room and pull out the best that each person has to offer. These are remarkable strengths that, when understood, trained and honed, can become the foundation for strong leadership and innovation. I’ve seen women bring together several complex and seemingly unrelated factors into a simple, cohesive thought that breaks conventional beliefs and pushes the team in a new, innovative direction.
While this isn’t new or novel advice, it’s time for women to take pride in our qualities typically thought of as feminine, know them as strengths and use those qualities to lead.
Another myth is that women aren’t good at STEM, and that somehow, their temperaments aren’t well suited for these fields. Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of women in STEM today perpetuates, and at times, validates this myth. Research data, however tells a different story. During primary and secondary school, girls participate in math and sciences at the same rate as boys, and more significant, their achievement equals those of male students.
Research also shows there’s a shift that takes place as women pursue higher education. Young women seem to self-select toward the social and environmental/life sciences, and away from engineering, mathematics and computer science. We see similar trends along ethnic and racial lines as well.
Why is this happening? Women and men are unconsciously falling into the gender stereotypes that have been set for them. These behaviors, when left unchecked, can close the door to opportunity and squelch a culture of innovation. Bias isn’t something that we can overcome, but we can build awareness around the unconscious bias each of us holds, so we avoid making decisions based on bias. When we accept we are largely guided by bias, we can take action to prevent critical decision-making by bias rather than disciplined thought.
Innovation is not obvious. We can’t find the best solution if we aren’t incorporating diversity of thought. In STEM, we need to make a concerted effort to break the cycle of unconscious bias in regard to gender, as well as ethnicity and race. We need women and the unique perspectives and leadership approaches they bring. Recent research from Harvard and Yale demonstrates the power of diversity to fuel organizational performance. A 2015 McKinsey report of public companies show that of those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Authenticity. A major turning point in my career was when I stopped thinking about what I thought was expected of me, and started leading with my heart. I’ve learned that when we are true to who we are, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we create a space for each member of the team to thrive. That’s when the magic happens.
- Lead like a woman. A very successful female friend shared with pride that her boss had attributed her ability to ‘lead like a man’ as a strength. What he failed to realize is that the strongest teams comprise leaders that balance qualities we know to be classically masculine with qualities we know to be classically feminine. Knowing the right time to employ specific qualities is what makes women uniquely qualified to lead.
- Trust your instincts. After years of making difficult decisions that didn’t always go as intended, I’ve learned that many times the first instinct is the right one. Trusting that voice takes tremendous courage and a willingness to accept each skinned knee as an opportunity to learn rather than retreat. Reshma Suajani, the founder of Girls Who Code, has cautioned us against raising girls to be perfect. She is spearheading the effort to socialize young girls to be brave and to take risks, qualities usually associated with men. This will require them to listen to their instincts
- Build a great team and support them. Don’t settle for a team that doesn’t inspire you. Be swift in removing underperformers; they bring down the entire team. It’s not easy, but it is the greatest gift you can give to the entire team. Years ago, I had a team that seemed to stagnate. I made the difficult decision to fire someone who had been a hero in the past but wasn’t able to innovate in the new environment. While the decision countered popular belief, the move transformed the dynamic of the team.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Research has demonstrated the power of a growth mindset. The idea is that intelligence can be developed. Once we unlock this door, we begin to truly believe in our abilities to learn and to overcome challenges. As we encourage more young girls to pursue careers in STEM, a growth mindset will give them the confidence needed to challenge the stereotypes, to persevere and solve some of the industry’s most complex problems.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be true to yourself. Gone are the days of infallible leaders far removed from their teams. Also, stop thinking about external expectations and scorecards where predominantly male traits are valued. Use intuition to your advantage.
As we lead this next generation of employees, they want to be inspired. They want a mission worth fighting for and a leader worth following. A leader that exhibits strength, authenticity, humility, and curiosity is better for all of us.
Understand motives because they matter. It’s important to take time to consider the motivations of your bosses, peers, and employees, as well as your own. If you don’t understand what makes people tick, what they value, what they fear, what they want, then you will never have a relationship built on trust and understanding.
Women make great leaders because we excel in this area. Our intuition and instincts often accurately guide us to understand people’s motivations. Hone these instincts because good leadership isn’t about guessing blindly. It’s a mix of data and insight.
An extension of this advice, and something I think is equally important and rooted in a growth mindset, is always ‘seek to understand.’ If we react to a situation rather than taking a moment to ask questions and grasp what is taking place, our approach will be limited. We will make decisions based on our perspective (bias) rather than the full picture. Only when we broaden our perspectives can we achieve the best outcomes.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
One of the things that keeps me up at night is how to help women to take the pressure off and recognize that with balance, we find strength. Women receive an endless array of messages about every facet of our lives, of how we should be. We are mothers, sisters, partners, daughters, and friends. We put tremendous pressure on ourselves to prove that we are worthy to sit at the table. We are holding on tight. I encourage female leaders to show their teams that you’re better, more effective, more insightful, and more intuitive by letting some things go.
This holds true for how we manage ourselves, as well as the cultures we build. As we lead this next generation of employees, male and female, they want work / life balance. They look to their parents and don’t think they got it right. I commend them because they can see the current path isn’t sustainable. We need opportunities to turn off and recharge. We need quiet to find our voices.
What does this look like in reality? Celebrate an employee that practices yoga during lunch. On stressful days, have the team step outside for a walking one-on-one call. Whatever you do, make sure you celebrate people with the strength of mind to recognize we are all better when we find balance.
I grew up in a culture where working crazy hours was somehow heralded as heroics. In retrospect, all that proved is that you weren’t able to get your work done during standard work hours. It isn’t a weakness to strive for balance for yourself and your team. It shows great courage, strength of character and a keen understanding for how to ultimately get better outcomes.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I didn’t have a workplace mentor in the traditional sense. In fact, I spent a large part of my career giving my (male) managers credit for my successes. Like many women, I found it difficult to say — with pride — that I’d done a good job. I’ve only recently learned the importance of valuing your contributions, and I want to help other women to own their successes.
This is why I feel so strongly about the importance of women mentoring one another. Reaching out to mentor a woman just entering the workforce will have a profound effect on her journey. While there may still be factors slowing her down, they will be less likely to be self-imposed.
I have also seen the value a mentee offers a mentor. For example, millennials have a very healthy perspective on innovation, rarely staying rutted in convention. They see a problem and are certain there is a solution. They grew up in a world where there was always ‘an app for that’.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
First, I hope that I am helping raise awareness about the importance of diversity of thought — in the workplace, in society, and in our personal lives.
Second, I want women to be recognized for the unique strengths they bring to the workplace. I want to make it comfortable, and acceptable, to lead like a woman. I hope to change people’s minds about what a leader looks like, whether they’re female or male.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Fight for self. Technology has changed the fabric of our daily lives in a way that should concern all of us. We are always connected to devices. The line between our personal and professional lives has been blurred, if not eradicated. The constant barrage of texts, email notifications, phone calls — anywhere, anytime — has reduced us to the simplest impulse to respond. Being “on” 24/7 isn’t a sustainable way of life and comes at a steep emotional and social price.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be the fight for self. We need to foster the idea that it’s OK for each of us to turn off and take care of ourselves, whether it’s taking a class, participating in local theater, going for a run, reading a book, volunteering at youth activities, or simply doing nothing at all. Research shows that when we take time for ourselves, we have more energy, we are more creative, we are better at solving problems. We are better at being human.
As a leader, I encourage employees to take care of themselves. I want to dispel the myth that the search for balance in our lives somehow means that we won’t be as dedicated to our careers, when in fact, it is this individuality that brings strength to teams.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Leaders will need to radiate positive energy at all times, and that will require them to have physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. In this highly uncertain future, hope will be the key variable — particularly for young people. Young people who are hopeful and digitally connected will be inspiring. Young people who are hopeless and digitally connected will be dangerous. Leaders will need to seed realistic hope in a future that will be laced with fear.” — Bob Johansen, The New Leadership Literacies
This quote reminds me of the responsibility we have as leaders. Leadership isn’t only about delivering business results. Everything we do, everything we say has a ripple effect on the professional and personal lives of our colleagues, as well as the global community. As leaders, we have the opportunity to inspire and spread hope.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Rashme Sujami. Rashme is the founder of Girls Who Code, a non-profit focused on increasing the number of women in science. Rashme says her message is to do more than teach girls code and closing the gender gap in STEM. Her organization is dispelling the myth that women aren’t hardwired to have careers in technology. What resonates most with me is Rashme’s idea on ultra perfectionism. Women have been raised to be perfect, but within this realm, there isn’t room to take risks. We have become conditioned to think that if we aren’t perfect, we aren’t good enough. She is adamant that we must raise girls to be brave, just as we do for boys. We all have a job to do raising the next generation of women, and Rashme is tackling that challenge head on.