Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Grainger’s Julie Myerholtz On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male Dominated Industry
An Interview With Ming Zhao
…You don’t need to explain your every move. When you have to leave early, you don’t need to explain why you’re leaving. You don’t owe anyone an explanation — just do what you need to do. Of course, this doesn’t translate when it’s about your work product or a decision you made regarding your job, so keep that in mind.
In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as a strong woman in a male dominated industry.
As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Julie Myerholtz.
Julie Myerholtz is the Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer at Grainger. In her role, she is responsible for the company’s cybersecurity vision and strategy, and collaborating with customers, suppliers, Grainger leadership and the board of directors on information security-related matters. Myerholtz has more than 20 years of experience in enterprise risk management, information security, data privacy, and IT operations and governance.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a small town in Ohio and in true Midwest fashion, we lived in a neighborhood of houses entirely surrounded by cornfields. I am the youngest of three and the only girl, and I spent my youth surrounded by boys, so I guess it’s no surprise that I went into an industry largely led — and filled by men. I was always interested in computers, but never took technology classes in high school due to the fact the computer room was filled with dudes, and it didn’t seem like a welcoming place that I wanted to spend my time. Instead, I took accounting classes, which led me to pursuing an accounting degree at Ohio University for my undergrad and eventually I earned my MBA at the University of Michigan.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
My path into technology wasn’t exactly traditional. The computer lab at school didn’t interest me, so instead, I put my passion for numbers and logic toward an accounting degree. During my freshman year in college, one of my advisors suggested that I consider adding IT classes or double majoring in accounting and management information systems as the accounting industry was changing to be more automated at that time. I signed up for a few classes which lead to me earning a degree in accounting and MIS. I no longer wanted to work in core accounting and joined the team at PwC, but with a focus on IT and cyber risk.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Because of the sensitive nature of my work, I can’t share most of my good stories.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Be a good storyteller. When it comes to cybersecurity, most people have no idea what you’re saying. It’s a little like you’re speaking French and everyone else is speaking English. It’s important to be able to articulate a story in a way that allows for everyone to understand the message, implications, etc. I’ve found this to be key to being successful as a CISO.
Be authentic. I pride myself in being exactly who I am at all times. At Grainger, I bring my true, authentic self to work, and I stick by my beliefs, which is not always an easy thing to do. I’ve found authenticity can only increase the trust other people have in you, and trust and transparency play a huge role in the kind of work I do.
Be a fast and lifelong learner. Technology is complex and constantly evolving, so being able to connect the dots, see the complexities as they happen — and hopefully before they happen — and how all the pieces fit together is part of the job. To do that, it’s important to stay on top of current events. I learn quickly and stay current by listening to podcasts, reading articles, and focusing on continuing education, and I expect my team to do the same so we can all work smarter, not harder.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome being in a male-dominated industry?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to overcome being in a male-dominated industry is the perception that there aren’t women in the field. From the very beginning, there was an assumption that because I was a female in the room, I must have been there in a support capacity and not as a participant. For example, in previous companies I have been asked by various parties to grab them coffee before the meeting starts.
I learned early on in my career the importance of demonstrating my knowledge and credibility. In my experience, men in similar positions were never challenged for what they had to say or their right to have a seat at the table. I had to find ways to speak up and contribute and educate a lot of people on the different leadership styles men or women bring. A male colleague who was my superior once told me that “assertive women have a hard time being successful, but nice women can make it far”. That entire thought process didn’t sit right with me, and to this day I use it to fuel my development and support other women trying to earn their seat.
Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?
There is definitely no silver bullet for this as every environment is different, but I have found a few things to be true: 1. Work gets done based on relationships; and 2. Most of the men I have worked with love sports, especially Big 10 and SEC football. So, for example, one thing I did was learn more about college football so I could offer thoughts and be included in the conversation. It’s not something I really wanted to do, but it enabled an avenue for me to include myself and not sit silently waiting for the meeting to start. I also found that often what I said would be questioned, and I needed to prove myself at times before my thoughts would be accepted as true. Because of this I made sure to always show up prepared — know the research, know the facts. I come to the table ready and show that I know my stuff inside and out.
Thankfully I haven’t run into many unsupportive women, we really should be supporting each other and enabling new opportunities instead.
What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?
This is a great question, but I hate that we still need to ask it in 2022. The bottom line is that a workplace should be an environment where everyone feels comfortable and can bring their authentic self to work. I didn’t take computer classes in high school because I didn’t feel like I fit in or would be accepted in the group. A way of including people is opening up conversations to things everyone can talk about, instead of focusing in on one specific topic like football. It is ok to include football, just not as the only topic! Be mindful, respectful, and inclusive of everyone.
As a working mother, I’d also add that flexibility is huge. We’ve talked a lot about the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, but being a mother is an added layer of complexity. Women sometimes face unconscious bias and perception issues in the workforce where they get passed up for projects or promotions due to the fact it is assumed they can’t or won’t be able to take more on because they have kids.
If an organization can foster a culture of flexibility so a woman, and quite frankly everyone can support their family and feel supported in their job, that’s a great place to work.
Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
Have a thick skin. Don’t take things personally because it typically isn’t about you. There will be times when others will talk over you or take credit for your ideas. Most people don’t do it intentionally … it is just an unfortunate part of business.
Speak up. Offer feedback and criticism in a positive, constructive way. If someone is speaking over you, wait, then respectfully speak up. You’ve done your research and are ready, so make sure you’re sharing what you know.
Be unapologetic. This is a hard one for many women, but never say sorry for being right, for being smart or for being confident in your decisions. Be yourself, say your piece, and don’t apologize for being you.
Find the right door to open. I once heard a speaker share a story about how she was passed over for a promotion and the advice someone gave her was, “If you keep hitting the same closed doors, find a new door.” She left that company and continued to shine and grow the career she wanted somewhere else. We all have doors to open, it’s just a matter of finding them.
You don’t need to explain your every move. When you have to leave early, you don’t need to explain why you’re leaving. You don’t owe anyone an explanation — just do what you need to do. Of course, this doesn’t translate when it’s about your work product or a decision you made regarding your job, so keep that in mind.
If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male dominated or female dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?
I would say that if you have a passion, go after it. Somewhere, somehow, there’s always a way. I’m proud to be evidence that women can succeed and support other smart women. It may not be easy, and you may have to hit those closed doors before you find the open one, but anyone can be successful in a male dominated field.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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.
Two people, one living and one unfortunately lost too soon so he won’t see this:
Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. It has been incredible to see his focus on transforming the culture of such a large organization to a customer first organization. Focusing on learning from each other and challenging ideas to come to the best answer have really transformed how Microsoft comes to market and works with their customer base. That isn’t an easy thing to do.
Steve Jobs because of the way he was able to innovate and think outside the box. He led a company that completely transformed the world of technology as we use it. When Apple thought up the iPhone, no one believed that we would ever put a computer in our pocket. Now, the iPhone I put in my pocket everyday has more storage than the desktop I had in college! It was amazing to witness that kind of genius.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.