IWD2021: Roula Vrsic: Own Your Value

International Women’s Day – March 8 – is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 (IWD2021) is: “A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.” 

IWD2021 is asking: How will you help forge a gender-equal world? The answer is by celebrating women’s achievements, raising awareness against bias and taking action for equality.

At Intelex, we celebrate the accomplishments of womxn every day. Through our annual IWD blog series, we want to introduce you to a group of women like Roula – Intelex employees, customers and partners – who personify the achievements of women in tech and in EHSQ.

What is your name, title and company? 

Roula Vrsic, SVP of Marketing, Intelex  

How did you become in involved technology? 

My curiosity and passion for technology started when I was in high school when I took computer science and programming. I guess you could have called me a tech nerd in those days, and what is interesting is that more than 95 percent of my classmates in the computer science program were male. Being a minority in the class didn’t hinder my desire to code, however. If anything, it fueled my drive to represent women in this male dominated sector. 

Through the past couple of decades, I have had the good fortune to lead marketing at companies with market-disruptive innovation in the areas of security, cloud computing, mobile, IoT, AI and workflow automation.  

What drew you to a career in EHSQ? 

When I became aware of Intelex, I saw the opportunity to bring together all of my experience across sectors of technology in their applicability to EHSQ. Working for purpose every day to change business for good spoke to me. Knowing that I could dedicate my work to leave a cleaner planet behind for the younger generations and those that will come after them, and to make sure that people – moms, dads, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters – can make it home from work without injury or loss of life appeals to me on a very deep level.

As the daughter and sister of electricians, I am no stranger to the dangers that face workers every day. When my dad first became an electrician, he witnessed his best friend be electrocuted to death in a tunnel they were working in when someone turned on the power to the line they were working on. My brother was electrocuted on the job several years ago in similar circumstances on a job site, and he is fortunate to be alive today.

Knowing that the work we do every day at Intelex can help organizations eliminate or reduce deaths and injuries such as these is satisfying on a personal level. Having met with many EHSQ professionals from our customers in the years I have been with Intelex, I am inspired by the personal stories and experiences that drove them to pursue careers in EHSQ. What I’ve learned is that for many, improving EHSQ outcomes and creating safety cultures is a personal mission. While EHSQ programs have direct impact on productivity, operational excellence and a company’s bottom line, humans will always be at the core.         

In your career, what have you decided to #ChooseToChallenge? 

I #ChooseToChallenge more women to #SmashSelfDoubt and lift up other women more often. We need to raise the bar higher and proactively lift other women up. As I have reflected on my career journey through the years, I noticed that I was most often lifted up not by other women, but by men who saw how hard I was working to personally grow and make an impact on the business and the organization around me. As a woman in technology and in leadership, I feel we have a duty to challenge how women see themselves, how they speak about themselves and what they see as possible for themselves.

My dad used to tell me that the only thing standing in the way of me and what I wanted to achieve was my own perceptions of what I thought I was capable of. And interestingly enough, I flourished in my career when working under leaders and with others who pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged my self-doubt. The most common way women hinder their own growth is by allowing that nagging voice of doubt in their heads.

Words hold power. Anytime I hear a woman speaking of what she hasn’t done, minimizing all that she has, or simply deflecting a compliment, I make a point to make her stop and draw her attention to her accomplishments and the power within herself. When women rise, we all rise. And with a 15-year-old daughter who is quietly observing my actions, my words and my reactions, I challenge myself and other women to own our value more fully, to defy our doubts more often, and to lift one another up at every opportunity. 

What have been your greatest challenges in being a woman in technology? 

It isn’t easy being a woman in technology. Although we have made progress through the years in narrowing the gender gap in this industry, it is still largely male-dominated. It took me a long time to appreciate that I earned a seat at the boardroom table for a reason, and that I needed to own my presence at that table. 

Throughout my career, I too often saw women leaders being labelled as “emotional” when they were passionately challenging or defending a decision or strategy. And yet, had a male counterpart done the same, they would have been labelled as “passionate” or “strong” or “decisive.”  These mores continue to exist in the realm of business, and it isn’t unique just to the technology sector. I have found myself through the years asking for permission to ask a question or to challenge a point in an executive team meeting, and I have seen other women do the same. At one point, I asked myself, “Why am I asking permission?” None of my male counterparts do that.

In speaking with other women leaders about this topic, they chimed in that they often did the same, and it occurred to me that it was systemic. Women can be often less assertive than men in the workplace and tend to apologize or minimize the importance of what they say when they do speak up—even female executives in meetings with their peers. 

Being on the defensive appears as a lack of confidence. I challenged myself to understand why. Was it that the men in the room made us feel that we needed to start with, “Can I ask…,” or “Sorry to raise this…?” No, that wasn’t it. Was it because we lacked confidence? No, that wasn’t it either, as these women were intelligent, strong women. Was it because we were raised in environments that engrained this behavior in us? Bingo! 

More often than not, the women I had been speaking with about the issue were raised in a similar manner to the way I had been raised–be respectful and speak up with your opinions only when asked to. Being assertive was counterculture to the way we have been raised. 

How can we change that? Well, it takes some effort on our parts. We have to remember that we’ve been invited to the meeting because we have something to offer. We’re wanted and valued, so we have to be confident in the fact that we have the expertise, knowledge or skills related to the topic being discussed, and it is our duty to contribute and be confident in our delivery. 

To avoid rambling and get to the point, I have found it crucial to prepare for meetings and document what I want to achieve in the meeting as well as what I want to report or communicate. By focusing on what I like to call “report talk,” you demonstrate your expertise and increase your credibility. And learning to change our language from asking for permission to speak by instead starting with, “I’d like to challenge that point,” or, “I want to add something to that.” Why is this important? When the talent and ability of everyone on a team are fully utilized, we have better information and ultimately drive improved organizational performance.  

What was the key learning from 2020 that you brought with you into 2021? 

As women, we have a natural affinity for emotional intelligence to our leadership style. The challenges of 2020 were plentiful: the pandemic, lockdowns, shifting to remote work, homeschooling and global events that brought social and racial injustice, and political unrest to the main stage. Leading a team while also managing the psychological and physical effects on our people is complicated and evokes a range of different and even conflicting emotions. 2020 set the stage to allow us to put our emotional intelligence superpowers into high gear. 

With a workforce and customers who were facing rapidly changing work and personal environments, never before in my work history had I found a greater need to understand and manage the emotions and individual circumstances of those around me. 2020 was the poster child for managing with emotional intelligence, empathy, awareness and the ability to hear not only what people were saying but, just as importantly, what they weren’t saying. 

Leading a team through uncertain times of unknown scope and no clear end in sight has been one of the greatest challenges of my career. Emotional intelligence was crucial to carrying myself and my team through a year that was pivoting and shifting faster than any other time in modern day history. The greatest learning from 2020 was that in times of amplified global uncertainty, the ability to understand and better manage my own emotions helped me to be grounded and centered so that I could be able to manage the emotions and circumstances of my team and others in the organization. It allowed me to be more open to how others on my team and across our organization were feeling, and being able to manage confidently, firmly but also with compassion. Our people needed to feel that we, as leaders, had things under control and that they were receiving information in real-time that addressed their fears and any uncertainties. 

Even in the best of times, managing yourself and staying emotionally connected to your team can be a challenge.  As we layer on the new realities of the post-Covid-19 world, it’s gotten much tougher. The stresses of working remotely, which adds new and confusing pressure and friction to our lives.  Social distancing, a profoundly unnatural condition which makes maintaining and deepening bonds (or even just reading others) so much more difficult. In these times more than ever employees want and need to be heard and understood. They crave feeling safe and valued. They are looking for a deeper connection with their leaders beyond just “the numbers.” And that is what I am going to take from 2020 into 2021…and beyond. 

Other IWD2021 Blogs:

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About Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the Global EHSQ Content Lead for Intelex Technologies. Formerly the Content Director for EHS Today, she has been writing about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990. Her work as a journalist and editor has been recognized with national and international awards. She has been interviewed about occupational safety and health for national business publications, documentaries and television programs; has served as a panelist on roundtables; and has provided the keynote address for occupational safety and health conferences.

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