Feature Story

Connected women empowers Cisco workers to close the gender gap

by Liza Meak

Cisco's Connected Women group finds a way to empower and motivate thousands of Cisco employees.

Cisco's Connected Women group finds a way to empower and motivate thousands of Cisco employees.

Women can often times feel isolated and alone in the male dominated tech industry. But at Cisco, female employees have found a way to connect and empower each other. They formed a group, called Connected Women. What started with 200 Cisco employees in San Jose has now grown to more than 4,000 members globally.

The members feel so strongly about the mission of this group and what it does, they put in long volunteer hours in addition to their day jobs. Many members take on these important roles without recognition, and often times don't even tell their bosses about it. While some women may not want to highlight their involvement and bring attention to themselves, ultimately it can help advance a woman's career. "It's an opportunity for women to take on formal leadership role that they wouldn't have in their day jobs," says Monique Edmondson, the co-lead of the San Jose Connected Women Chapter.

"I'm a huge advocate for networking and Connected Women is a great opportunity to meet people across the entire company" Edmondson started at Cisco nearly 20 years ago and has worked her way up to a Director in IT, so knows first hand the importance of networking, especially in a company with 70,000 employees. "I'm a huge advocate for networking and Connected Women is a great opportunity to meet people across the entire company," says Edmondson.

Her co-lead, Sara Steffen, a Marketing Manager, agrees. "We don't care where you sit in the company," says Steffen. "Our focus is to develop you personally and professionally."

See also: Bringing young women into STEM is an opportunity for everyone

Linda Tsang, who is on Cisco's HR acquisitions team, says that's exactly why she joined Connected Women nearly eight years ago. "I wanted to get a foothold and start a network," says Tsang. She got that and more, finding some of her closest friends with other members, including Yanni Kadar, a procurement manager.  "I wanted to find that sense of community and female empowerment," says Kadar. Now as the co-leads of membership they are working to get even more employees.  

Networking With a Purpose

The community is not just limited to Cisco. Connected Women gives members the opportunity to network outside of the company. In fact, the San Jose chapter makes it a point to join forces with some of the biggest tech companies in the Bay Area. Every three months a Bay Area tech company opens its doors for an event called "Networking with a Purpose." In May, Cisco hosted with a theme of developing your personal brand.  A core group of volunteers, led by Jennifer Massaro and Elizabeth Tinker spent months nailing down everything from speakers to creating engaging topics like "Tips and tricks to rocking your LinkedIn profile" and "Moving out of your comfort zone."

Each Networking with a Purpose event includes moderated table topics where small groups discuss a single topic related to the evening's theme.

see also: Connected Women leader Jennifer Massaro sails around the world and learns valuable work lessons on the voyage

The executive sponsor of Connected Women San Jose, Christine Bastian, Vice President of Engineering Human Resources believes a brand shouldn't replace your authenticity. "There is no mold for what a brand should be, although some try to fit to one, but it can be obvious when a person is portraying a brand that's not core to who they are as a person," Bastian says. "There can be a need sometimes to refine certain aspects of how you show up at work, but my advice is to always stay true to your character and values and make fine-tuning adjustments as needed along your career journey."

More than one-hundred people turned out for the event, including Cisco alums. "I found it very beneficial to retain my association with Networking with a Purpose even after I moved on from Cisco" says Hang Black. "In fact, I brought my current employer Gigamon into this sisterhood, as the 15th participating company."

Executive Shadow Program

Mentorship is also a key component to Connected Women, and for the last nine years, the program has run the Executive Shadow Program. It's exactly what it sounds like—an opportunity for women to shadow and learn from an executive for a half-day—but it's also much more than that. Employees undergo all kinds of professional development, including elevator pitch training and coaching.     

The San Jose participants and executives celebrated their work at a closing ceremony in May. Several shadow pairs who were matched-up, talked about their personal experiences and how the program helped them cultivate the key themes for this year; courage, authenticity and generosity.

Community Outreach

While the main mission may be to connect women, this group does much more than that. They also work to give back to various communities. Many members see themselves as mentors to the next generation of women in technology. Negisa Taymourian grew up in the Bay Area and dreamed of working for Cisco. After graduating from Cal Poly, her dream became a reality and she landed a job in IT.  It didn't take long for her to realize there weren't a lot of women in IT and she's now working to change that as a volunteer with Citizen Schools, a national non-profit that partner students with professionals. "I volunteer with middle school girls in underserved communities, working on empowering girls and giving them the confidence to study science and technology," says Taymourian.

That mentorship continues in higher education too. Connected Women recently partnered with San Jose State University and had several female Cisco workers speak to students.  "We're looking for not only getting the girls when they're young, and making sure they have the education, but helping these young women make sure they finish the education," said Denise Lombard, who is the co-lead with Taymourian in Community Outreach.

While the name of the organization may be Connected Women, the group welcomes men with open arms. "We would love more men," says Edmondson. 

The tech industry as a whole may still have a way to go to in closing the gender gap, but Cisco's global Connected Women groups are making great strides in supporting the women who are already all in, stay in.

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