Women in Leadership Transforming Tech: Kim Skanson, Vice President of Global IT for Cargill

The Bailey GroupBy The Bailey Group

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Nearly 60 percent of women contribute to the U.S. workforce and they account for more than half of all workers in management and professional occupations. Over the next decade women have the potential to add trillions of dollars to the growth of the global economy. Yet gender inequity continues to create significant hurdles for women in the workplace. These obstacles are particularly evident in the technology industry, where women hold just one-quarter of the jobs and only 8 percent of leadership positions.

Women in tech are paid less and promoted less often than men—disparities that have contributed to nearly 60 percent of women leaving the industry at midpoints in their careers. Additionally, women-led tech firms receive less funding, despite studies that show they get an average 35 percent higher return on investment than their male counterparts.

These issues have inspired several women in Minnesota to devote their lives and careers to breaking down barriers, overcoming obstacles and transforming the technology industry. “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” is a series of feature articles and a white paper from The Bailey Group that highlight these extraordinary individuals and their journeys.

Kim Skanson never expected to spend her career in information technology. When she graduated from college with a business degree, web access and email were still on green-screen computers, accessible only via the campus library. But Skanson’s intuition told her technology was going to evolve to become integral to every part of business, so she accepted a job as a computer programmer. “I thought I was going to do that for two to three years, maybe five tops, and then I would go do something else,” she recalled.

Now 20 years into her technology career, Skanson has worked in all areas of IT across multiple industries and has found her life’s passion. Today in her role as global IT operations officer and strategy lead for Cargill, she is at the helm of a 1,400-person organization operating in 70 countries. While she’s often felt alone as a woman at her level in the organizations where she’s worked, Skanson now uses her leadership position to change that. “As I’ve moved up in my career, there were points where it was obvious to me, I’m the only woman in the room. You have those pivotal moments when you see it, but you persevere through it and don’t let it become a barrier for you.”

One of those moments when Skanson was acutely aware of her gender was when she was mistaken for a meeting planner—rather than a fellow conference attendee—by several people at a gathering of technology leaders. “When I put my name badge on and sat at the table, where I happened to be one of only two females in the entire room, the look I got from the people who’d thought I was the event coordinator made an impression on me,” she reflected. “Their first impression of me was that I wouldn’t be in the role that I actually was in. Nobody said it, but that gender bias was there.”

Then there was the time an attendee at a different conference assumed Skanson was a marketing representative, based on a combination of her gender and “flashy shoes,” despite the fact that she’d just delivered a keynote address about technology to the entire audience of 10,000 people. “I didn’t feel discriminated against, per se, but I felt misread or assumed to be something I wasn’t. At the root of it, I think if I was a male that probably wouldn’t have happened to me.”

Those experiences have made Skanson committed to fostering a culture of inclusion among the teams she leads, despite the challenges of managing a virtual team with people from many distinct cultures. “It changed my awareness. I pay attention to whether I’m building the best, most diverse and well-balanced team I can, where everybody’s voice is heard at the table.”

Part of that empowerment has involved Skanson embracing another one of her most important roles—being a mother to her three kids. Earlier in her career, she looked around and didn’t see many other working mothers at her level, and she often felt like she had to hide that aspect of who she was. “I masked my own life from everybody and I became a leader who held her cards so close that my team didn’t get to know me.”

All of that changed when someone who worked for Skanson had the courage to tell her they perceived her as closed off, even describing her as a “robot.” In that moment, she knew compartmentalizing her life wasn’t making her the type of leader and colleague she wanted to be, and she’s never been the same since. “Now I let everybody in the world know that I have challenges at home and that sometimes I need to take time off work to be with my kids at school. That feedback was such an empowering moment for me,” she said.

Skanson’s passion for empowering women also translates beyond Cargill’s walls. She chairs Women Leading in Technology (WLiT), which works to promote, educate and empower women in technology across Minnesota. “It’s about helping people at different stages of their career with access to people, information and training opportunities,” she explained. She also sits on the board of Code Savvy, an organization that helps promote and expose technology to youth.

Over the course of a year, Skanson is asked to speak to thousands of people throughout the technology industry. And, while she deals with many acronyms in her corporate work, she has adopted one of her own: PMA or positive mental attitude. As Kim shares with audiences around the world, “If you have positive mental attitude, anything is possible.”

Read about more “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” here.