Women We Admire: Kris Messner’s Career Advice for Working in a Male-Dominated Industry and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
This post is part of the FemmePharma series, Women We Admire, where we highlight women who inspire us with extraordinary life lessons.
Kris Messner is an angel investor who has completed dozens of triathlons and refuses to take any grief from entitled men in the boardroom. We chatted with Kris about her best career advice for women – especially those struggling in male-dominated industries who want their voices to be heard.
How long did it take for you to get to where you are now in your career?
Like most people graduating from school, my #1 goal was to get a job. I was hired by Mellon Bank (long before it was Bank of New York). They would hire groups of smart recent graduates and teach them banking operations. When you think about banking you often think about people who you see in a branch, our the lenders.
Behind all of those services are the technology and processes that make them possible. That’s where we operations trainees were assigned – in the back room if you will. Mellon was way ahead of the curve in terms of our approach to using technology, being one of the first banks to automate processes that we now take for granted.
Tech and banking can be very male-dominated industries. Would you agree?
I started my career in the mid-1980s. At the time, men were running everything. But my training class at Mellon Bank was about 50/50 – split evenly between men and women. I thought that was pretty progressive. There were women – not always at the highest levels – but in middle-management, and there were more of us coming behind them. It was more equally distributed than in other industries at that time. But when I moved from banking into a software company, there were no women. Really, no women.
What are the biggest challenges of working in a male-dominated industry?
As any woman will tell you, we have to work smarter and harder than anyone around us – which is ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. It’s even more so that way where I am now. A couple of years ago, my husband and I began investing money in small start-up businesses. Now we’re angel investors. The angel world is heavily peppered with men.
When my husband and I go to meetings, he will constantly defer to me. Because the guys will just turn to him and ask him questions, even though we’re equal partners in this business. He’ll say, ‘Well perhaps Kris will answer that question for me.’ And the guys will look at me like, ‘Really? She can answer the question?’
We are potentially going to put money into your company. We are presenting ourselves as partners. Why would you naturally assume that only one of us is the source of knowledge and decision-making?
It blows me away. You spend a fair amount of your time having to be twice as good, just to be treated equally.
What advice would you give to other women faced with male-dominated meetings like that one?
I don’t feel like I need to make a comment just for the sake of making a comment because it’s gratuitous, but you see guys doing this all the time and sometimes their comment is completely inane. I sometimes feel like they just want to hear the sound of their own voice. (Or maybe they’re insecure; I don’t know).
I struggle with always trying to make sure that I am contributing and that what I have to say has some relevance and adds value to the conversation. I will push myself to say more than I feel inclined to say, but also to make sure what I’m saying is pertinent. I think the more you do that the more people begin to realize that you really do have something to say.
There’s also the situation where a man repeats your idea and takes the credit.
That’s happened to me. I’ve said, ‘Yes, that follows on the comment I made earlier. What do you guys think about that?’ There are ways to bring it back around nicely. I cannot tolerate the ‘who has the biggest you-know-what’ in the room posturing that goes on. I’m not going to lower myself to play that game. But on the other hand, I’m not going to be dismissed either.
There’s a fine line between making sure that you get credit for what you have to say, and saying that you have better ideas than something else. Move the conversation in a positive direction.
What career advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t underestimate yourself and don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and do things that you don’t think you’re capable of. I understand that it’s common for women to suffer from “imposter syndrome”. I was a smart kid, I got good grades. I was capable, and yet there was always this self-doubt when I was younger.
‘How did I get here?’ ‘What will they do when they find out who I really am?’ Those thoughts can plague women who don’t always get appropriate signals from society in terms of empowerment. Don’t underestimate yourself. Find mentors that can give you honest feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask for that advice.
What’s the best way to overcome imposter syndrome?
I think you need to find people who know you and know your work and ask for their input. Ask them: ‘I want to go for this job; what do you think?’ or ‘How can I get to a place of change?.’ Ask them what they see as a potential barrier to you getting what you want. You need someone to say to you, ‘Wait a second, why can’t you do this?’ Sometimes we don’t give ourselves the credit that is due and it takes another person’s viewpoint to help us see how good we really are.
Speaking of communities, why do you think menopausal women are one of the most underserved communities?
I think part of the reason is the reality of where our society has come in terms of average life span. Not that many years ago, a 60-year-old person would be considered elderly(!) We’ve come a long way in terms of what medicine and other factors have done in terms of extending life, but we haven’t done well in our societal messaging to let people know that just because you’re over 50, that doesn’t mean your life is over.
If you told a 20-year-old that they were going to be exactly the same as they are now for the rest of their life, they would laugh at you. Well, that’s also true for a 50-year-old now. At 50, you have a whole lifetime ahead of you. We just haven’t caught up with that reality. We have a youth-obsessed culture and we don’t focus on the needs of older people.
The 50+ population is growing every day – especially women. Women are living longer and we need to meet their medical, physiological, and emotional needs now and think about how those will change from menopause to death. Let’s start talking about what that looks like.
To learn about another inspiring woman, check out 6 Life Lessons from BioPharma Leader Nancy Phelan.