I think the greatest myth is that females won’t like this work, that for some reason it doesn’t resonate with our natural tendencies. I love the work that I do and more importantly I deeply appreciate the opportunity this work has given me to be creative, to be an explorer, and to contribute to some really useful solutions. The knowledge, theories and concepts that I deal with are more accessible today than when I first started in these fields and, because of that accessibility, joining the STEM and tech fields gets more comfortable every day.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frances Donnelly.
Frances is a Director and part owner at Horizons International, a software developer that focuses on functionality to support manufacturing and quality management needs. Frances’ primary focus is the firm’s quality management solution, Quality Essentials Suite, where she leads the Sales and Product Development efforts. Frances has been with Horizons for over 17 years, originally joining the firm as part of the educational staff and later returning to become a partner in the firm. Her professional career began in 1983, when she quickly identified an interest in working in the materials management function for manufacturing organizations. Among many career highlights was her role in supporting furniture manufacturing organizations located in Southern California and the unique opportunity of deploying Lean and Demand Flow manufacturing techniques at CorryHeibert, a division of Hon Industries. In 1996 she took the big step of leaving day-to-day manufacturing to join the software industry as a subject matter expert on a variety of manufacturing topics such as Just-In-Time, Lean, and Demand Flow. She also pursued her education at night and earned her Computer Science degree in 2004 Frances has three children and resides in San Diego, California.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Today I am part owner of a software development company, Horizons International. My primary focus is our quality management solution, Quality Essentials Suite.
I developed my first solution for materials management in 1982, working for the VP of sales. I was really frustrated calling customers to tell them their orders were shipping late. I did some research and figured out how to build a production and stocking plan using multiple sheets of 13-column accounting paper.
My tool was a success in resolving the issues of late shipments and maintaining inventory levels, but the production manager wouldn’t let me join the manufacturing team. I had to find a new employer that would accept a woman in materials planning and support my efforts in coding.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I am going to interpret “most interesting” as most relevant. We are a small company, so I frequently attend industry events and such by myself. My family moved quite a bit when I was a child and I have figured out how to not let the discomfort of being on my own prevent me from participating. I know that, for the sake of my business, I have to get out there and network even though I am one of only a limited number of women present. Until gender distribution gets more balanced, this is the kind of situation woman in STEM and tech will continue to deal with. As a leadership woman who has been in software development for over 15 years, these events are no longer a challenge and I try to remember that it wasn’t always this easy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I am a little challenged when it comes to American geography, because I attended school in Ireland and my funniest mistakes generally have to do with geography. Many years ago, before navigation systems were available, I was trying to get from St. Louis airport to St. Charles and got completely lost because the highway signs didn’t identify roads with compass points like east or west. Instead, they used major cities like Chicago, Kansas City and Nashville. This is a useful approach if you are a local, but not so much if you were a stranger like me. The easy lesson I learned is to study geography. The more important lesson is to develop a discipline about evaluating a solution. Can the solution be local or does it have to support the needs of a stranger?
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out because all the staff and ownership demonstrate a commitment to helping manufacturers be successful, whether they use our products or not. We strive to be generous with our knowledge. We understand that smaller companies need the same range of functionality as larger companies but they don’t have the same budget.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Our current project is to enable our customers to import quality control data from their customer’s sources. That doesn’t sound very fancy, but it will eliminate costs of transcription and enable automation for evaluating conformance to quality standards and generating relevant alerts. Improving quality outcomes has wide-reaching benefits. Quality control affects everything from increased profitability to reduced environmental impacts to creating meaningful employment as we move towards Industry 4.0. It is a field that generates benefits that are broadly realized in all communities.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Research shows that women in STEM and tech fields are underrepresented in relation to population distribution and underpaid versus their male colleagues. There is a lot to be dissatisfied with and concerned about in that statement. However, the need to address the status quo as some kind of social policy is no longer the only concern. The data shows that more females than males are entering college and graduating, but those women are not choosing STEM and tech fields. This is a troubling trend because of the expected shortages of skilled workers in STEM and tech fields.
Encouraging women to enter and remain in STEM and tech is of critical importance and something I have given a lot of thought to. I suggest three areas of focus.
First, we have to find a way to accelerate the development of these needed skills. From my experience, this means developing technical programs outside of the 4-year college track. This will be of particular value to girls because they are often the ones in families that struggle most with the financial requirements of 4-year programs. It will lessen the investment risks of higher education for them while providing access to good jobs. In combination with existing programs that are better preparing women to be comfortable in STEM and tech, it should accelerate the numbers of girls we see in these professions. There is a ramp-up for developing such solutions and there might be a conflict with 4-year institutions for this revenue source.
Second, getting young women to actually select STEM and tech disciplines may rely on them seeing a growing number of women with successful careers in these fields. Seeing volume is key but the aspect of placement is important, too. The effort by large tech firms to expand awareness is laudable. New job growth, though, comes from small business and we don’t have a lot of knowledge about the women who are in STEM and tech in the small business arena. This is the reason I am pleased to be included in this series. I am an example of a small business owner in tech who has actively overcome many of the challenges I discuss here.
Third, we have to make it easier for women to remain in the field. Career women already struggle with the stress of family/life balance. With STEM and tech, I believe the struggle is more painful because there are simply fewer of us to provide encouragement in these fields where knowledge is always expanding. The demands to stay on top of knowledge, coupled with the extra effort needed to stay in touch with your unique tribe, can create a lot of additional stress that simply does not occur in other professional fields. We must have policies in the workplace that enable access to professional networks that are part of the workday, and not accessible only on personal time.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The fact that there are still so few of us in the STEM and tech fields is our greatest challenge. The reason that this is so impactful is tied to something I call “knowledge of the terrain”. When knowledge of the terrain is limited or does not exist, it creates a few problems we must deal with.
The first problem is that, in the beginning, you must attract trailblazers. The risk of being first, or of being “the only”, is not something that a lot of people are comfortable with. Too many situations exist where there is only one woman in the field. Not only do the young women we attract have to be comfortable with their STEM and tech skills, but some of them also need to be comfortable with their role as trailblazer.
The second problem is the time and support needed to gain familiarity with the task at hand. Women often must rely on the men they work with to give them that background and related coaching and there is not always a strong commitment to that deliverable. This will be the paradigm until we grow the numbers of women in these fields.
Women also have to spend time in this effort of gaining familiarity. It is an additional burden they bear and it can delay their ability to be fully productive, which in turn affects their opportunities to grow professionally.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
I think the greatest myth is that females won’t like this work, that for some reason it doesn’t resonate with our natural tendencies.
I love the work that I do and more importantly I deeply appreciate the opportunity this work has given me to be creative, to be an explorer, and to contribute to some really useful solutions. The knowledge, theories and concepts that I deal with are more accessible today than when I first started in these fields and, because of that accessibility, joining the STEM and tech fields gets more comfortable every day.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
My life lessons are not very fancy or aspirational, but they have allowed me to keep moving forward and stay in a field I really love.
- Just because you are a girl doesn’t mean you don’t belong. You may feel uncomfortable, but that is because your brain is noticing that everyone in this tribe doesn’t immediately look like you. Thank your brain for alerting you to a possible problem, be cautious, but move forward.
- Learning enables communication. Take every opportunity to know your facts. It is much more difficult to shut down a conversation that is fact-based.
- You need a network. The pace of change is fast enough in STEM and tech careers that we all need help keeping up. We just have to remember that, if we are going to take the help, we also need to contribute.
- Learn how to ask for what you want. Your brain can’t deliver on what it doesn’t know about, so take the time to learn to ask in ways that are appropriate for the outcome you desire.
- Winning doesn’t mean that you know everything. I think arrogance is the most detrimental characteristics that a leader can have. It becomes too easy for the victor to think their victory also made them a genius on every topic. There is always something you don’t know.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find ways to make access to networking in their field easier and more acceptable for your staff. We are going to encounter shortages of experienced staff, and one way we can adapt to those shortages is to give our staff virtual experiences by encouraging networking and related learning events. Human beings want to feel fulfilled and providing this kind of benefit to your teams really increases their sense of being respected and valued. It is a total win/win.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I don’t think my advice is only for a large team, and it is this: be consistent. The individuals on your team must be able to predict your responses and your passions. If they can’t do that accurately because you are all over the place, then you are preventing everyone from getting to their place of excellence.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many. Denis is a standout for me. He was my manager in one of my early manufacturing positions. While I was on maternity leave, he reorganized the department around Lean Manufacturing principles that he and I had been researching for several months. Two weeks after I returned to work, my infant was hospitalized for a few days. I was totally traumatized and needed a raise so I could be more comfortable about my child care choices. Dennis recognized my value and made that raise happen.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The work I have been most interested in has not been in fields with high levels of female participation. Over the length of my career I have been able to bring some of that female balance to the workplace. My willingness to risk the new and uncomfortable made it possible for other women to be more easily considered for such roles by the men I worked with. It also gave me the opportunity to set standards for the men around me who maybe hadn’t thought that their workplace was uncomfortable for women.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Research continuously shows that it is important for human beings to feel fulfilled. For many, that is achieved through doing a meaningful job. Productivity often results in direct job losses rather than in role reassignments that can leverage additional returns. I’d like to see an effort to pre-train workers for new careers in advance of job displacement. I think that there are opportunities to achieve this through skills development around quality and the quality body of knowledge.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My quote is “What do I know and what am I making up?”. It comes from Dr. Steve Bedwell and is
based on the concept that the brain doesn’t like not having all the answers, so in the absence of answers it will make stuff up, typically negative stuff.
It helps me tell my brain to knock it off and quit making up stuff to worry about. When we forecast an outcome with insufficient information, we are likely to not just get it wrong but get it wrong in a bad way. Over the years, I have developed a discipline of being okay if I don’t have all the answers yet.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
I would love to have a sit down with Mary C. Daly of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. I am inspired by her journey from high school drop out to PH. D and I think, because of her personal experience, she has knowledge of the challenges that the lack of financial mobility presents and whether that is a pending problem for our world. I would respect hearing her views on whether the benefits of the ‘gig’ economy are really sustainable, both for the consumers who rely on it for low costs, and for those workers who participate in it.