Building an unlimited world: a Women’s History Month conversation

Cynthia Per-Lee and Erin Chapple
Cynthia Per-Lee, left, and Erin Chapple.

Editor’s note: In recognition and celebration of Women’s History Month, Cynthia Per-Lee and Erin Chapple, two of the executive co-sponsors of the Women at Microsoft employee resource group, got together for a conversation about boundaries, access, inclusion and the powerful impact of the women’s community inside and outside of Microsoft. This is an abridged version of their chat. Learn more about Women’s History Month here.

CPL: I’m excited about what’s happening for Women’s History Month and for us to spend some time reflecting. This year, our theme at Microsoft for Women’s History Month is “Unlimited.” We know when systems encourage and reward authenticity and meaningful impact, teams are healthier, businesses thrive, communities thrive, and society thrives. I’m curious: What does this theme, Unlimited, mean for you?

EC: I think it’s a timely theme, particularly after the last two years. I don’t know about you, but with the pandemic, and the changing conditions we’ve all been navigating, both inside and outside of work, it has felt limiting to me in the sense that there have been more personal boundaries than ever given the current global environment.

This is challenging because, the times where I have found the most joy and success in life, have been when I could eliminate boundaries, or when I found new ways to challenge where the boundary was. So this struggle is very much alive today! Take for instance the move to hybrid work. One could see it as a limitation and yet we’re engaging in a different way with customers and with teams, and that is opening up new opportunities. So, the whole sense of unlimited — to me it’s about asking ourselves “what’s possible?”

Unlimited also reminds me of the motivations behind one of the communities we have internally at Microsoft called Life Without Lines, which includes technical executive women. The idea behind Life Without Lines really stems from envisioning what if there weren’t limits? What if there wasn’t a glass ceiling? What if there weren’t boundaries? How can we come together as a community and support each other, and what is possible if we do so? This theme of “unlimited” really enables us as the Women at Microsoft community, and as a company, to reflect on how we engage in dialogue with one another to free ourselves from limitations.

CPL: As I listen to you Erin, I’m realizing I have been “limiting” myself during this pandemic. What I mean by that is, I’ve been focused more on the boundaries of what isn’t possible versus the openings to what is possible. What a liberating perspective! The truth is, this notion of “unlimited” is a great way to think about the women’s community at Microsoft because, much as you highlighted, we really do have unlimited opportunity, unlimited potential, and a chance for unlimited growth.

EC: Yes! It’s so much easier for me now to understand the ways in which, to your point, I was also limiting myself. If we evaluate what these limits are, then we can ask—  how can we help each other shatter them to accelerate our own growth and that of the business?

CPL: The idea also connects to the dialogue we have within teams, between managers and individual employees, and across the company at the highest levels around realizing our aspire-to culture. The whole conversation is changing because I think people have learned we previously thought in terms of limitations and boundaries in our ways of working, and now we understand there is another approach we can take. I think that’s an important breakthrough in thinking and honestly, having a mindset oriented to what’s possible feels particularly important for women as well as those who identify in many different ways.

Having said that, creating an environment that is accessible, psychologically safe, and inclusive is also part of inspiring “unlimited” thinking. I appreciate Microsoft’s focus on developing tools that help … for example those that ensure people have a voice in meetings, enabling them to speak up in various ways and contribute.

EC: Definitely, and as leaders we play a key role in creating an environment where everyone can bring their full selves to work. One of the things I have learned while being remote is you really need to think about how you build connection, so people can show up in authentic ways and ask for what they need to be successful, which often involves a sense of vulnerability. As an example, this past year, I noticed the winter holiday break didn’t generate the same level of recharging I normally experience. I came back In January tired, which was unusual given I’m usually quite energetic after the break!

I always try to listen to those around me, and I was hearing a similar sentiment from others. So, I personally made the decision to share where I was, to open up about the fact that I didn’t have that regenerative holiday, and I asked for grace as we navigated the beginning of the year together. I encouraged everyone to listen more deeply to each other and support team members where they were personally and emotionally. The message resonated, and I think helped create a safter environment for others to share and ultimately receive the support they needed.

CPL: Wow, thanks for sharing so openly Erin. Your points resonate so well, and I’m thankful you have been so willing to give people such a real glimpse of your experience. I’m hopeful having leaders like you be so authentic encourages others in their own journey. The reality is, there is no one right path or answer, but it is critical we encourage one another to navigate our journey in ways that work for each of us.

EC: Agree. So, Cynthia, as we talk about the impact of removing barriers and supporting each other and the women of Microsoft, intersectionality is such an important part of the conversation. How do you build awareness for yourself and others with intention, knowing that the experience for all women is not the same?

CPL: It’s a great question. Honestly, I don’t think I really stopped to think much about intersectionality before being on this journey with our company and learning more about the dimensions of inclusion. I’m much more aware now and I think about intersectionality with the idea that most people play multiple roles in their lives and their work. It causes me to wonder how people navigate given the ways they identify, and what support can be provided to help them be and feel successful. When we understand this, we are in a better position to support one another.

EC: Absolutely. As a cis white woman, I learned during the pandemic about the disproportionate impact of COVID on many communities and marginalized identities. I dedicated my own learning to better understanding the demands of and implications on women who identify as racial and ethnic minorities as well as those from the LGBTQI+ community. We must continue to collectively be curious and to create opportunities for allyship. As executive sponsor of the Women at Microsoft employee resource group, I’m aware that my experience is not the only one, and I want to ensure we’re making space for that full range of experiences.

On this topic, you shared more of your own personal story as part of Stories of Us, a Microsoft storytelling initiative where individuals shared impactful moments from their personal inclusion journeys. What was the experience like for you to share parts of your identity so openly?

CPL: Well, if I’m honest, it felt really exposing and like one of the most vulnerable moments I had experienced. Historically, I had shied away from sharing my identity as a lesbian, but I decided to do it because I felt it was a tangible way I could create a potential path for others. The reality is, we’re all on a journey, and creating a sense of inclusion and a place where people can be themselves is so important. I decided speaking up about my own experience, even if it was uncomfortable, was important. Interestingly, I gained strength from it. I also felt very strongly, if not me — then who?

EC: Thank you for stepping into a vulnerable space and sharing. As both a colleague and a friend, your story specifically helped me to understand that there are incredibly successful people who have been holding apart separate worlds in terms of their identity, and the emotion and energy that takes can be overwhelming. This has broadened my awareness for how I as a leader have a responsibility to take steps to create a safe environment for others to bring all of their identity and not feel the need to cover.

CPL: Thank you for listening, caring, and seeing that important responsibility as a leader.

Erin, I want to talk with you about another important aspect of moving beyond limits, and that has to do with how we intentionally help create opportunities for others. I know you and I both share energy and passion for ensuring the technology industry, and Microsoft specifically, is a place where women feel they can grow and have fulfilling careers. How can we keep building on this?

EC: We have to keep telling the story of the impact technology has on the lives around us. Many young women I speak with haven’t even thought of technology as a career, in part because I don’t think we’ve made a strong enough connection between technology and the impact on the world. Every company is becoming a technology company, with technology at the center of business transformation across every industry – healthcare, retail, education – you name it! Our mission at Microsoft, to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more, plays a central role in supporting this transformation. Seeing daily the impact on the world around me is what personally motivates me to continue learning and growing. To attract more women, and support their continued growth, in addition to connecting with young women, we must also create bridges for those who may have either taken time off in their careers, or who are coming from adjacent businesses and industries and are interested in leveraging that experience to get more involved in the technology side. Our apprenticeship programs are an example of how we create those critical connections.

CPL: I fully agree. It’s about investing in the youngest levels of aspiring talent as we do with many programs such as DigiGirlz. It’s about girls and women seeing examples of what’s possible…seeing somebody in technology who looks like them, somebody who has paved the way. Specifically for technical women, it’s critical that we continue building bridges into Microsoft and into the industry, to make sure they know they can fulfill their professional ambitions and dreams here.

Which brings us back to our theme and focus, right? This is a business for all ages, stages, backgrounds, and interests. We must broaden our view collectively on who can be successful in this industry, and what that looks like.

EC: Exactly! It is absolutely about being unlimited. Cynthia, I hope our conversation and all the energy around supporting women and creating opportunities resonate with women inside and outside of Microsoft.

CPL: Agreed – and Happy Women’s History Month!

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