The Secret to Lifting Up Other Women? Helping Them Find Their Own Path

Sponsored by Marsh McLennan

Sarah Kellerman and daughters.

Photo courtesy of Marsh McLennan.

Sarah Kellerman
Sarah Kellerman
May 23, 2024 at 9:54PM UTC

“If we’ve traversed that wall and have been one of the few that have been successful, then it is incumbent upon us to reach back and help others like us.” ¹ — Michelle Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama recently spoke about the importance of pulling women over the wall after you. Her talk resonated with me because I have often felt surrounded by metaphorical walls I needed to climb.      

In the early days of my career, I identified with the character Casey Seeger from the film "An Officer & An Gentleman". Seeger excelled in the classroom but was defeated by the wall in the obstacle course, to the amusement of her male peers. Similarly, I could be confident in my ability as an IT Project Manager and yet be reduced to tears by the male colleagues who jeered at my youth and my gender. 

During those first challenging years, there was a woman in my organization who had successfully climbed the wall, and she had done so fearlessly, with determination and with minimal help. She was celebrated for having done so despite being a woman in a male-dominated field.  At first, her success felt as far out of reach to me as the clouds; however, if she could reach the top, then, logically, others could follow. 

She may not have personally hauled me up after her, but she gave me advice that encouraged me to try for myself. I have always been a stubborn soul, so when I set a challenge for myself, chances are I'm going to make it my mission to succeed. Looking back, I suspect that woman was also sponsoring me in the background and made my climb a little easier.  

It is not only women who have supported me during my career, male allies have also played a huge part. Don’t forget it is Richard Gere’s character, Zack Mayo, who helped Seeger find the inner strength to climb her wall.  

Making a difficult climb. Image via the Creative Commons.

Examples of male allies in my own life include: 

  • My father, who sacrificed his career to empower my mother to excel in hers. 

  • My husband, who has moulded his career success to allow space for mine, just as I have for his. 

  • The male manager who pushed me forward in a way that worked for me, not as a repeat of what worked for him. In an industry dominated by men, male allies are vital, but it should be on our terms and not on theirs.

Thanks to this combination of allies, sponsors, supporters and my own determination, I have managed to climb past the challenges I’ve faced and grow my career to new heights. Now, as an IT Director at Marsh McLennan, I have responsibility for a global IT transformation program while also managing multiple Agile software development squads. My career journey from Project Manager to IT Director has included direct progression up the ranks as well as movement into new functions and new areas of the Marsh McLennan organization. This has created my unique experience and perspective, which makes me successful today. In the end, I found my own path up the wall.

Celebrating a successful climb. Photo courtesy of Marsh McLennan.

Advice on lifting up other women.

Looking forward, how do we follow Michelle Obama's instruction? I believe help can come in many forms and should not be limited to those below us on an org chart. 

We help every time we redirect a conversation back to a woman after she's been interrupted and when we point out a female colleague already suggested an idea that is being discussed. We help when we speak openly about the struggles of working parents, mum guilt and the loneliness of yet again being the only woman on a Zoom call.  

Company programs dedicated to empowering women can also be incredibly helpful. At Marsh McLennan, we have a Women in Technology group that runs monthly events tackling important topics and sponsors our Lean In program with circles all over the world. We benefit from partnerships with organizations like Fairygodboss who are driving real change, and we have a great mentoring program that I have personally benefited from during my career.  

And, yes, sometimes we need to focus our efforts on the women who have more of the wall left to climb than we do. I have tried to do that where I can, but I know I could and should do more. I need to help young women now so that one day their generation will help my daughters. So please, reach back and show others the path of least resistance, but also empower women to climb the wall via their own path.  

Lastly, remember the women stepping onto the wall for the first time won't be pulled over by the person who has already reached the top. We must help each other along the way.

Author bio: Sarah Kellerman, IT Director, Marsh McLennan

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¹ Keynote Speech, Women in Technology World Series Online Festival, June 2021

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