March 20, 2023

10 Mantras for Women in the Workplace

It’s said that knowing where we’ve been helps us figure out where we’re going. Women’s History Month 2023 leaned into the idea with this year’s theme, “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” honoring journalists, scholars, artists, and others who spent their lives communicating the lessons of those who came before us. In that spirit, Exact Sciences’ Inclusion team hosted a Women’s History Month panel discussion. A group of female leaders told their own stories, reflecting on their experiences and offering ideas for others to draw upon. As one panelist noted: “The wisdom of each generation is lost if it’s not shared.” Here are 10 takeaways from that conversation.

Find a mentor; be a mentor.


I think the most significant barrier I’ve experienced is how difficult it is for us as women to form the relationships with leadership that often give way to opportunity. I feel strongly that by creating those corporate relationships, we create critical opportunities to not only survive difficult times — and we all have difficult times, right? — but to demonstrate our value. Not having that as women can be difficult.


I think one of the most important things to realize as you move through an organization — whether you’re up, or sideways, or maybe you take a demotion to try something new in your career — is that the relationships are one of the most important things. I'm grateful Exact has a mentoring program. I would encourage everyone to make sure that you have one, or that you are mentoring others, and really look at it as an opportunity to reach outside of your sphere and the groups that you’re in. To listen and learn about other careers as you build your own. I learn probably much more from younger people that I have worked with than they probably have learned from me.


I definitely feel a sense of responsibility. I did not get here today without the mentors that helped me along the way, and shared their experiences, and had a vested interest in my career journey. We rise by lifting others, right? It is a sense of responsibility to absolutely give back, whether it's mentorships and so forth. We can all do that for each other, and it's really important to be intentional about it, too.

Confidence doesn’t come from knowing everything.

KAREN: How I build confidence is, oddly enough, not being afraid to say that I’m wrong. That’s a huge relief and release for me, being able to say, "I need to learn more.” When you have the confidence to say you’re wrong, I think that’s a good thing. But you have to take the next step to learn whatever it is you were wrong about, to learn what you didn’t know. I’m an attorney. People expect that I have the answers, and I don’t always. I had to learn in my career to say, “No, I don’t have the answers, but I’ll get them for you.” And doing that gave me the confidence that I now carry with me in my career. 

Disagreeing isn’t rude.

KAREN: If I have a question, I ask it. If I disagree, I can disagree politely. I don’t default to politeness; I default to my truth.

STACIE: Ask clarifying questions, number one, to make sure you’re not making assumptions. And then lead with, “From my perspective…” or “Based on my experience…” because we’re all coming from different points of strength and experience. Just because one person has a higher title than you do does not mean they have more experience than you do. I tell my team every day, “This is my perspective based on what I see, what I hear. What is yours? Because you are in the details; you are in these team meetings. Please, please, please share with me.” If you don’t feel like you’re getting that openness in a discussion or a meeting, create it for yourself. You can still be respectful. You can still honor that someone has a perspective, but you can also create a space to share your own.

Vulnerability isn’t weakness. 

KAREN: I love my team. I have a great team. I am vulnerable for my team. I hurt when they hurt. I don’t mind showing that when it comes to my team. Stepping out of this role as a “leader” and stepping into a role as a person — that’s where I show my vulnerability.
STACIE: The times in my career where I’ve seen a leader be vulnerable have given me a different appreciation for who they are and that they are human. There’s this perception that leaders are just what you see. And the reality is, we are all human beings. We have feelings. We have emotions, and it's OK to show those. I thought I had a few career-limiting moments where I broke down in tears because of stress or frustration, and they were actually really amazing growth moments because they helped the people I was working with understand the pressure that I was feeling.

Define success for yourself.

STACIE: It’s not about hitting a certain title in a company. It’s not about the number of degrees you have behind your name. It’s about what you define. And I’ll be honest, I'm still defining that for myself and my career. Things that might have been expected in the past, I think, have been blown out of the water. I see the energy, excitement, and the passion that young women have today to fundamentally believe they can do everything. I think it’s just really important to not allow cultural, stereotypical, or gender-based expectations to fuel how you believe you can be successful or achieve.

Look to others’ experiences.

YA-LEI: Every generation is contributing to the progress for women in many unique ways. However, the wisdom of each generation is lost if it’s not shared. Because if it’s not shared, then how are we going to benefit from each other’s experiences? So, I have a story.I was in the field for seven years as a sales representative before I became a first-line manager. I had several women managers, and I recall one in particular, Beverly. She had a three-year-old son, and we would be doing these ride-alongs. I’m driving. She’s in the passenger seat. We’re driving from office to office, calling on health care providers, and we would call her son on the phone and see how he’s doing and how preschool was, and what his favorite snack was for the day. So in my mind, I could always aspire to that because I saw that. I saw Beverly balance work and life very seamlessly and successfully, and I knew that I could do it. I saw that it was possible to manage that. I never doubted that I could lead a team one day, because I had visibility to it, because there was representation. Then when I became a manager, so many women on my various teams shared with me that I was the first woman manager that they ever had. And so I knew how important it was to continue to share those stories and to keep them alive because our outlook on that was entirely different based on what we saw and based on what we experienced. 

STACIE: Find those people who are willing to share with you true stories and realities about what their life is like on a daily basis, how they got to where they are. We all create our own path, but I've had some wonderful conversations that have led me in one direction or another because of a relationship that I built and helped me understand it's not a straight line, right? Your career path is going to have hills and valleys and things that you never would’ve imagined. So just be really open-minded about it as well.

Call out unconscious bias.

STACIE: Do not hesitate to call out an unconscious bias when you see it. Sometimes it takes a little while to determine if that’s what it is, but I’ve had a couple of situations where I’ve paused and I’ve asked a particular individual, “That’s an interesting word choice. Would you use a different word choice if you were speaking of a man?” And so you’re calling it out and raising it, but you’re not deprecating them, because a lot of times people don’t even realize it. That’s why we call them “unconscious biases,” right? We all have them. How can you raise the topic and ask the question? Because maybe they didn’t even realize what was coming out of their mouth showed a gender bias. We should all have psychological safety to do these things.

KAREN: If a woman comes to me and she says, "This is happening to me, but it wouldn't happen to a man," I try to validate that. A lot of times, it’s when we’re isolated and our environment tells us that maybe what we’re seeing is not real, or what we’re feeling is not real, or we’re making a bigger deal about it. So, I really try to validate, where validation is warranted, some of the feelings that women may have about biases they’re feeling in the workplace.

Take care of yourself, whatever that looks like.

YA-LEI: I have three kids and three dogs. Whenever I have a moment, I take them on a walk in nature, and that really does help a lot. If I don’t do that, then I pay for it in one way or another with flower beds and baseboards being ripped up and everything. Fresh air makes a huge difference. It’s just stepping away from the screen. Sometimes, when I’m doing one-on-ones with my team, we try to do walk and talks. Like, “OK, so we've seen each other probably 10 times this week, so let’s step away from the screen and do a walk and talk.” Little things like that do make a big difference. 

STACIE: There was a New York Times article recently about self-care and this billion-dollar industry with, you know, spas and special products and all these things. And if that’s your jam, go for it. But what I loved about the article was you need to define what self-care is for you and what makes you happy. What are your things?

KAREN: For me, I have to schedule my self-care. I have learned not to give up on it. I do Pilates. You will not get a meeting with me, four days a week before 8:30 AM, because I'm doing Pilates. That’s my time. I also schedule my lunch. I work through every lunch, but it’s because I choose to, not because someone has scheduled a meeting. I calendar my time. I carve out my time for myself, and I really stick to it. That has helped me.

Share your truth or guard it? It’s up to you. 

KAREN: Be comfortable in setting the boundaries that you choose to set, and don't feel compelled to share something. Share what is necessary to accomplish your goals. “I am stressed out. I need to take a day off tomorrow.” You don't have to explain what you're stressed out about — that your kid ran the car into the garage (that happened to me).But also, and this comes from a person with age: There is nothing new under the sun. What you’re going through, others have gone through it. Sometimes I have found that it’s actually freeing to say, “Hey, I'm struggling with this,” or “I’m concerned about my child,” or “I’m concerned about my parent.” I had to take care of my elderly father, and I struggled for several months before I shared at work what I was doing. And then I got all kinds of support because they had gone through it, too.

Show up authentically.

STACIE: When I think about culture for my life, it comes in two ways. There's the ethnic heritage and the culture of your family and your community that you grew up in. And then there’s also the richness that comes when you are able to fly the nest and build your own culture for your life.I grew up in a very small, homogeneous town in Oregon, meaning there was very little ethnic diversity. But what I did receive from my family was the fundamental grounding of hard work, of being resilient, and to have true grit in anything that you do. Being in a small town in a homogenous culture was a wonderful, comfortable upbringing. But I wanted to grow and challenge myself.If I look back at the places that I've chosen to live in, the partnership that I've formed with my husband of 20 years, who is from a different cultural background, and now raising multiethnic children, I think there's been such tremendous richness that has come to my life in fundamentally supporting, understanding, and believing in people of all cultural backgrounds, and ensuring that I continue to learn with opportunities of working across teams at Exact Sciences. 

KAREN: What I am most proud of for my heritage is the strength to survive the unimaginable. I come from a legacy of amazing, strong women. My family has this great oral history, so I hear all these stories about these relatives and what they did. My great-grandmother took literacy tests at the turn of the century so that illiterate Black Americans could vote during the Jim Crow era. That same great-grandmother was also considered “subversive” because she secretly held local NAACP chapter meetings in her home. It’s that kind of strength that drove me as a young woman to give birth one week and start law school the next. To give birth one week and start the bar exam a month later. So, it’s the strength of my ancestors who are the foundation upon which I proudly stand.I'm a person of color, and I'm a woman, and I have had experiences with exclusion, with being overlooked and negative assumptions.  I think I've turned it into a positive because it has driven me to be the grantor of opportunity. I see potential in everyone I see. I have a saying: “Where there's breath, there's hope.”

YA-LEI: My cultural background has definitely played a significant role in my career. In 1980, my family found the courage to immigrate to the United States, as it was known to be the land of opportunity with great schools and a chance for a better life for their children.My parents worked very hard. They each had two jobs. I was raised in a very strict, immigrant, traditional Chinese family where my parents would take a look at my report card and see all A’s and one A-minus. And they would not say, “Great job on the A’s!” but, “Why did you get an A-minus?” I was constantly raised to better my best. So, in many ways, that has served me well in my career. The strong work ethic, the unwavering drive to succeed, and a focus on continuous improvement.Sometimes if there's too much of a strength, it then becomes an area of opportunity, right? I have a story about this. I was seven months pregnant with our twin boys, and I was promoted to a first-line manager role. For the first time, I was officially leading a team. Then our boys were born eight weeks early. They spent three weeks in the NICU.I put pressure on myself to get back to work, even though they were not even three months (and since they were eight weeks early, their corrected age was about four weeks). I went back to work full-time because of that sense of responsibility to my job, to my team. No one else put that pressure on me. Not my team, not my immediate leader or above, not my family. I just put that pressure on myself to get back and prove myself as a new manager.Looking back on that, knowing what I know now, I would like to think that I would've done things differently. I've learned that I have to take a step back sometimes and be reflective and introspective, to actually take a moment to recognize and celebrate. It's important to live in the moment rather than constantly moving on to the next thing that needs to be done. But that's still a work in progress for me, for sure.


Traci Allain, Senior Recruiter, served as the panel’s moderator. Quotes have been edited slightly for clarity and length.