Recognizing Women at Intel: Maria Bezaitis on Her Fearless Career and “Strange” TED Talk

March is International Women’s Month, an opportunity to unite women and allies around the world—and across Intel—in promoting the global equality of women. As we work toward making Intel the most inclusive and responsible company on the planet, we want to take this opportunity to recognize and celebrate all the amazing women across our company.

To kick off the month, we spoke with Maria Bezaitis, Intel fellow and chief architect of Socio-Technical Systems. In the Q&A below, she discusses her journey to Intel, her experience being a woman in the technology industry, and her TED Talk on strangeness.

Q: Your role is unique. What does your job entail?
I work in the Next Generation Standards Group, which is part of Intel’s Corporate Strategy Office. I help business leaders use insight about people and human systems to identify new business opportunities and expand their assumptions about what technologies can do in the world. It is on me to really make sure that I’m finding problems that need my expertise and building partnerships with people across the company so that I can help in whatever way makes sense.

Q: What was your childhood like and how do you think that has shaped your career?
I’m the firstborn of Greek immigrants. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I came from a super close-knit family, full of love and generosity, and one that placed a premium on education, fearlessness, and agility. As I look back at my career, those characteristics and those traits have really marked my path and my ability to take strange, or unpredictable, steps.

Q: What brought you to Intel? Did you always know you wanted to work in the technology industry?
My path is totally circuitous; there’s nothing particularly linear or logical about it. I’ve never been someone who drafts five-year plans, and I’ve never thought about my career that way. And I don’t really approach problems and projects that way either.

In fact, I never planned to work in the tech industry. Growing up, I wanted to be a fiction author. After getting my Ph.D. in French literature and cultural studies, I knew I didn’t want to stay in academics. I moved back to Chicago and found myself at a startup full of people who had backgrounds that were either related to my own — social scientists or people with design backgrounds who knew how to talk to humanities and social science people. Together we were innovating new research and design methodologies for consumer products and packaged goods companies. Eventually the startup was bought by a technology consultancy, which led me to the tech industry.

In 2006, when I was eight months pregnant with my second son, Intel recruited me to join a group called People and Practices Research. I came in to run the team and help shape a research agenda that was relevant to — what was at the time — Intel research and the broader R&D organization. I had an excellent team of senior researchers and grew a new design footprint in what became the first interaction design team in Intel Labs. Subsequently, my colleagues and I started to focus on the rise of personal data and what I started to call “strangeness,” which became the topic of an Intel TED Talk I gave back in 2013 (Watch Maria Bezaitis’ TED Talk).

What do you wish you had known about being a woman in the tech industry? What advice would you give to a woman considering a career in this industry?
I wish I had known how challenging it would be at times. I wasn’t prepared for senior men to make comments to me like, “you should smile more” — things that they would never say to men. Quite frankly, I was not used to executive-level women colleagues taking care of each other. That came later for me, but when it did, it did so in spades. My professional successes are due absolutely to key people — both men and women — showing interest in me; indeed, caring. Nonetheless, I wish I had known how challenging “care” would be in a corporation.

So, my advice would be to learn how to balance taking care of yourself, accounting for your needs and speaking up for yourself. And at the same time, find ways to continually give and share your learnings with others. Ultimately, the balance I’ve found in taking care of myself and others has allowed me to find satisfaction in the work I’m doing; that and being fortunate enough to have many opportunities to collaborate with great men and women.

One of Intel’s 2030 goals is to increase the number of women in technical roles to 40%. What do you believe the tech industry needs to do to improve female representation?
The tech industry is going to need to look critically at its internal processes around things like career advancement and promotions. It’s going to have to figure out what isn’t working and what can be done to leverage the pipeline that already exists. This will ultimately drive uniform and equitable processes that enable diverse technical talent to enter leadership networks. We don’t have the mentoring processes and promotion processes in place that actively seek to promote and advance women and underrepresented minority candidates into leadership positions. And so, for me, there’s hard reckoning to do there.

And it’s not just about recruiting people, but it’s what you do once you have them. We need to figure out how to keep our diverse technical talent and help them grow. I think the tech industry and certainly Intel — but other companies as well — tend to look to individuals to shoulder these burdens on their own, expecting them to find the right mentors and to seek out one-on-one relationships to help them grow their careers. But there’s a lot that we can do structurally to level that playing field and to really assume responsibility for bringing more women and underrepresented minorities into leadership roles. We need to have the courage to do that work.

 

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