Many women who graduate from Tech pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated industries, requiring them to work harder, smarter, and more tenaciously to prove themselves and advance.
For three Georgia Tech Scheller MBA alumnae - Elizabeth Bacon, MBA, ’08, Yolanda Davis, MBA ’14, and Mary McElroy, MBA ’00 - they faced multiple obstacles on their path to success but remained resolute in achieving their goals. They rose to become leaders, breaking the glass ceiling in their industries.
Studies show that when girls have strong female role models, particularly in STEM, they tend to be more ambitious, have greater self-confidence, and are positively influenced by watching mentors rise in the ranks. For Bacon, Davis, and McElroy, parents and other women played an important and influential role in each of their lives.
Davis, a global core HR technology lead at EY Technology, cited her grandmother as an enormous influence in her life.
“She was a larger-than-life figure to me. She was always well-dressed, and she carried herself with a lot of dignity and pride. Wherever we went, people always treated her with the utmost respect, and she was very protective of her family, especially me. She had high expectations for me and always believed that I was destined to go further and higher, and never let me forget it,” she recalled.
For Bacon, regional CIO of the North American at Novelis, her parent’s encouragement to never give up gave her the resilience she would need to go after her dreams. “They taught me confidence and to always believe in myself and my abilities to achieve things that I want to do in life,” she said.
McElroy, who is the senior associate commissioner of women's basketball for the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), cited several women including her mother, high school coach, and colleagues in the U.S. Naval Academy, where she received her undergraduate degree, as early influencers who told her she could achieve anything through hard work and determination, and supported her efforts to work in multiple environments overwhelmingly occupied by men, the military, and collegiate athletics.
While each chose different careers, the paths that led them there were fraught with bias.
As a Black woman in the world of college athletics, McElroy attained advanced positions, oftentimes without the same level of support others in her industry received. “Working in male-dominated fields has been difficult because I have had to show that I’m capable, competent, and tough enough. My authority was often challenged because I catch people off guard, being an educated, confident woman of color. There are so many stereotypes to overcome,“ she reflected.
As McElroy broke through barriers with her competence and determination, she climbed the career ladder from athletics director to senior associate commissioner in the ACC. Her career even included a stint at Georgia Tech as senior associate athletic director. “We just have to know our stuff so that they will only challenge us once, and when we show them we belong, they usually get in line and many become ardent supporters,” she said.
Like McElroy, Bacon faced numerous challenges in her roles within engineering and IT. “When I started my career, the misconception was that males are better engineers,” she said, adding that another misconception she encountered was that men make better decisions. She graduated from Tech with a bachelor’s in electrical and computer engineering and started her career programming high-speed machines and working on automation technology before switching to IT. In her career, she has orchestrated agile transformation for three companies, leading IT in global companies in both North and Latin America.
Over the years, she’s learned to not let these biases bother her, stating that she’s learned to remain confident in her abilities. “Other people’s misconceptions do not define me, I stayed true to myself and my goals,” she said.
Davis also chose to pursue jobs in the tech industry. She started off as a technology leader in quality assurance and moved up to manage high-performing technology teams delivering global transformation programs and technology solutions.
She cited the importance of having a mentor along her journey. “When I first started my career, there were not as many women in technology as there are now and there were even fewer leaders. I didn’t have the type of mentorship that is now more readily available. That was a barrier because effective mentorship can accelerate your growth,” she noted.
Leading by Example
These alumnae are eager to tell their stories to provide encouragement and inspiration to young women aiming to break through the glass ceiling.
For Bacon, it’s about setting goals and making sure to learn along the way. “I have always had goals and still do. I accomplished my goals, but more importantly, I made sure that I enjoyed all my experiences while learning from them. It was not easy, but with perseverance I was able to accomplish my objectives,” she said.
Davis, who was the moderator for the annual Women’s Day forum held by the Georgia Tech Women Alumnae Network, emphasized the importance of being a servant leader who inspires others as one of the most important qualities to have in being an effective leader. “I have always wanted to inspire individuals and teams to perform beyond their perceived capabilities,” she stated. “I want anyone that works with me to become the best version of themselves, and I want to impact their professional growth in a very intentional and deliberate manner.
As someone who leads women basketball players to reach their personal best, McElroy also practices servant leadership in how she manages her own teams. “I was able to accomplish a lot by inspiring others to achieve. I also made a point to give opportunities to others by hiring many women and minorities and supporting them in the pursuit of their personal and professional goals,” she said.
Because of the journeys they took to get to where they are in their careers, these alumnae are fervent supporters of women and their ability to overcome adversity. “I would tell young women to do the work to become excellent and undeniable. Study, learn, listen, and adjust. You won’t be perfect. However, you will get better. Hard work builds discipline and when done correctly, it also produces repeatable results, which builds confidence,” said Davis.
McElroy sees inquiry, persistence, and consideration of others as important characteristics to develop. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and challenge the status quo, just do so respectfully so you can maintain your seat at the table once you get it,” she advised.
Bacon’s advice is succinct. “Own your career! Achieving your goals is never easy but believe in yourself and never give up.”