Being a working mother comes with challenges, as anybody involved in the daily juggle knows only too well. But sitting down to talk to Kate Adams, Apple's General Counsel and Senior VP, about her incredible rise to the top of the largely male-dominated tech world, it comes as a bit of surprise that despite her impressive job title, she's no different to the rest of us.
"Oh I remember the children screaming and crying - I'd have to quickly make sure they weren’t on death’s door, then I'd be running up to the bathroom and shutting the door so my boss couldn't hear the kids yelling in the background," she laughs.
And those were just the simple moments. "I had a really scary situation where my son got very seriously ill," she remembers. "I was on a trip to a remote part of Mexico and I had to cut the trip short, find planes, trains and automobiles to get to the emergency room where my son was really not doing well. It was a serious thing - it came out OK - but you're thousands of miles away and suddenly your kid is in a serious medical situation, that did happen." She pauses. "I do think that that period with young children, in my experience, is the hardest part of a woman's career to navigate."
These days Kate's children are nearly grown up. Her son is at the University of Chicago, her daughter in high school, about to take up a place at Duke. But they were a huge part of her incredible journey – from her humble small-town beginnings on the outskirts of New York, to Silicon Valley, where she now sits on the executive team alongside Tim Cook and Sir Jony Ive.
Describing herself as "super academically inclined" as a child, it became clear once she hit high school that the Hudson Valley academic establishments weren’t going to cut it for her. "I had the opportunity with some scholarship help to go to a boarding school called Exeter," she explains. "It meant I got out of the town that I grew up in, which was a lovely town but not a place with an incredible education system. That move really launched me into the rest of my academic and ultimately my professional career."
She went from Exeter to Chicago Law School, via Brown University – and somewhat ironically recalls a moment of serious tech envy when a more affluent friend brought a computer to college. "She got the first of the colourful macs of anybody I knew, and I was so jealous of her." She smiles as she remembers the moment. "It was blue and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I would go to her dorm room and write my papers."
Kate is one of three women in Apple's executive team
It never really crossed Kate's mind that she wouldn’t go on to do something big. What her family lacked in wealth, they made up for in ambition (in fact her dad was awarded the medal of freedom by President Obama for his environmental work in setting up the advocacy group the National Resources Defense Council. "It should have been a joint award for my mom, given her contributions," Kate adds.) She describes her upbringing as "activist". "I definitely always felt that I had a mission in life that was greater than just my own personal desires," she explains.
The fact that she was female never played into the equation. "I have never felt that my gender was in anyway a disadvantage," she states. "I just fundamentally have always believed that. Being female may result in different attributes, things might not happen for you as a woman exactly as they might have happened for you if you were a male. But it was not a disadvantage - and indeed in certain circumstances it is truly an advantage."
There is of course one time in a woman's life when there is no mistaking the unique challenges – and joys - of being female, and that is when it comes to starting a family. For many women, maternity leave can be a make-or-break situation in their career. And Kate admits that for her, it was a pivotal moment. "It’s a point in time where you can either persevere in your career or - if the economic situation you are in gives you the option - you can take a different path. What happened in my situation was that I had been working at a fabulous international law firm called Sidley. I had been there 4 years and was on the partnership track. But right at the end of that partnership period my son was born and I went on maternity leave for three months. And I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen."
Kate describes Apple CEO Tim Cook as an "extraordinary leader"
To her surprise, she returned to work and within a week was made partner. "The signal that sent to me personally, and the signal it sent to my peers was just incredible." Many of Kate’s female workmates went on to have children too. "We came together as a cadre of women who were raising kids and the firm was supportive. That whole environment allowed us to stay in the workforce."
Those experiences inspire the work she's currently doing in her new job in the tech industry. “It’s exactly that effect that I am working on here at Apple – showing demonstratively that we are going to make this a place that people can work throughout their entire career. That they will get that support.”
She's clearly having a blast doing it. "I absolutely love it here," she gushes. "I’ve literally never been happier, it is an exceptional environment and Tim is an extraordinary leader."
Being part of the process of adding women to the senior ranks is something she’s very proud of. "We are really sending the right signal from the top that yes, women can be in some of the most preeminent business jobs in the world and we are committed to their success in doing so. That has been one of the most joyful and exciting parts of this for me."
The key, she says, is a supportive environment where employees can count on one another. She is joined on Apple’s senior leadership team by two other women – Angela Ahrendts, Senior VP, Retail and Deirdre O’Brien, Senior VP, Retail and People. “The three of us are very good friends and collaborate,” she says. “It is a very supportive environment and way of working. Connecting with others is one of the most powerful ways that we can all navigate those tricky moments. We need to have real relationships around us.”
Balancing home and work demands is something many working women – and men – struggle with. "The whole tech industry gets a bad rap on balance," she admits. "You hear about the bro culture - we do not have a bro culture here at Apple. But we do work hard and we need to understand how the work culture expectation should be sensitive to the issues that people are facing in terms of balance in their lives."
Kate attended America's prestigious Brown University
As a mother with young children that balance can feel difficult to achieve. "One point of view that I learnt to adopt over time - and if I could go back and have had this point of view earlier in my career it would have been easier – is that you do not have to be perfect. Just don’t even go there!" she says, laughing.
"Prioritise the things that really matter to you. For me, it was having dinner with my family. I didn’t do other things. I couldn’t make volunteer stuff work at school, but I did make dinner work. For every family it will be a different set of priorities but you don’t have to do it all.
"I think being more gentle on ourselves is so important. Focus on the things that really matter. You can pick those other things up later. Life is long, it’s a marathon not a sprint."
And if there’s one piece of advice she’d give women coming up behind her – at Apple or elsewhere? "Realise that it is okay to be human – that’s so important. We are women, not automatons – in fact, our humanity is actually our greatest asset."
An important thing to remember perhaps particularly in the tech industry? "It's an area where the gender imbalance is pretty visible," she admits. "But even before Apple, the success and representation of women in corporate America has been something I have been focused on my whole career. It’s wonderful to be here - there is a huge organic passion to do this so it’s not a push. The bigger question is, 'What?'. What are the right things to do to really continue to refine our environment and create the kind of inclusive and deeply supportive workplace that will make it possible for women from all kinds of different backgrounds and educations be able to stay here for as long as they are happy to stay in the workforce."
"Things are already improving. Women and underrepresented minorities now make up 50% of new hires, but that still skews more male so we still have work to do," she adds.
Our time is nearly up – and when you’re a VP at Apple, your day is heavily scheduled so signals are coming through from the people around that it’s time to draw things to a close. My kids are younger than Kate’s, and talking to her I can sense she’s a woman who has all but come out the other end of the juggle. I’m intrigued to know, how does it work out? What lessons can she share with other women right in the thick of it now, who might be wondering if it’s all really possible.
"I had those moments," Kate admits. "We all have those moments. Like when a child says to you, 'Mom, all the other mothers pick their children up after school, why do you have to send the babysitter?'. It hurts. You wonder - am I making a mistake? Am I doing something selfish? "But I am so happy to say that my children are old enough now to have - in very explicit ways - said to me, both previously, and now, since I’ve been here at Apple, 'Mom, I am so glad you are doing this and I want you to know that we had an amazing childhood and we are proud of you and we are glad to be a part of what you are doing.'"
It must be a relief? "I'm so glad to be able to share this with other people actually. They genuinely feel [my career] makes everybody's lives enriched."
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