Microsoft hosted three top female executives who discussed how they worked their way to positions of prominence in a male dominated industry, and shared their advice for women in the early stages of their career.

The panel, hosted by media personality Adam Spencer, featured Maree Adshead, who is the CEO of the Open Data Institute in Queensland, Andrea Della Matea, senior vice-president at Insight, and Grace Kerrison, Microsoft's director of enterprise partners in APAC.

So how did these powerful women make those hard decisions between and family and work that defined their careers?

Adshead said that the decision early in her career as a lawyer at Minter Ellison to leave and join a start up, made all the difference -- "I'm clearly not motivated by money."

Instead she claims that the decision was motivated by looking around at her colleagues' busy lives, and their children being raised by others. She wanted a different life, working at home "with kids running around your feet."

Della Matea said the key is in trusting your decisions, and not focusing on regrets. Her partner played a critical role, and told her to seize her career opportunities, she said.

Kerrison agrees, her family was all set to move and settle in New Zealand, but a last minute call from Microsoft MD, Pip Marlow, to seize a senior position in Singapore changed all that. She jumped at the opportunity, and moved the whole family over there. That key shift "laid the foundation" for future career successes, but she does plan to one day move back to New Zealand.

When asked what advice these senior leaders could offer young women looking to drive toward their goals, the three had similar responses.

Kerrison said young women need to look at role that's interesting, rather than cash and titles. Della Matea agrees, noting that too many workers focus on job titles rather than more interesting opportunities.

Adshead goes a step simpler -- "learn to say 'yes' more".

"How many times have I dragged myself to a function I didn't want to go to -- and then met a key partner?"

Due to the lack of representation in the industry, mentoring has become increasingly important to develop the business, strategic and social skills to survive in a tough market.

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Kerrison breaks mentoring down into coaching and mentoring -- the former more of a sounding board (such as feedback on a meeting), the latter a long term relationship about working towards specific goals.

Adshead said it was something she never had access to during her career, but has made the effort to get involved with mentoring young women. She broke it down into informal and formal mentoring -- the difference between a café chat, and a more structured feedback session.

Della Matea agreed the industry has matured a lot, Most organisations now have mentoring organisations, or opportunities to access third party ones. She said there is probably more to be gained from the external ones: "Don't look to your direct line manager."

She supported organisations such as FIT, an organisation that pairs up mentors and mentees. But part of the problem with any mentoring system is mentees not really articulating what they want to get out of the session.

None of the women particularly agreed with the assertion that men have a 'natural tendency' to pursue opportunities, while women tend to limit themselves or overthink career decisions.

Della Matea said this was just a stereotype, and both genders struggled to get out of their comfort zone and stretch themselves.

"Get uncomfortable," she said.

Kerrison believes opportunity works on three principles only: "Right person, right role, right time." She said focusing on the future potential of the role is more important than your ability to do it now.

Adshead agreed that women tend to look at opportunities and apply a checklist mentality to each attribute, whether they can do it. Men don't.

"We do tend to undersell ourselves," she said.

A question from the audience asked the panelists about balancing their families -- all of them have children -- when there is so much pressure to be stay at home mums.

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Della Matea put it simply, but said there is no one hard and fast rule. "Determine your position, then be comfortable. Don't then regret it and worry about it."

Adshead went for a more pragmatic response. She employs a nanny to do things such as making school lunches and supervising homework until she gets home.

"Outsource the bits you don't want to do," she joked. "But don't be too hard on yourself."

Kerrison was different again. "I don't believe in a work-life balance, more work-life integration," she said. "IT doesn't work to your schedule."

She said she blocks out time with her daughter when she can, but also relies on the support of her partner when she has big work events.

So does the glass ceiling still exist?

Della Matea said it doesn't exist as an industry, but does within certain individuals and organisations.

"With the right direction, there's lots of opportunity," she said.

Kerrison agreed: "The opportunities are there -- you just have to go for it."

Adshead said in the modern business world, the pendulum may even be swinging back the other way.

"There's been a definite change in leadership, if anything they are keen to see more women there."

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