Women Who Tech Are Dangerous — Caroline Gorman
A Portrait Project by John Davidson
Job Title: Senior Product Manager at Dosh
Years in the tech industry: 18
On beginnings — family values:
My mother owned her own small business in the medical services sector. My father was a science teacher in the public schools in a small city in Southern Indiana. I was raised by two people whose work ethic was and is unparalleled (my mom is in her 70s and still works full time)! My father was in the Air Force, went to Vietnam, and came back from war and went on to get two Master’s degrees.
My dad always reinforced the value of my intellect, and made me believe that no one had anything on me. I was lucky to have a dad who was an educator and who was also himself a kind, sensitive person. I’m my dad’s only daughter (in the middle of two brothers) and he really made me feel like I was worthy and limitless. He was really proud of my mom, too, and always spoke respectfully of women. So I’m really lucky that my own father tried to instill that type of confidence in me through his actions. My mom, as I mentioned, owned her own business (she started it in her 40s) and she presented herself as a worthy equal of men, and is quite accomplished in her field, so I had wonderful parents whose actions and words always matched and are themselves a great source of inspiration.
Think before you speak — on the misdirection of an impressionable mind:
But there are always other influences that can offer mixed messages and have you call into question your own capabilities and worth. My senior year in high school, I received a chemistry scholarship to a private university and recall my high school AP teacher laughing at the prospect that I would use a chemistry degree for anything other than an Mrs. degree. That made me feel terrible. He was one of my favorite teachers, and I was really impressionable, so that really stung. The school was very expensive, and the scholarship would not cover all living expenses; I chose to pursue a degree that would not leave me with debt instead. I’m sure he didn’t realize that his reaction had that much of an impact on my decision to choose a different school and career path, but it did. I respected him, and at the time, I wondered if he was right. It’s little things like this that can create setbacks especially when you are young and impressionable and haven’t learned to trust your own mind yet.
Have you ever worked for a company that was woman owned, or where a woman was CEO or President?
Yes — Heather Brunner, CEO at WP Engine.
On inspirational leadership:
Heather Brunner, CEO at WP Engine is by far the greatest example of female executive leadership whom I’ve had experience with first-hand. I’m humbled by the almost effortless way she makes everyone feel seen and heard in an organization that’s growing rapidly. She’s operationally tight but also practical. She’s an outstanding public speaker. She helped WP Engine secure one of the largest investments in Austin’s tech history. She’s focused on cultural diversity and is setting a great example for what this means in tech.
On women who inspire — and why:
I admire women who have been fearless and have done things no one has done before. Sara Blakely, who founded Spanx, is an example of this. I love the consumer brand she founded and am inspired by the story behind her vision and her will to see it through. She was an industry outsider but fought to see her product come to life. Like so many who become big successes, she endured a lot of failure at first. But she didn’t give up. Melinda Gates is also a hero of mine. She is one of the wealthiest women in the world but that’s not her brand. She doesn’t care about her personal brand. She cares about making the world a better place by seeing that those around the world who truly don’t have a voice or access to the basic necessities of life are seen and cared for through the non-profits that she helps manage.
On finding inspiration through community:
I also have had the fortune of volunteering for great organizations like Dress For Success and meeting folks who have endured much more hardship that I have and have managed to overcome obstacles that include domestic violence, drug addiction, bankruptcy, and other financial setbacks. There is nothing more humbling. I’m volunteering, but really I’m the student. Most of the really inspiring females are around us everyday, but we don’t know their names. They are ordinary working women, mothers, and single moms who are doing hard things all the time, many working in difficult circumstances and for not much money, but they are still smiling and laughing, and working to improve their lives through hard work and more education. All women need to spend more time focusing on these women who don’t have expensive handbags or a new car. There’s plenty of inspiration to be had.
I don’t formally mentor other women but I try to stay engaged and give back by reaching out to females who have recently graduated or who appear isolated in the workplace or who just need some support. Just having another female friend in a company does so much for your confidence and can-do attitude.
I can share some of these things that I’ve already learned the hard way when/if asked, but I try to generally be a good listener and a positive broadcaster. As I learned from my parents, mentoring is best done by showing rather than telling.
A little advice —on lessons in career longevity:
I still see some women defer to others to avoid conflict. Healthy conflict and debate makes for better outcomes. I try to model honesty and a strong point of view, but still a positive, flexible attitude, and openness to those around me. Most important in your career longevity, though, are personal and professional integrity, work ethic, and outcomes. If you focus on those things, I think you can overcome a lot.
But choosing the right workplace matters a lot, too. I’ve learned that you should have a balance of both momentum and resistance to grow. But too much of one without a good balance of the other generally means you are not in the right place. (I learned this from my husband, who is also a mentor of mine.) When this is out of balance, you will either not be challenged enough to reach your full potential, or you will be so challenged by unnecessary drama and ‘stuff’ that you cannot grow as much as you might be able to where there’s a little less (cultural or other) resistance.
On being passed over for career advancement based on gender:
No (that has not been my experience). I’ve been exceptionally fortunate. I may just be choosing the right companies, but I don’t feel like my gender has hindered my ability to be promoted. Working in good companies is a snowball effect, though, as confidence and empowerment feeds on itself (as does the bad stuff, like insecurity and disempowerment). So choose where you work wisely!
On the importance of working at a company with a progressive work culture:
It’s important, but not the top of my list. For example, at WP Engine I knew that the opportunity was good and that the work would be interesting, and I believed I could make an impact. I made my decision based on that. The fact that I was offered the job was all I needed to know about how progressive the work culture was. When equally qualified women or minorities are among those that are offered good jobs, that’s a great sign that it’s both progressive and merit-based.
On what has made the company culture at WP Engine so progressive, and why it has been so succesful in implementing a postive work culture:
I will refer back to the female CEO. She’s done a good job of ensuring both excellent recruiting and hiring practices as well as respect for women and minorities at all levels. She hires really great people, men and women.
On further lessons in diversity and company culture:
Gender (or other) bias is a subtle thing that can take hold if you don’t guard the culture carefully through a focus on diversity and inclusion (just diversity isn’t enough, you have to value and include the diversity you have), but companies must focus on hiring good leaders who really value this in their hearts and minds. As we’ve heard in recent stories about some well-known tech companies, a few bad hires, especially in executive or other leadership roles, can quickly degrade the entire culture of the company.
On the flip-side — when things go bad:
In a meeting once, I was told by by a manager to ‘shut-up.’ No one had ever said this to me. I don’t allow anyone to speak to me this way. I don’t allow my children to say those words. These words can be said as a joke but this wasn’t a joke. I had been in many meetings with this person and had never heard this person use those words with my peers (all were males). This was something else. I kept it together, but even others in the room were shocked. I think that person knew they had crossed a line. I never addressed it directly because the culture didn’t really support any good options for how to do that, unfortunately, so I just dealt with it, and continued to do my job. If this happened today, I would respond differently. I would address it immediately.
On whether the opportunity for career advancement for women has changed/is changing:
This is hard to say as my experience level is growing at the same time that things are changing and tech workplaces are getting more progressive (at least in Austin). The fashionable focus on diversity and inclusion is noticeable for sure. I hope it’s more than fashion, and for some companies it is more than this for sure, but I think companies are getting on board faster because they also recognize that it’s good for business.
On the engines of change:
The workforce is changing. The need to attract and retain millennials is changing the way companies operate. Gen Z consumers will continue to affect the way companies communicate and care for their brand reputation. There is a lot of emphasis now on brands with a purpose and an increasing drive toward more authenticity to engage customers. This means consumers are more aware than ever and need to experience the brand as an extension of their own values. To attract a diverse customer base, you have to have diversity be part of the product or service design. This will only continue to drive the need for more progressive cultures. It’s smart business and the companies that do it well are most likely to win.
Generation next — on the perceptions and expectations of young women entering the workplace:
My experience with my younger counterparts is that they perceive that some, but not all, of the battles are won. Many of them communicate differently than I did, are more direct, and have very high expectations of a lot of things. Some of that may be influenced by growing up with the ability to get information on demand or immediate feedback via available technology. It seems there is more impatience for opportunity, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s very different than my experience. I think my career progression has been slower but I made certain trade-offs like leaving the workforce for a few years when I had my children, so I guess I expected I would need to be patient. And I didn’t grow up with Google at my fingertips, so I’m really patient!
On whther there has been a generational shift in male attitudes in the workplace:
I have worked with many respectful and supportive male colleagues throughout my career, so I’m not sure it’s really generational. But I think that companies with a focus on strong cultures are setting higher and more clear standards and increased accountability for professional conduct. I’m likely just experiencing more of these types of strong cultures since there are more of these types of companies than in the past.
Also, the diversity of our consumer population is growing, and there’s an increased emphasis on these things overall in tech companies that I think (thankfully) is heavily driven by an increased focus on user-centered design (in addition to the recruiting and hiring practices I’ve already mentioned). User empathy is at the center of this. So now empathy is part of strategic conversations in many tech companies. All of this contributes to better products, services, and better tech cultures themselves.
On whether sufficient pressure is being exerted in public life to change work culture and opportunities for women:
Thankfully I don’t think that much pressure needs to be exerted. It’s possible that I’m naive, but I think that the business leaders and investors who are actually positioned to succeed realize (or will soon realize) that this is necessary for long-term success.
If significant change is happening, why is it happening now?
I believe there’s a realization that it’s good for business. Businesses that are standing out and winning are setting the example and think that there’s tendency to copy success.
On how women can continue to contribute towards lasting change in workplace gender politics:
Do our jobs well, maintain our personal and professional integrity, and speak up to a trusted leader with facts when there are problems that need attention.
On recommended reading for every CEO, Senior Executive and entrepreneur in America:
Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton). It’s the ultimate story of our common humanity.
Business book: Good To Great (Jim Collins).
On the project title — Women Who Tech Are Dangerous:
I think the title is empowering. We are dangerous, but hopefully not threatening. Dangerous just means we aim to change things that still need to be changed. We appreciate that we’re starting to see more women in positions of executive power (but still not enough!). That’s good for everyone! But this doesn’t mean that I don’t want men to be in positions of power anymore, either. I think we’re just looking forward to the day when leaders in companies represent the employee populations. And tech companies should be more representative of the world outside the company. Focusing on our common humanity in our everyday lives is ultimately the only thing that’s really going to affect such an outcome.
*Quotes may have received minor editing for purposes of length and clarity only.
Women Who Tech Are Dangerous: A Portrait Project (author’s note)
Encouraged by the rising tide of women making their voices heard on the subject of gender bias in the tech and corporate world, I’ve embarked on a portrait project that seeks to feature women with a stake in the issue, and hopefully, provide a platform for them to share their experiences and express their views.
About the project’s title:
The first suggestion of this project came to me via a book on my wife’s bookshelf — Women Who Read Are Dangerous, by Stefan Bollmann. It’s a collection of paintings from throughout the centuries, each focused on a woman reading a book — the very act of which has, at various points in history, been considered ‘subversive.’
Are women who tech dangerous? To those in Silicon Valley, and elsewhere, who seek to perpetrate the hegemony that unquestionably exists in the upper echelons of tech at present, perhaps. One woman I asked referred to the project’s title as being, for her, about ‘the notion that I’m not supposed to be here because I’m a woman — but I am [here]…we are [here], and we’re not leaving.’ Still another women described the idea that women in tech are dangerous as being, ‘in this context, almost patronizing.’ Clearly there are a range of views and experiences to be expressed.
My goal is to put faces to some of these women, to compile a portrait of women at all career levels, to elevate their voices and contribute to the dialogue.
No further portrait sessions will be scheduled until the project website is launched. Thank you to all those who’ve expressed interest in taking part. For further information, you can contact me at: email@example.com.