Women Who Tech Are Dangerous — Lauren Browning

A Portrait Project by John Davidson

Lauren Browning

Job Title: · Executive Director of Growing Empowered Together, an arts-based grassroots 501c3 nonprofit with the mission to motivate more young people to want to vote and volunteer in Texas.

Years working in the Tech Industry: I no longer work in tech, but I worked as a scientist for 14 years earlier in my career.

On a STEM career with NASA:

I was awarded a NASA Research Fellowship after graduation from college and moved to Houston to work at NASA Johnson Space Center. After the Fellowship ended, I continued my research for NASA at the University of Hawaii. My research focused on characterizing the earliest stages of of solar system history by analyzing the mineralogical and chemical evidence in chondritic meteorites. These primitive meteorites originated from water-rock-gas interactions that occurred mostly or entirely on primitive asteroids that existed before the earth was formed.

To the moon and back? Actually, no. On the road to the US Supreme Court:

After a few years working as a research scientist at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), I began to notice that my pay and job title were not advancing at the level I would have expected based on my responsibilities and accomplishments compared to my colleagues, who were all male. After I inquired with executive management about potentially gender-based reasons behind this disparity, my workplace became a nightmare of daily harassments. For way too long, I tried to work even harder in the naïve hopes that management would recognize my value. Finally I had enough misery, and although my husband had just been laid off from his job, I resigned.

We submitted our case to the EEOC, who told us the only way to continue in our pursuit was to pursue an individual lawsuit. We knew this would be a difficult and expensive course, but we also knew we had the facts on our side. My lawsuit fortunately attracted the attention of Public Justice (publicjustice.net) and soon I had several highly accomplished attorneys handling my case on a pro bono basis.

I then learned a sad truth about our civil justice system that most trial lawyers already understand very clearly — some judges are anything but impartial decision-makers. Our case was assigned a judge who had a track-record of siding with corporations and against employees in virtually every case. After ruling that we could not submit our primary evidence of gender discrimination, he dismissed our case for lack of evidence.

On refusing to take the money and run:

At that point, my former employer offered me almost a full years’ salary to drop our legal battle — but only if I would sign a “gag order” and agree not to talk about the case. The opposing attorneys suggested that, if we appealed, we’d have to face the Fifth Circuit appeals court, whose judges are known for being extremely hostile to employees fighting unfair corporate employment practices. But I could not agree to be silent about discrimination and so we nonetheless pursued the appeal.

On the further trials of Lauren Browning:

Only about five percent of appeals get a hearing, but my case was heard in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The chief judge of the three-judge panel was Edith Jones, considered one of the harshest conservative judicial voices in the country. The appeals court upheld the earlier bad decision, thus preventing us from having the chance to present our case to a jury. We were incensed at this injustice, and decided to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

An even smaller percentage of appeals are heard in the Supreme Court. My case made it past the first big hurdle. It went into committee and was on the short list. But in the end, it was not selected, and so the fight was over — my case was never presented to a jury.

On how it feels — five years in the pursuit of justice:

Imagine feeling violated and indignant every day for five years straight. Imagine what it feels like to be hooked up to a lie detector and videotaped while you’re being accused of egregious acts you would never even think of doing. Imagine having no income and watching your savings dwindle away and your bills pile up. Imagine realizing that you will never work again in a profession in which you have devoted your life. Yes, it was a very difficult time.

It’s over, right? Not quite. On being blacklisted:

My attorneys warned in advance that, regardless of the outcome of my case, I would likely be blacklisted. Several incidents indicated what was happening. For example, when I was contacted by a large scientific contractor in California, the manager told me that they had been looking for a scientist with my specialization, and a very prominent person in the field had strongly recommended me. I asked for a salary in line with what I should have been making at SwRI — much larger than what they had actually paid me — and the contractor didn’t balk. We agreed that I could start in two weeks, after the holidays. After the holidays, none of my attempts to reach the contractor were successful. They never returned my calls or emails. A very similar pattern happened a few more times, before I finally decided to turn to more fruitful efforts.

On being heard:

Through Public Justice’s involvement with my case, I was a featured speaker at the American Trial Lawyers Association conference (now named the American Association for Justice) in Seattle, and also at the Public Justice Foundation Board meeting in Dallas, as well as at the University of Miami.

On what remains:

It wasn’t easy to forge a new path. I was a scientist through and through. But, I began to explore new options and eventually stumbled upon something that I enjoyed.

I have no regrets. I learned how important justice is to everyone who believes in the American Dream. My heart is firmly aligned with those who value integrity, and those who do their part to help fix a broken system.

On the lasting value of integrity:

It’s still very painful for me to recall the many personal abuses and injustices that I endured over the course of nearly a decade, first in my profession as a research scientist and then in a flawed civil justice system. But, that pain is overridden by my feelings of pride in pursuing justice against the odds and gratefulness for those who helped along the way.

I believe that fighting back against gender bias in the workplace was the best thing that I ever did for myself and, hopefully, for others. It was also the most difficult thing that I ever did. It cost me a hell of a lot, but I believe I gained much more from the experience than I lost. Most importantly, my sense of personal integrity remained intact throughout the whole ordeal.

As Michelle Obama told us: “When they go low, we go high.”

On gender equality in the current moment:

Change is definitely in the air. It’s too early to tell if those changes will be lasting and significant, but the effort is strong and well-intentioned. I have high hopes for progress in the struggle for gender equity.

Meaningful advancements requires strong legislation that’s unwavering in its demands for gender equity, as well as dependable enforcement of those measures. The effectiveness of this whole process should be routinely assessed by adequately funded, independent sources that maintain transparency in their process as well as in their observations and interpretations.

A logical first step toward achieving gender equity in America is to place more women in positions of political power. I believe that the general outcry for gender equity in America today will have the positive effect of propelling more women into positions of power. Women and their supporters need to keep on pushing hard for progress together!

On strength in numbers:

Women can make great strides toward gender equity if we work together to elect lawmakers who represent our interests.

Outside of the political arena, any woman can become an effective part of the movement toward gender equity by making tangible efforts to become more aware of the gender biases that she unknowingly harbors within herself, in addition to the biases that exist around her, and then actively purging herself of as much of that deleterious indoctrination as possible.

Women really are stronger together.

*Quotes have been edited 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.

John Davidson

The project is ongoing. Contact me at info@johndavidson-photography.com if you’re interested in taking part.