Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “It is a myth that women in STEM are robots or have little to no personality” with Desiree Robinson of SurveyGizmo

Penny Bauder
Feb 21, 2020 · 16 min read

I constantly hear I’m not what people expect for someone in my role. I didn’t realize what people meant by the statement for a long time. I’m fairly petite and young for someone at my professional level of leadership, so I always assumed it was due to my size, or something related to my appearance. Someone had to finally point out they meant they didn’t expect me to be funny, personable (extroverted), and work as a business partner instead of a data cop. So I would want to dispel the myth women in STEM are robots or have little to no personality. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many different types of women in my field — we definitely don’t have a stereotype.

a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Desiree Robinson.

Desiree Robinson grew up in the resort town of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. As the daughter of hard-working small business owners, she was raised on a family farm with her older brother and two sisters, attending the same schools her parents attended. After moving to St. Louis, MO, to attend school and work as a live-in nanny, she married into the Navy and was a stay-at-home mom for a few years. When her family was stationed in the deserts of Southern California, Desiree got a job as a technical writer in cybersecurity. Within just a few short years, Desiree moved up to a civilian leadership position at the Washington, DC, Navy Yard working for Naval Sea Systems Command. After a few years in DC, Desiree and her son moved to the Denver Metro Area, where she has worked for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the University of Colorado — Boulder, a private energy firm, and then as the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), before settling into her current position as the Governance Risk and Compliance Manager at SurveyGizmo. She has a BS degree in Information Technology and a Master’s degree in Engineering Management. Desiree is known for creating and implementing security and compliance frameworks, as well as drafting and managing enterprise information technology policies and procedures. She enjoys attending live sports games with her son and traveling.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

was really by chance — I was working in finance at the time and was able to turn a 10-day task into a 2-day task, which left me to figure out what to do the rest of the time. So, I would walk around to the other program managers in my office asking if they needed any assistance in their projects. One manager finally handed me this huge folder and told me to take the weekend to become familiar with its contents. I read the entire folder and then summarized it for him the following Monday. He offered me a job on his project a month later. It took about nine months of doing the work associated with that position before I finally felt comfortable, but then once it clicked, my career just took off. And what is so awesome, is that I really enjoyed the work. And I still do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

When SurveyGizmo offered me the job, I originally turned it down. Taking the job meant leaving behind a fancy title at a world renown organization and a bit of a pay cut. I would be going from managing a team of sixteen (16) to just a team of me. But also, my job at the time was extremely toxic and my department struggled with decent leadership qualities. About four days after turning the original offer down, I was eating lunch with a work mentor, explaining my situation. She was very adamant — I needed to call SurveyGizmo back, ask for the offer back. As I was walking back from lunch, contemplating my situation, I received an email from SurveyGizmo. The email explained that although they were disappointed it had not worked out for me, they would appreciate any referral of someone I knew to recommend for the position. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but I knew that was a sign I could not ignore. I called and asked for my original offer.

Within just seven weeks of starting at SurveyGizmo, my position was elevated, as were my responsibilities and visibility within the organization. It turned out, I joined SurveyGizmo at a time when the company was experiencing a transition from selling small (to individuals and small companies) to going for gold (an enterprise SaaS solution to the world market). Suddenly, what I do has become a much bigger part of what the company does overall and needs to deliver in order to grow. The change in focus has elevated my visibility and my responsibility across the enterprise, as well as to our customers.

Everything I had worried about when I was considering the job before had disappeared — so to me, it was a sign that I listened to and was rewarded for it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For Halloween, I borrowed a bear costume from a friend and had our office EA put some makeup on me — black nose, whiskers, the whole lot. I was in the middle of an external business audit and didn’t have much time to check it out after before a work-wide meeting later that morning. I thought I dressed up like a bear, but I ended up looking a bit different. As I walked up to give a presentation at the company meeting, the CEO said, “Oh, you dressed up like an Ewok!” So now people think I’m really in Star Wars.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The one thing I feel makes my company, SurveyGizmo, stand out is how great isn’t good enough. We want to be awesome. It’s not enough to have a great product, but we want it to provide the additional assurance to our customers their data is protected for privacy and security. It’s not enough to be easy to use for the general population, but to be accessible to all people. And it’s not enough to be a survey tool, we want to be the way companies of all shapes and sizes put customers and their feedback at the center of the business. Everyone in our company wants us to be successful for all the right reasons, inside and externally. It’s a great working culture and I believe our customers benefit from it as well.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

When I first started at my job, I was focused on identifying gaps regarding policies, procedures, and practices so we can participate in and then pass an external business audit. In my experience, changes are hard for people to accept and invest in, so this next year I will be presenting lunch training sessions to explain changes to policy and procedures. However, to get people excited about the training and the resulting changes, I have been building the training to be interactive and engaging — people love stories, personal connections, and to feel like they participated, so it will be a lot of fun to do something they enjoy instead of them getting bored. It’s my personal mission to change the face of cybersecurity from a data security cop to a business partner — and my experience shows this style of engagement and training will help accomplish my goal.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

The status quo includes a gender gap and gender bias between men and women. We have a long way to go to equal it out. I don’t want to focus only on encouraging girls and women into STEM related fields, but I also want to educate our boys that women are just as capable. We need to make it the norm men and women are equally capable, rather than an exception. I would love it to get to the point where a person sees a woman in a leadership role and doesn’t even consider the gender a factor AT ALL. My parents are pretty religious, and they always taught you can judge a person by their actions, “by their fruits ye shall know them” or whatever. Well, I believe people should be judged on their capabilities and actions. Not on how they appear in their pant suits or if they would look better if they just smiled a bit more.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

One of the challenges I’ve had to face: It’s automatically assumed if a woman disagrees with a male counterpart she will become emotional. I cannot believe how often I have heard men, regardless of position, tell women in any role, to “calm down” or “don’t get upset” when there is a disagreement. I purposely bring a water bottle to meetings so I can take a drink and a step back before I respond to those kinds of statements. Sometimes the statements are rude, disrespectful, and not at all accurate for the situation. It’s classic gas-lighting situation putting women in difficult positions. My only suggestion based on what has worked for me is to call them out on it. Be professional, but calmly state there is no emotion involved, and then explain why the disagreement is based on professional experience and knowledge.

Another challenge women face is the bias we aren’t “as good” as our male counterparts. I realize my experience is unique to me, but all the best people in my field I’ve met, have been women. That isn’t to say I don’t know any men who aren’t as good, but I just know of more women than men who excel in my field. The way to address this is to continue encouraging girls and women to consider STEM related fields.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I constantly hear I’m not what people expect for someone in my role. I didn’t realize what people meant by the statement for a long time. I’m fairly petite and young for someone at my professional level of leadership, so I always assumed it was due to my size, or something related to my appearance. Someone had to finally point out they meant they didn’t expect me to be funny, personable (extroverted), and work as a business partner instead of a data cop. So I would want to dispel the myth women in STEM are robots or have little to no personality. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many different types of women in my field — we definitely don’t have a stereotype.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be bold. Don’t hold back from an opportunity based on assumptions. I went to this Women’s Conference hosted by the University of Colorado where a statistic was shared with the attendees: if a job opportunity listed 10 requirements, a woman was less likely to apply to it unless she could meet all the requirements, whereas a man would apply if he had 7 out of the 10. I have made a point to apply to all jobs I’m interested in even if I can meet only half of the requirements. And I’ve been the selected candidate in at least two of those job opportunities. One job offer in particular — they selected me because I was bold enough to try (and my experience, of course). Also, they appreciated I made it clear that what I lacked in experience, I could make up with aptitude to learn and then excel.
  2. Be direct. I cannot even express how much I loathe meetings where people waste time ‘beating around the bush.’ Get to the point, explain the objectives, and stop people from going off on tangents. Also, don’t complain or let others complain. If they have a problem, challenge them to come up with no less than three solutions. Empower them to try to be a part of the solution and not waste time. I once worked on a team where some people only wanted to complain, so I quoted Maya Angelou and said, “if you don’t like it, change it or change your attitude.” They stopped complaining, and we accomplished so many great things.
  3. Be yourself. Trying to fit into the mold of other’s expectations is tiresome and pointless. It’s not even worth it in the end. You are a rare and wonderful gem of a person — let people know that side of you! I was once on an airplane with a boyfriend when a work colleague of mine randomly got on the same flight and sat in the same row as us. After introducing my colleague to my boyfriend, the colleague says something like “I can’t believe you like her enough to date her. She is so mean at work.” That really hit me — so I decided to be more myself at work. That colleague and I haven’t worked together in nearly a decade, but we are now friends and remain in regular contact outside of social media.
  4. It’s okay to make mistakes. We are human, we make mistakes. For women, we feel we are less likely to be forgiven than our male counterparts, so there is always this pressure to be perfect. That kind of pressure affects our mental and emotional state, and it works its way into our personal lives. Relieving ourselves of this pressure — accepting we will make mistakes — what a game changer! The key here is to also not let a mistake go to waste — learn from it and find a way to improve the overall situation. People appreciate it when you show how they can rely on you, even when mistakes are made. For example, when I first started out in government work, I was overwhelmed with all the information I had coming at me, and I started to mix up projects and was relaying information to one project meant for another. When I realized my mistake, I owned up to it immediately, and worked to get it ironed out. However, I didn’t want it to happen again, so I started making specific folders per project, kept meticulous notes and color coded everything. It became such an efficient way of tracking projects the practice was picked up by the team. From what I hear, the team still tracks projects by color!
  5. Take care of your people. As leaders, we have two objectives: meet the goals of the company; and manage people who will be doing the work. However, one does not have to come at the cost of the other. There are dozens and dozens of studies showing people tend to produce more and improve the quality of work when they feel appreciated and invested. For me, I focus on understanding how each of my team members work, what they do well, areas they want to grow into, and then tie it all together. For example, at one of my former jobs, my predecessor was demoted, and I was brought in to lead the team. He planned to stay just long enough to help with the transition, but I immediately recognized how much he contributed to the team and how much valuable knowledge he had. I didn’t want to lose him. So after meeting with him multiple times, establishing trust, and figuring out how to get him to stay, we worked out ways to give him some managerial duties and authority for him to maintain his professional goals, his personal growth, and to feel like we were partners in achieving team success. He respected my position, we learned a lot from each other, and working with him was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Get rid of the guilt. We really cannot be the best at everything, we are going to make mistakes, and some functional area in our lives will not go as planned or suffer at times. But that is life and happens to everyone. Don’t carry the guilt you didn’t get it perfectly or just right. However, do learn from the mistakes, take responsibility, and make the effort to put the lesson into action.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

During my Master’s program, there was one professor who made a point to teach us being a leader was all about making sure the right people were on the right bus sitting in the right seats. Coupled with the fact people quit managers and not jobs, I have always tried to remember those points and work on getting to know each person, finding them the right seat on the bus and then taking a few risks to get people to move seats or get on another bus. My advice is to take the time to get to know the people on the team, their likes and dislikes, and then their own goals — personally and professionally. Then start putting them on the right bus and in the right seats. The culture, the productivity, and quality of work will improve — it really is a win-win.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There a few people who were instrumental in my professional growth, but one in particular taught me how important emotional intelligence is for a leader. I was looking at accepting a position at another firm and was discussing it with my current Team Lead. She said something like “you are a valuable member of this team and losing you would be difficult. And although my job requires me to put the project first, as your leader, my responsibility is to you and your professional growth. Whatever your decision, I support you and will do what I can to help you.” She showed me I was important to her, that my success regardless of where, was important to her. And this made all the difference to me. Years later, when in her position, faced in similar situations, I’ve always responded in the same manner — and I can see how much it matters to those people. Some even chose to stay working on the team because I showed I cared about them, not just the work.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I figured out a long time ago it was easier to change the world for the better by focusing on the younger generations. During any mentoring capacity I found myself, I discovered it wasn’t enough for me to provide them the tools, but to teach them how to provide it for themselves (the old, “give a man a fish, a man eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime”). For example, while coaching girls’ soccer, I would have the girls write down three goals at the start of the season, whatever they wanted, and then encouraged them to work on accomplishing those goals. Some worked on a specific move to perform in a game (which was glorious to see them accomplish), and some chose to be examples to their fellow teammates or siblings, or to get better grades, or perform in the school talent show. Whatever the goal, I supported them all the way. I showed up to their other sports games, went to their school plays and talent shows, I would say hello to their siblings and thank them for attending their sisters’ games. And I always checked in with them throughout the season to see where they were in their personal progress. What I love about this example is several of those girls and their families have stayed in touch, and tell me stories about how they continue to grow using the skills and goals we worked on while I was their coach.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I read this study awhile back about how girls are steered away from STEM-related fields as early as elementary school. Regardless of location in the world, this was happening. And by their own teachers and other leaders of influence! If I were to be a part of a movement, it would be to advocate for more money being funneled into education — higher pay for our educators, better training on gender bias, but to also reduce the gender gap in STEM-related fields by making it available for all generations and curious people. There is only benefit by investing in our education system.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I believe it was Vince Lombardi who said “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it. Autograph your work with excellence.” I don’t know when and where I first learned of this quote, but I was much younger — and have tried to live my life personally and professionally according to it every day. Our lives are so relatively short, and there is so much going on in the world, I just want to leave my mark by making things better for those who pick up where I leave off. Whether at work, playing or coaching sports, in a personal relationship, at home, at school, my neighborhood, I give it my all.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I realize I should select a prominent leader in a STEM-related field, but I really find myself following women who are leaders in their field regardless of career — and Amy Poehler is my all-time favorite. To me, she is the ultimate woman. Intelligence, wit, hard-working ethic, and a huge promoter of women. I follow “Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls” on Instagram and am always just incredibly amazed and inspired by her and the women they feature. It’s not enough to be good at your profession but being a good person overall — and she exemplifies that.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Penny Bauder

Written by

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store