Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Cathy Bergstrom of AdRoll On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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Don’t settle. Find the company that is right for you. I found myself saying, “well, this is better than [fill in the blank],” but being better than, doesn’t make it good. It wasn’t until I committed to myself to not find a company that was a bit better for me, but to find the right place. I made a list of what I needed from an employer for my success. It was tempting in my job hunt to tell myself that I didn’t have to find somewhere that completely filled my list, but then I would be settling. I stuck to that list, and found somewhere that is the right place for me.

In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cathy Bergstrom.

As Head of Product for AdRoll, Cathy Bergstrom oversees product strategy, innovation and growth. Her work has been instrumental in driving AdRoll’s evolution from a leading display advertising platform into the market’s only martech+adtech platform for DTC brands. Based on AdRoll’s goal of enabling marketing teams of any size, budget, and expertise to do excellent marketing, Cathy has spearheaded the creation of the only single platform that automates campaigns across display ads, social ads and email.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Provo, Utah — the youngest of 8 children. The expectation for a girl at that time was being a mother and wife. My education both formally and culturally was to prepare me for those roles. I pushed against gender role norms even from a young age. Common feedback of being bossy, difficult, and too much. Developing interest in all things my brothers were doing; playing soccer, convincing my dad to let me attend the annual backpacking trip, and helping him fix things around the house. It was fixing things that started my love of problem solving, spending time with my dad, an engineer, learning how to solve big problems with simple solutions (duct tape and spackle really can fix just about anything), developing that mindset that has carried me throughout my career.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

I was head of ecommerce and found myself delegating many aspects of my work load, so I could spend more time with our engineering team. Developing improvements to our website, building an integrated fulfillment system for our warehouse and brick-and-mortar stores, and marketing technologies. As this became the work that was most fulfilling for me, I made the decision to shift my career from generalized ecommerce into the digital product development field. At that time, there was a new course introduced at a local engineering bootcamp about User Experience Design. I decided to take this course as it would benefit me to polish my self-taught skills around user interviewing and prototyping. At the end of the program the instructors help each student build a portfolio and practice for job interviews. While going through these assignment exercises with the teachers of the program, they gave me some mentorship advice: based on what they had seen in classroom participation, if I wanted to pursue a career in UX design I would do fine, but they strongly encouraged me to stay in Product Management. That conversation was the confirmation I needed to continue pursuing what I loved, Product Management.

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

I had a boss that I regularly clashed with, he had one view of what my team and I should be focused on — company profits.I had another view — solving customer and user problems. I spent a lot of time trying to explain why building a better marketing experience for the customer would result in more sales, with less cost, and showing tests to prove the ROI, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t see it that way. I was pretty worn down and not in a great place mentally because of it. In one particular conversation, that will always stick out in my brain, he said to me “maybe product management isn’t what you should be doing.” And for a short bit, I believed him. Until some good friends snapped me out of it, and I saw that I needed to leave that boss.

I set out to find a new place to work. And I used all my product management skills, training, and instincts to organize and set out to solve my problem of working in a place that didn’t align with my philosophies of product management. I did user story mapping (my absolute favorite) for myself. That shift in how I was looking at everything, really solidified for me not just that 1. He was absolutely wrong, and product management is what I should be doing. But also 2. Product Management is what I do, whether it was my job or not. I can look back and see how many times I used the framework of Problem discovery> solution discovery> plan & refine> develop> validate, to solve some bump in the road of my life.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Curiosity — I’ve always been that kid, asking “why.” Lucky for me I found a career where that is valued. I had a woman approach me about being her mentor. She admired my confidence, when I probed a bit about what she perceived as confidence. It was my lack of fear when it came to asking questions, and holding people accountable for data to back up their claims. I told her how little this had to do with confidence, but just genuine curiosity.

Empathy — As a girl, growing up I was taught to nurture those around me, not as a leadership quality, but for motherhood. Being able to see what others need, take care of them, and understand perspectives different from my own. These are personal traits that have served me well both professionally and personally.

A “How hard can it be” Mentality — this is a bit of a joke between my husband, Matt and I. I love doing DIY home restoration and renovation, and when I come up with a plan, nothing will get in the way. When I told Matt I was going to rip out the shower and tile the entire upstairs bathroom. He asked, as he normally does, “do you know how to do that? Have you done it before?” and I respond as I usually do “nope, but how hard can it be?” This trait/mantra has guided me in my life. I have very little fear that something is too difficult, can’t be done, or requires little more than reading a book or two to learn. But, that doesn’t mean I am fearless. One of my first public speaking engagements was a keynote speech at E-Tail West. I am terrified of public speaking, I have a speech impediment, and am a very introverted person. Getting up in front of a crowd is not something I look forward to doing. But, my how-hard-can-it-be is stronger than my fear. That morning waiting in the green room for my slot, I kept my eyes focused on the screen showing the other speakers on stage. People I had just chatted with, and were equally nervous, they were doing it, and doing it well — so I kept repeating in my head “how hard can it be?”

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?

Finding a mentor — with few women in product management, most of the product leaders I knew were male. The prevailing culture in the area is that married men should not be alone with a woman that isn’t their spouse. This made it very hard for me to meet over lunch, or schedule mentorship one-on-ones. It also brings in a subconscious energy that a man and woman can’t have a meeting without it being about heterosexual attraction. The difficulty in finding a mentor also fed my self-doubt. Not so much in doubting that I was capable or belonged where I was, but doubting that others thought that.

Colleagues, and work friends making comments in the form of jokes; dumbing it down for me, filling a diversity requirement, watching our language because now there is a lady present. People pointing out to me that I was the only female in the room, or the first female PM they’d worked with. These things coupled with overt comments about how I dressed for work, critique about wearing the wrong makeup “red lipstick only meant one thing in my day,” left me regularly fighting between wanting to challenge, scream and educate. I wanted to bring change for other women, and also wanted to fit in, pretending to care about RC cars and basketball so I could form a relationship with coworkers.

This was a big internal hurdle for me to overcome. Confidently being myself, and not caring if others believed I belong.

Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?

My previous answer touched a bit on the negative side of this — forced or pretending to care about things my male colleagues were interested in. I have evolved my approach and stopped pretending to care about things just to fit in, instead finding the true common interests. Arguing over the best Dr Who (Tom Baker), whether or not Red Velvet Cake is better or just a regular chocolate cake trying to stand out. I love telling dad jokes, I am not a dad, so you could call me a faux pa (my favorite one to lead with). In every company I can find my people by finding the bad (dad) jokes slack channel.

I apply that to work related interests as well. I find things I can teach my colleagues as well as being eager in learning what they can teach me. The great thing about product development is we are all building something, to solve some problem, for some customer. There is common ground there, with colleagues in product, design, and engineering.

What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?

Do some housekeeping and clean your work culture. Recruitment efforts to “attract more women” will fail if the people met throughout the process are not committed personally to an inclusive environment. There are too many companies where the only team really committed is the recruitment and people team. A page on your About Us that talks about your inclusive culture falls flat real fast when the people a candidate is interviewing with are all male, or worse, the women on the panel have jobs that have nothing to do with the open position. I’ve seen panel participants for product management roles, where the female on the panel was a customer support manager in a completely different division — because that was the only place they had women in leadership and they knew they needed a woman in a leadership role on the panel.

Create paths for your employees to move into other departments, be honest about where you are, and how you are trying to change.

Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be intentional with your energy. Sometimes phrased as “pick your battles” I have learned recently to adjust my approach to not focus solely on what I am fighting, as “battle” would imply. Rather asking myself “is this worth the energy.” My current boss and mentor, Roli Saxena, gave me these words that I use to evaluate where, what, and who I spend my energy on. This has helped me to go from fighting to survive in a male dominated industry, to thriving.
  2. Embrace what you bring to the table. I keep a sticky note reminder of this on my computer. Your experiences, and perspective is not only welcome… it is expected. I have learned in my career to not see my caring nature as a weakness. Leadership expectations have shifted over the years of my career, to value empathy and collaboration, because of women. Not adjusting ourselves to fit the male dominated culture, but to demand the culture shift and value what we bring.
  3. Don’t settle. Find the company that is right for you. I found myself saying, “well, this is better than [fill in the blank],” but being better than, doesn’t make it good. It wasn’t until I committed to myself to not find a company that was a bit better for me, but to find the right place. I made a list of what I needed from an employer for my success. It was tempting in my job hunt to tell myself that I didn’t have to find somewhere that completely filled my list, but then I would be settling. I stuck to that list, and found somewhere that is the right place for me.
  4. Leave it better than you found it. There are kids looking at us, teens coming up into the workforce, and young adults finding their career path. It is up to us, to make it better for them. It doesn’t have to be a big event, start small in your neighborhood. I found a female designer, and female engineer that were interested in sharing their stories. We contacted local elementary and high schools to see if they would let us come talk about careers in tech to their students. All were eager to work with us. I bought a few pizzas and we shared how we got into tech, highlighting that if you love art and design — there is a career for you here. You love problem solving, talking to people, learning new things — there is a career for you here. You love building things, making ideas come to life, coding and engineering — there is a career for you here. Let the girls, the non-binary individuals and the underrepresented voices know that tech won’t be a male dominated industry in the future.
  5. Earplugs. Literal and figurative. When you travel, always pack earplugs, getting a good night’s sleep is imperative to being able to do your best the next day. Don’t listen to what isn’t helpful. This doesn’t mean not listen to critiques and advice, but filter out what isn’t helpful. Listening to “girls aren’t good at math” shaped too much of my life — not because I am secretly a math genius, but because I listened to it and didn’t even try to learn in my math classes.

If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?

You should choose what you love and are passionate about, regardless. That is what will make it worth pushing through the challenges. The only way to make a change is to be part of it. If you are afraid of entering a field because it has been dominated by a specific gender, other than your own. Be the start of breaking that down, just by joining.

Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past ten years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?

I’m not the only woman/non-male in the meeting anymore. There were so many times early in my career that this wasn’t true and I have been happy to see the shift in the makeup of meeting attendees, even as I have progressed into more senior leadership roles. I know that all companies in the industry aren’t as diverse as AdRoll, but I am optimistic that every workplace will continue to evolve.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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.

Amy Edmondson — her Psychological Safety TedTalk. That talk changed my life. Prior to that I was focused on changing myself to fit a leadership mold that was given to me. This talk, it unlocked something in me and gave me permission to be true to me, that leadership wasn’t about force. That I should speak up, and the more I did, the more I found my voice and changed the work environment to create that space for others.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.