Ann Arbor-area women in tech discuss their challenges and triumphs in a male-dominated industry

We talked with three local women about being leaders in an industry where women are still dramatically underrepresented.
This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
 
M. Christine Gibbons remembers when women were even less represented in tech fields than they are today. Gibbons has been a venture investor for more than 25 years, and she credits her upbringing for her choice to pursue an industry considered non-traditional for women.
 
“My father was a traditional man of the 1950s and 1960s, but he always made me feel that I could do anything,” says Gibbons. “He was such a great proponent of mine that I didn't really feel like there were barriers. I just sort of blindly went into these male-dominated industries.” 
Christine Gibbons. 
Now chief administrative officer at Canton-based machine cooling and lubrication company Fusion Coolant, Gibbons is a local tech leader in an industry where women are still dramatically underrepresented. Gibbons is quite aware of the challenges of being the only woman in the room. She jokes about not being aware of being the sole woman at a conference until she realized there was a long line for the men’s restroom and the women's restroom was empty.
 
“I just figured those were the cards that I was dealt and I would figure it out and work within those constraints,” Gibbons says.
 
So what can tech do better to promote gender equity? Gibbons says the industry needs to be more fluid in its view of gender roles, and men need to be a part of the solution. 
 
“I have three sons and I want them to see a strong balance of gender roles growing up, but it takes everyone talking about those roles. You can’t be in an echo chamber talking about these topics,” Gibbons says. “Men, especially white men, are part of the power dynamic that needs to change and they need to be in the conversation about that change.”
 
Gibbons knows that it is important for the next generation to see strong women in a variety of positions so it becomes part of the norm. She says mentoring is key to changing these concepts. 
 
“If you don't see women or women of color in power, then it appears foreign, but if you see competent people in these non-traditional roles it becomes part of the norm," she says. 
 
These sentiments are echoed by Priya Gogoi, an entrepreneur, social change-maker, and author who has published work in national media. She came to the United States in 2005 and co-founded Ann Arbor-based Celsee, Inc., which produces technology for analyzing single cells.
 
“[Celsee's] diversity is a strength,” Gogoi says. “Through our different perspectives, we built a really strong team. We could not have done it without great, diverse groups of people from the community.” 
 
Gogoi recalls trying to get feedback on how to become a leader when she was just starting her career, and being told she should start out making coffee. Unsurprisingly, that wasn't the type of feedback she was looking for. 
 Priya Gogoi.
“Industry needs to invest in [leaders of] smart companies regardless of the color of their skin or gender,” says Gogoi. “You should judge teams based on what they are offering or can bring into this space. We focus on the wrong things, based on the judgments we make of others, and forget to focus on the business.” 
 
Gogoi says "smart people come in all colors." 
 
“As one of the only women of color [in the field], we have to work harder. Nothing has been given to us,” Gogoi says. "We have become fighters. Because of our struggles we have an interior strength.” 
 
Gogoi also notes that women in the industry need to support other women. She gives an example of a woman at a conference who criticized Gogoi for what she was wearing, stating that she should not wear something "like that." 
 
“Many times women become enablers to bad behavior and this must stop,” Gogoi says. 
 
Shanley Carlton, digital creative lead and solution architect at Ann Arbor arts and technology nonprofit CultureVerse, says she's experienced considerable imposter syndrome in her career as a result of often being the only woman in the room. Although she now experiments daily with immersive technology at work and coaches youth robotics, she was socialized as a girl and didn't have the opportunity to use tools when she was growing up.
 
“I felt early in my career that I was behind and that people were almost speaking another language, like everybody seemed to get each other in a way that I just didn't get,'' Carlton says. “Most of my male colleagues grew up building and being encouraged to seek these male roles.” 
 
Imposter syndrome can affect people in different ways. For Carlton it impacted her belief in her own intelligence, even though she was valedictorian of her high school class. 
 Shanley Carlton at CultureVerse Gallery & SCANN ARBOR.
“I had culture disadvantages. I knew I was smart and had no reason to doubt myself, but things did not seem to come naturally to me – or that was my perception – as it did for the guys,” Carlton says. “I started seeing a pattern where the men around me ‘got it’ and I was correlating the lack of knowledge to my gender, but it is not factual. That is how stereotyping and sexism work.” 
 
To move the needle on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Carlton says employers should ask better questions about what women and people of color need in the workplace. 
 
“Women in positions of power and leadership are key. There will be less problems [with diversity of thought] with them in leadership roles,” Carlton says. “Everyone in the room should have a voice, not just the one male in the room.” 
 
Carlton suggests that one simple step is for leaders to be transparent and open.  When asked how she pushes DEI forward herself, Carlton says she advocates where it fits for her. 
 
“I want to be a leader that brings people with me for the good of all,” Carlton says.
 
Monica Hickson is a freelance writer currently based in Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in 2020 and is the author of a book, "The COVID Diaries." You may reach her at monica_alexis@yahoo.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.