There’s probably not a woman in IT who couldn’t write a book about what it’s like to work in a male-dominated environment. And there’s probably not a single one who wouldn’t be inspired by the story of Jennifer Carroll.
Carroll, a career Navy officer and former lieutenant governor of Florida, who also happens to be black, has told her remarkable story in a newly released book, “When You Get There: An Autobiography.” I had the opportunity to speak at length with Carroll earlier this week, and she opened the conversation by noting that she’s very familiar with the IT world:
I can speak from personal experience—my husband is an IT security specialist, and I’ve seen the male domination in his line of work, so I know the industry in that regard. On my side, I went into the military—I spent 20 years, starting as an E-1, the lowest you can go, in a male-dominated environment. I was in aviation maintenance when I joined in the late 70s—the Navy had just opened up this field to women. I retired as a lieutenant commander aviation maintenance officer, and I was still one of only a few—a minority not only in color, but in gender, as well. It was not well-embraced, initially. The Navy had to force it in that direction, including giving my male counterparts “Women in the Navy” training, to show them it’s OK to assimilate with women—it’s not a good old boys’ club. We still have segments of the IT world, and other industries, that do not embrace women, because it has traditionally been a man’s world. I’d say, instead of looking at it in terms of gender, look at it in terms of diversity in thought and creativity that can come into the work force to help with productivity. Think about how it brings new ideas that the males may not have, because their associations have been a little different compared to females. This way, we can all work together to accomplisher a higher goal, without being adversaries in the work force.
So if she could give one piece of advice to a young woman entering a male-dominated career field like IT, what would it be? Carroll said her advice would be to try not to take the adversity personally:
Oftentimes when the adversities come your way, you think it’s you, so you tend to overreact to compensate. There were times early in my career when I worked much more than my male counterparts—14, 16, 18 hours a day, trying to show that I, too, was very capable. So I burned myself out, and still didn’t receive the level of recognition and credibility that my male counterparts did—it took years for me to elevate to the level where I was seen as being equal. Many women will tend to overcompensate by trying to be one of the boys, and acting like them. But then you’re not appreciated as a woman in the work force. Or, they end up reacting by lashing out, and being angry. That kind of ruins it for other women who may want to come into the environment, because if this angry person is all the guys know about working with a woman, they’re going to assume that all the other women are going to be the same way—you kind of taint it for the others. So you have to remove yourself from the situation as much as you can, and maturity brings that about.
And what would her advice be for men working with women in a male-dominated career field like IT? Carroll said men should think of the women in their own families:
I would say to men—and I have done this in the military work environment, as well as my political work environment—that they should give the same respect and appreciation to women that they would want their wives, daughters, nieces, and mothers to receive in the work environment. I’m quite sure that among my male counterparts, if their mother or daughter came home with some of the stories that some of these women are going home with, they wouldn’t like it. The first thing they’d want to do is roll up their sleeves and fight somebody, because they don’t want that disrespect shown to their family member.
I asked Carroll which had been more challenging in her career—being a female in male-dominated environments, or being black in white-dominated environments. She said it’s been just about equal:
I’d have to say in the Navy, being female was more challenging. But in politics, the challenge was being female and black. It’s primarily a male-dominated world, and it’s more cutthroat because the staffers and others who work for the decision-makers, or the higher-ups in the elected ranks, know the internal workings and who can be manipulated and bullied. I’ve found that males in that environment are threatened by women with power and position. It still baffles me why they think this way. They thrive on the power of manipulation. They, along with their buddies they golf with, and hang out and drink with—and I wasn’t one of those—are the people who work the deals behind closed doors. And then they come up with a plan to get somebody out of the way, because they have their own buddies who they want to come in to be in that position.
Carroll wrote in her book about how she eventually became an outcast in the administration of Gov. Rick Scott. Here’s an excerpt:
The work environment in Governor Scott’s administration reminded me, at times, of the male-dominated environment of the military. It was a boy’s club. Although I was elected second in command, when the establishment GOPers mentioned the names of those who might be governor after Scott, they never mentioned mine. The list was always of good old boys. What was so interesting was that they would say this in front of me and never saw how dismissive they were being. They weren’t aware of their exclusiveness, or they just didn’t care.
I mentioned to Carroll that what she had written reminded me of an interview I did last year with Becky Blalock, a former CIO, who said she found in her career that she had often been excluded by men, but the exclusion wasn’t necessarily intentional. She said it tended to be more of an unconscious thing—it just never occurred to them that she was being excluded. So I asked Carroll to what extent the problems that women encounter in the workplace are the result of the sheer cluelessness of men. Her response:
In some instances it is the cluelessness; in other instances, I have found it’s been purposeful. In politics especially, they already have their select few that they can trust with whatever the manipulation is going to be. In my case, in the governor’s office, I was excluded from staff meetings after a time. So in that regard, I would say it was intentional to exclude me from the good old boys’ decision-making, and from the table.
A key piece of advice that Carroll has to offer is the importance of being a team player. But one of the things that became very apparent when I read her book was that being a team player backfired on her on any number of occasions. So I asked her what her advice would be for someone who asks how to avoid doing something she’ll later regret in the name of being a team player. Carroll said that’s something she’s still trying to come to grips with:
My military training was all about being a team player—there’s no way we could accomplish a mission if we weren’t watching each other’s back, and following the guidance we were given by our leaders. That followed me into politics, and my naiveté there was not understanding the ruthlessness of the people in politics. So if you’re the only one who’s being a team player, you’re going to lose every time. You need to understand the environment in which you’re working—not to mistrust everyone, but just have a cautious eye. “Walk with your back against the wall” is one of those sayings my dad use to have—the point was to prevent someone from stabbing you there.
To wrap up the conversation, Carroll shared her reason for writing the book:
My whole motivation in telling my story was to teach, motivate, inspire, and encourage other women to persevere in spite of any adversities or challenges that come their way. They will come—it’s just a matter of how you handle them. So hopefully, in telling my story about the male-dominated environment in which I worked and served, other women will have a sense that if I can handle it and get through it, and still come out on top, that they, too, can have the same success.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.