Talking Allyship with CEO Mike Gamson: Celebrating Women's History Month

by Cassandra Blackburn on March 11, 2020

Community , Professional Development

Earlier this week, we kicked off Women’s History Month, during which we celebrate the accomplishments of women throughout history, voice the obstacles women endured and continue to face, and commit to fight for a future where gender equity is the norm.

In honor of Women’s History Month, one of our community resource groups, Relativity Women of the Workplace (RelWoW), hosted a fireside chat with our CEO Mike Gamson.

RelWoW is creating a Relativity where no one is constrained by gender norms. If you ask Mary Tagler, co-chair of RelWoW, this is a big goal—and that is precisely the point.

“Women are socialized to be accommodating and not ask for what we want,” she said. “In creating such an ambitious vision, we are being direct in our objective, which is to change what is considered the norm for ourselves and future generations.”

Going One Step Beyond What’s Comfortable

The conversation with Mike focused on the topic of allyship. This is something that often carries a question mark. Many wonder, “Am I an ally? And, if so, what does that mean in practice?”

“I have changed my own opinion on what it means for me to be an ally,” Mike said. “I used to be more of a private ally. Then, I thought to myself—am I really deploying myself fully in the four corners of the world that I can influence? I realized I was not.”

A few years ago, Mike acted on his new path for allyship. He wanted to use his power as an ally to affect change. As an avid member of the Chicago and national tech community, Mike serves on many organization’s boards. He told these organizations that he would relinquish his position if their board only included men. Mike’s vocalization and conviction behind his beliefs led to positive change. Every single organization added female representation to their board.

Not every ally’s experience must mirror Mike’s journey. According to Mike, allies should act in whatever way they can maintain their authenticity, and go one step beyond that point.

Making Change Happen

To understand and appreciate where he is now, Mike offered some insight into where he was at the onset of this journey. In a previous role, Mike was charged with managing the largest and fastest-growing team in the company. He thought all was going well when he attended an event to share objectives for the upcoming year.

Midway through the event, a senior female leader asked Mike if he realized that every single speaker on the stage was a man. His response was honest—he hadn’t thought about it. He told this colleague that the speakers were all male because they were the department heads.

“She told me, ‘that’s exactly my point.’ It was a lightning bolt moment for me. I started asking myself why have I been asleep?” Mike said.

That moment sparked action for Mike and his team. They brought in experts on this topic to help them achieve their objective—close the gender gap in leadership.

As head of inclusion, diversity, and belonging at Relativity, I am passionate about this goal. Relativity company leadership and I are well aware that we have work to do on this front, and we are making inclusion, diversity, and belonging a priority and taking the necessary measures to inch closer to this goal.

We are focusing on a few key areas to achieve this objective, including taking a deep dive into our talent acquisition process. We are analyzing everything from the diction used during the interview process to our methodologies in recruiting top talent.

The success of recruiting top talent is contingent on our ability to retain these people, and this is top of mind for Mike. During the fireside chat, he shared a prime example illustrating the importance of culture. During a company-wide event, Mike attended a product and engineering leadership workshop and acted as an observer. Teams of between six and eight people were tasked with devising a solution to a challenge.

Each group had a scribe and presenter. At Mike’s table, he found his male colleagues all said they had poor handwriting. The one female colleague at the table offered to take notes.

“I heard similar conversations at other tables. So, I started walking around and taking pictures. At each table, the female colleague was the scribe,” Mike said.

Mike also shared that of those female colleagues, only two to three fulfilled the presenter role. After the presentations, Mike stood up to share his observation and overall thoughts with the group.

“There were no upset feelings or malicious intent in the room. We are up against thousands of years of cultivation around women taking notes and men taking bows,” Mike said. “We must wake up and face the reality head on.”

Helping RelWoW Cease to Exist

We as a company recognize that we are not yet where we strive to be—but we are on our way. Company leadership is actively partnering with motivated employees across Relativity to continue fighting for a more inclusive workplace.

Last year, five unique company resource groups (CRGs), including RelWoW, mobilized to engage in honest conversations about challenges their members face, and how we as individuals passionate about inclusion and diversity can band together to chip away at those obstacles piece by piece.

One person and, really, one group of people, are not enough. Women’s History Month is not just for women; it is for women and men to learn about the realities that women face and work as a team toward a united goal.

“Our goal? We don’t want to exist,” said Megan Twibell, RelWOW’s finance and secretary chair. “We need our friends and allies to help us get to that point.”

For some, allyship may entail simply showing up and getting familiar with barriers that minority groups face. Others may be poised to actively execute on groundbreaking initiatives.

It is time for us all to wake up, especially those of us in leadership positions with the power to enact change. Rather than having teammate Rachel always be the scribe, perhaps it’s time to let Jakub or Vivaan or even Mike take the pen.

Cassandra Blackburn is the head of inclusion, diversity, and belonging at Relativity.

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