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Profile: Barbie Brewer, Chief Culture Officer at GitLab

How to win the diversity battle: Tips from GitLab’s Barbie Brewer

Gabriela Motroc
diversity
© Shutterstock /Lamina2014

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? In addition to the Women in Tech survey, we also launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Barbie Brewer, Chief Culture Officer at GitLab.

Is tech a boys-only club? So it seems. But the light of smart and powerful women is finally shining bright. We root for excellence and justice and, above all, we want meritocracy to win. This is our way of giving women in tech a shout-out.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Barbie Brewer, Chief Culture Officer at GitLab.

Barbie Brewer, Chief Culture Officer at GitLab

With over 15 years of HR experience, Barbie Brewer, Chief Culture Officer at GitLab, is focused on fostering a strong employee support system and engaging the environment as GitLab continues to scale the business and build an all-remote workforce.

She previously served as VP of Human Resources at CompuDyne – Public Safety & Justice, Inc. at Tiburon. There she was responsible for overseeing all human capital initiatives, including HR strategy, talent acquisition and management, compensation and employee welfare. Most recently, she was VP of Talent at Netflix. She led human resources for Netflix’s product innovation, engineering/development, business development and digital supply chain organizations at Netflix, managing a team that supported over 1,500 employees. Brewer holds a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management from Golden Gate University and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Business from Santa Clara University.

What got you interested in technology?

I became interested in technology at a young age when I started using my first Apple IIc to play games, like Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand.

However, when I joined Exodus in 1996 in marketing, I discovered my true passion for technology and learned that I wanted to pursue a lifelong career. During my time there, I worked closely with developers and engineers who I was influenced by. I was able to see that technology fuels scale, innovation, collaboration, and globalization.

I actually never planned my career, it just happened organically. I took advantage of the opportunities that were offered to me, embraced the challenges and sought solutions. When I first started my professional career, I spent about four years as a marketing professional at Exodus. At the time, the company needed someone to help with the people programs. Following the start-up spirit, I helped Exodus set up benefit programs, organize networking events and recruit new hires in addition to fulfilling my role as a marketing executive.

I was also able to see the impact of a negative hire. I learned very quickly that people are the most important asset of any business.

Less than a year later, I joined IBM in HR and found that a great recruiter is critical to any company’s growth. I also learned that I truly enjoyed playing that role. Not only was I able to help IBM find great talent, but I was able to impact compensation and build up diversity programs.

Following my time at IBM, I worked as an employee relations manager at Cisco and was responsible for starting Cisco’s first Diversity Leadership Program in 2000. I was able to see the direct impact that can come from hiring diverse and talented individuals. I was also able to see the impact of a negative hire. I learned very quickly that people are the most important asset of any business and by focusing on the talent, I could have the greatest impact.

From there, I had the opportunity to continue learning, which helped me become a well-rounded business person with a passion for people and culture.

At an early age, my mother taught me that I could be anything that I wanted to be when I grew up. When I said I wanted to be a Forensic Pathologist with a law degree and also be a Veterinarian on the side, she said go for it. Although I received great support from my mother, in my professional life, I have, like many women have experienced, struggled with how to truly be myself and speak up in a male-dominated environment. After 10 years, I learned that it is important to stay true to yourself and speak up when needed.

A healthy support system

My mother was my biggest supporter and advocate. Not only did she ensure that I received a quality education, she also encouraged me “not to work too hard” and find a career that I loved and didn’t always feel like work.

My older sister has also been very supportive of my career choice. Over the years, she has made me feel empowered and strong. When we were young, I helped her feel safe by trying my best to make sure she was never afraid. Her fear fueled my courage. It also helped me to understand that people have different tolerances to risk, and my tolerances were a bit higher than others. She didn’t realize at the time that when she thought I was helping her, she was really helping me. I don’t think I realized it at the time either. Throughout my career, I have channeled the strength she gave me at a young age and applied it to my everyday work.

Challenges

I can recall a time early in my career where I was told that I would need to change my name and cut my hair in order to be an executive. I did let that comment affect me for a short time and went by Barb and wore my hair in a bun, but this didn’t last for long.

Other times, I felt that I wasn’t supported by my own teammates and other women. At times, it felt that if I worked hard and advanced, I would suddenly be transported back in time and I saw an image of a lonely girl sitting alone at the lunch table. I didn’t want to be that lonely girl, but I also didn’t want to give up my career and my dreams. It showed me that it is really important for teammates to support each other. Teammates should not compete with each other, but rather build each other up and celebrate each other’s successes. I’m fortunate that in more recent years, I have felt more of that support.

I thought becoming an engineer meant I wouldn’t talk to people and I would work in front a screen all day in a dark room. I wish that someone in 1994 could have shown me the truth.

A day in Barbie’s life

I’m the Chief Culture Officer at GitLab. On my typical day, I get the kids ready and off to school (they are in 3rd and 5th grade) and then head into my first meeting of the day from the comfort of my own home.

GitLab is a fully distributed company so each teammate can work from wherever suits them best. For me, I’m usually working from my home in the Bay Area or the beach about an hour away. My day normally starts with a functional group update video call and then our team call, in which GitLabbers talk about their hobbies, families, pets, books read or shows watched. It is a way for us to connect at a company where we have over 240+ employees in 40 different countries.

After that, it varies from team meetings, 1:1s and getting the work done necessary to scale this amazing company. I do always try to put a block on my calendar to help my son with his math homework. My evenings are spent with my family unless I’m traveling. I have had the opportunity to travel to Cuba, South Africa, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Egypt, Israel, the UAE, and all over Europe as part of my work. It has helped me to appreciate other cultures and it has humbled me.

I am most proud of launching the one-year parental leave at Netflix . . . so far. But there is still more to come. I’m hoping that the proudest moment of my career will be helping GitLab scale to 1,000 employees across the globe because that will mean that we impacted the lives of 1,000 teammates who can work and live in the communities they love. This meaning that we have helped to show the world that you don’t need to require employees to commute to work each day to have a great product and effective employees. Communities who lost their best and the brightest to the tech hubs, get to keep those wonderful citizens to help and give back to the communities that raised them. It should also improve families’ time together and improve the health of workers. I also believe it is better for the environment to have fewer cars on the road.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

There are a lot of different opinions out there and different research findings, however, I don’t have the true answer. I believe it is a combination of different factors.

In my own experience, I thought becoming an engineer meant I wouldn’t talk to people and I would work in front a screen all day in a dark room. I wish that someone in 1994 could have shown me the truth, that there are many exciting and collaborative roles in engineering and development.

Throughout my professional career, people have made incorrect assumptions about me based on how I look, my name, or the tone of my voice. I have had to work harder to overcome those assumptions. Women and underrepresented minorities need to feel they belong. When I started my career in HR, the most common word in diversity was “tolerance”. I don’t want to be tolerated, I want to be appreciated and respected.

There would definitely be a positive impact on the world if more women worked in STEM. Not only would our products be better and more inclusive, but the world would be more balanced.

However, we have to remember that there are two sides of the equation here — women stepping into tech and the workplace means that their partners, largely men, around the world, need to step up too. In the end, I believe that this balance of responsibilities at home and in the workplace will empower our next generation to do even better and show the future what is possible with great teamwork.

I honestly think we are seeing progress, but I don’t think it will need to be where it needs to be during my professional career. Hopefully, it will during the career of my son and daughter. It may be painful at times to make the progress that needs to be made, it may be scary and it may be difficult but it is absolutely necessary.

Obstacles

Gaining respect, standing up for themselves and teammates looking the other way when they see or hear something that shouldn’t be said or done in the workplace.

As a woman, I personally am challenged by having to “do it all”. I have two great kids, a great job, a wonderful husband,  and three pets. It helps me tremendously to have support at home and more flexibility in my role than I have experienced in the past.  I believe that I’m not alone in trying to find the balance with all the above plus finding time for myself. I think that this is one of the biggest challenges for women, but not necessarily just women.

I had to learn to ask for help, and that has made a huge difference. Asking for help at home and joining a company that provides me flexibility. This is something that GitLab excels at, they empower team members to complete projects freely and have the right tools in place to effectively accomplish tasks without being chained to cubicles or traditional 9-to-5 hours.

Tips & tricks

Go for it! Find amazing mentors, male or female. Challenge yourself to speak up and to be authentic. You don’t have to act like a man to be successful in tech.

Be strong. Find an area of technology that you are passionate about and then make a difference in that area. Succeed, and then become a mentor to others. Don’t lose yourself. Yourself is wonderful and is enough.

When you feel others don’t see that, be willing to question. Be willing to address the concerns. Be willing to be open-minded and understand the difference in feedback that is based on your performance than that which may be based on your gender.

Don’t be defensive and assume it is all based on your gender, but also don’t trust that it never is. It’s a hard thing to diagnose.

Assume good intent. Most people aren’t aware of their biases and aren’t committed to change them. Help them and be aware of your own biases. Women aren’t immune from having biases (no human is), and sometimes we are biased against women ourselves. Check yourself on that.

 

Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:

Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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