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The Women of Cyngn
It’s Women’s History Month so in this podcast episode, Luke hands over hosting duties to Niki Bossonis where she leads a discussion with a few Cyngn women: Emily McNamara, Ashley Hemingway, and Azalea Phangsoa. It’s a frank conversation about the gender pay gap, how assertive women are allowed to be in the workplace, and what makes them hopeful about how corporate America is changing.
Luke Renner: This is Advanced Autonomy. I'm Luke Renner. It's Women's History Month. So today we're going to do something a little different. I'm handing over hosting duties to my colleague Nikki Bossonis, and she's going to lead a discussion with a few other Cyngn women. It's a frank conversation about the gender pay gap, how assertive women are allowed to be in the workplace, and what makes them hopeful about how corporate America is changing. We hope you like it.
Nikki Bossonis: This is Advanced Autonomy. I'm Nikki Bossonis, and I'm here with the women of Cyngn, Emily McNamara, Azalea Phangsoa, and Ashley Hemingway. Emily is the Head of Operations. Azalea is on the product team, and Ashley is an engineer. Emily Azalea, Ashley, welcome.
Emily, Azalea, and Ashley: Thanks for having us.
Nikki Bossonis: So since we're recording on equal pay day. Yeah, I was just reading that a 2021 report that men make an average of 25% more than women, even still today. I remember a decade and a half ago when that number was closer to 50% more, but creeping up there, but still exists. Have any of you encountered any pay gap bias or issues in your career?
Ashley Hemmingway: I think for me, for my first job at least, I was really just kind of desperate to fit into the engineering space, so kind of did not do any of that negotiation because once that opportunity came up, I was just really jumped on it and didn't really think about the negotiation. And then after a couple of months of that position, talking to a coworker of mine who is less experienced than I did in engineering, in the space in general, and I found out actually that he was making a lot more than I was. It was kind of an eye opener.
So once I left that job and moved on to Cyngn, and that shattered a little bit of the imposter syndrome that I think a lot of women have for me at least, and that my qualifications are enough, and I do bring a lot to the table. So I'm able to negotiate a little bit better and kind of realize my worth in that.
Azalea Phangsoa: I don't think I've experienced any pickup from what I understand, but I do remember negotiating my first salary, being very cognizant of trying to make sure I knew my value and knew what I should be asking for. I think typically I've had a lot of male peers and colleagues sort of like, have a very aggressive and ambitious approach to how they negotiate. And it wasn't something that was, like, my style, but I was aware of it. It could sometimes get results. So trying to find a way to sort of navigate how I could advocate for myself in a way that I felt comfortable and still assertive.
Nikki Bossonis: That's another important point to bring up, is that we have to be cognizant of a potential pay gap before even encountering one. We know that that potential exists.
Ashley Hemmingway: I think for the younger generation at least people are just more cognizant about teaching us that we need to be more assertive about these things. I know my advisor in College was actually another woman and when I was getting to Junior, Senior year and starting to really look for a job, so after College, she kind of made it very clear to me the kind of things that I can expect and how you need to be more assertive and put yourself out there in ways. Especially when asking for compensation as a woman, how it might be different than being a man. So I'm just very grateful for that. Really fortunate that I kind of had some insight before entering this blindly.
Azalea Phangsoa: I'm curious, Emily, like when you've been on the side of the compensation and “you're the company” and when people are asking, have you noticed guys and girls or men and women negotiate differently?
Emily McNamara: I haven't noticed actually, a vast difference when I do speak to women and men. The women that I have encountered, such as yourself, Ashley, you guys have a certain presence to you. I think there is a level of confidence coming in versus I think some people that have been out in the work field for a while, under Nikki, I think you and I had a very good conversation and I think it's a little different.
I'm not saying that younger employees, for example, tend to have a level of confidence that's different than people that have been out in the work field for a little while, such as myself, because we were a part of that transitional phase, I think, where you're seeing more and more women in tech, more and more women in executive roles. And with media and everything else that's out there now, it's more widespread. You see more people, more women out there that are very successful, that are recognized for the good work that they do. And they're being compared to other men counterparts, not necessarily just other women.
Nikki Bossonis: When I was in undergrad taking a business course, the instructor bought me a book and he said, “you're going to be very successful”. He said, :\”but I want to prepare you.” And the book was how to be an assertive, not aggressive woman. He said if you are just matter of fact and just speak your mind plainly, you will be perceived as aggressive.
Emily McNamara: Doesn’t that already speak to a little bit of the bias? And I think the intentions were good behind them giving you that book. But that's part of I think the reason why we feel that level of intimidation, because in society I think that there feels a need to kind of, call out that difference. Or to say, hey, I know you’re a woman and you're in this industry and you need some extra help, those types of things. I think even a leg up because you're a woman or we want to fill a quota or we don't have enough women and therefore, you know, you're the token woman of the company.
Those types of things when you're definitely someone that they call out. I think that it does make you more self conscious about the fact that you're recognized in that way, and not necessarily just because your performance and you're someone that's great for the company. It's also kind of something in the back of your mind that, hey, perhaps I was hired because I am a woman and I'm filling a quota, or there is some extra something that's been given or recognition, or that person may assume that you have a problem with these conversations because you're a woman.
Whether they're right or wrong, knowing that delineation happened, already speaks to the fact that there is a difference.
Azalea Phangsoa: I have been told two or three times in my career that this seems sort of difficult or like, “oh, watch out for this person, but you should be just fine if you're super sweet and they'll love you anyways, I'm a little bit more aggressive and so I think if you bring a cute smile, it would be fine.” This is early, like a couple of years ago. And I was like, okay, yeah, no, it's sort of like in a tech industry and working in a male dominated area. Maybe that's my breath of fresh air that I bring to the team in the industry. But also just sort of like how that's assumed that I'll be acting that way or that what's going to convince someone to persuade them, or you walk into a meeting and that's how you're going to influence, felt a little undercutting, just a little bit that that was sort of the approach that would be acceptable for them to perceive me by.
Emily McNamara: It's been what’s expected of women. I think in general, like, you're supposed to be sweet or cute or kind and supportive and not necessarily, it might be great for a man to be more aggressive or a man to be more assertive. But we do come from a society where women are supposed to be seen, not heard. I think that that's a long time ago. But at the same time, I think those are some things that are still pretty ingrained in society. So you might have professionals that mean well, but say things like this to you thinking it's a compliment, but really you're looking at it like, well, how would you feel if I called you cute or asked you to be perky?
Azalea Phangsoa: Exactly. Yeah, I read this article and it's like those comments, maybe they're not that bad. You don't have to tell HR about it, they're sort of compliments, but then they're sort of like if you get comments like that all the time, it sort of becomes like this death by a million cuts.
Ashley Hemmingway: Because you don't want to end up getting put in a box, right? You don't want to end up being the person that's always sweet. But then it's kind of a double edge sword in a really thin line because you're either the person that's sweet or if you're a woman at least labeled bossy or even the “B word”. It's kind of one or the other in a Thin line. It's really hard to kind of tiptoe that and stay being respected and not one or the other.
Nikki Bossonis: You mentioned earlier about filling a quota and I think there was a time when equal opportunity employment first started being implemented in the late 80s, early to mid 90s, that there was that sense of we're just hiring women to fill a quota. I think nowadays there are companies that just want to be balanced employees, that want to be diverse and well rounded. I wonder if there's a way to get that message across in recruiting as well? That this is the company we want to be.
Emily McNamara: Yeah, I think we definitely could do that. It really just takes, I think, good communication and listening to the people around you and being cognizant of the times and the workplace that we're living in now. I think that if we clearly communicate that we are about diversity and wanting to have a good balance in the workplace, that's all fine and good as long as we're also projecting that we're not making some special exception because you're a woman or because you're a minority.
I think it's okay. I think it's fine that we still have special programs to bring those things up, bring up more women in tech. I think calling them out is fine. I think until we reach that time, we're things are equal, you're still going to need that extra boost to kind of put them in the forefront. But I wouldn't necessarily say that we need to single them out in terms of their qualifications. I think one of the things that we want to have equal is that you're looking at me as equal to a male counterpart with the same qualifications and say that you're hiring me because I'm better and not necessarily because she gets an extra two points because she's a woman.
Now, I think naturally, there are some companies that are going to hire due to the fact that, hey, we really don't have very many women in our company and it's going to be a nice offset. But that can't be the resounding reason. I think that you need to know that, hey, you truly qualify and you hired me because I qualify for the role.
But it's nice to have the fact that you are a woman, because that does help bring balance to the company. But again, it has to be clearly communicated and in a way where you're really not making someone feel individualized or separated simply because you're a woman.
Ashley Hemmingway: Right. Like getting hired or being included just because you're a woman is still being left out. Because if you're getting hired just because you're a woman somewhere, maybe you're not the best person for the job, it's going to be really isolating in itself because you're not going to have any idea what's going on.
But going back to what Emily was saying about how we can kind of single people out until it is finally equal, it just reminds me I just wanted to bring up that quote from I think it's Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And when they asked her how many women is enough to have on the Supreme Court, and she's like, it's not enough until everyone's woman on the Supreme Court and it's not a big deal. So I think it's kind of like reaching that point of where we can stop kind of singling out women and looking for them, when it's not a big deal that they're there.
Emily McNamara: I completely agree. That was great, Ashley. And I love Ruth, so thank you for quoting Ruth.
Nikki Bossonis: I'd like to mention a time ten years ago when I worked for a tech company and we acquired another company and the President and VP of sales for that company called the female marketing employees into a room, not the male. And they wanted to make sure we understood the product that we were marketing and that we'd be able to do the job. But we were already doing it. So we had to literally prove to them, yes, I see this content piece, we wrote that. And we walked out of there feeling like, well, that was really strange, really discriminatory. But we felt that we couldn't say anything because it wasn't a gross enough violation to risk how we were perceived in the workplace.
There was still ten years ago a time when you could say, oh, she's just making noise, she's a troublemaker, be careful what you say around her. When that was clear discrimination. So I think nowadays we can say, hey, why did you call the women into that meeting and question our knowledge? Why didn't you question the men on the team? And you can go to HR and you'd get backup for that.
Emily McNamara: Absolutely. It would be nice to see those changes happening organically and also because it's the right thing to do. And this is what we're seeing more of,
versus a fear that you're going to be canceled or the company is going to be called out or something negative is going to happen, working out of fear. That if we don't recognize women, if we don't have more diversity, if we don't have this, then it's going to be bad for business.
I would like to see those changes because Azalea and Ashley, Nikki, we're having children or we are influencing others in the next generation and we're the ones teaching them, hey, this is what the norm is. The other stuff is what's not normal and dated. And we’ve learned from that, and that we're different and we're better for it. And that speaks to the workplace, that speaks to home life, that speaks to all things out there. That we've experienced, kind of, where women have not necessarily been recognized in an equal fashion.
Ashley Hemmingway: I don't know if anybody has seen The Good Place, but it's like where the points don't count. If you're doing it for the wrong reasons, if you're doing it just to make your points better, it doesn't count. But if you are actually acting as a good person, then that's what counts to your point total. So it's kind of like any of the companies who are, like Emily said, just trying to do something to not get canceled or just to kind of seem good on paper, I think it's really easy to see through that as a woman. And I think that those companies are going to continue to struggle with their diversity versus we can tell in a place where you genuinely wanted or not. They're known to be underestimating. We can see through this.
Nikki Bossonis: I agree. I'll reference a 2021 culture report that showed that 41% of women do not feel included or engaged in their workplace. And I think those women are going to seek other opportunities. And those companies that allow that disengagement are going to have a higher churn rate. So as we start to bring this discussion to a close, I'd like to ask, are there any women in business and tech in general that have inspired you?
Emily McNamara: Well, Ashley already mentioned Ruth. I think she's kind of the ultimate there. Can't say enough good things about what she's been for us or society in general. Also, being in Silicon Valley, there's plenty of women out here. I think that I've encountered, whether they're support staff or engineers, that has been quite inspiring because they're strong women. It's not that they're extra loud or outspoken. It's just that they are who they are, and you're proud to have any association or have had walked the same path as them. I think that you find inspiration in various places, and I find Azalea, Nikki, Ashley, all of you, very inspiring in different ways. It's about looking for those positive things and not necessarily leaning on the differences, but more what makes you shine and what makes you that special individual that I'd like to work with.
So in terms of recruiting and staffing up at Cyngn, I think the philosophy and our culture, what we embrace specifically is to not make some delineation in that way, but more like what makes you special, what makes you an outlier, what makes you a great contributor to Cyngn. And I tried to not really look specifically at the fact that you're a female. Great that you are, because I love working with men and women. But I really just think that at the core of it, when we're looking at these people that were around here, there's something inspiring in all the women that we're working with.
Ashley Hemmingway: At my first job out here in Silicon Valley, again, I was one of the only women working there, and actually one of my first managers was also a woman. And I got extremely inspired by her on how to be someone that works in tech and a woman at the same time. Like, she was super into yoga, and she wasn't shy about that when she invited everyone to her yoga classes and baked cookies and brought them in and just did not hide any of herself away. Like, if people were talking about video games, which was often the case, she would kind of be in the conversation but then also not afraid to share, like, who she was. So that kind of inspired me to open up a little bit more with different people, and they will be receptive to it, and we can all learn from each other's differences.
Azalea Phangsoa: I don't know if this sounds too cheesy, but I think one of my biggest remodels was my mom. And I think a lot of moms that I see in the tech industry or in the workforce because I guess my mom was a very hard-working person. But I feel like there's this sort of thought in my head about how do you balance that work life and family life? And I think there's a lot of we have a couple in our office who love talking about their kids and love planning things for their weekends and after work and there's also fathers out there too, on our team and all that stuff.
But I think it's just knowing how I guess my mom worked very hard and was successful in her career and put in the hours and the extra effort for her coworkers. And she was such a wonderful person to be around. But also she always attended all my soccer games and she cooked me food and was a great mom, too. Just the balance of being able to find it all and have it all live up to society's expectations of what a mom could be, but also the expectations of what a woman should be in the workforce.
I have a lot of respect for being able to have it all and strive for living their best life and still being very successful in all aspects of their life.
Nikki Bossonis: I had another example of a woman that inspired me. And when you brought up your mom, my heart just skipped a couple of beats. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and one day she decided she wanted to be an accountant, and she just started taking college classes while she took care of us in the home. And I was an accelerated student, so I was in college during high school, and I would see my mom in the hallway between classes. I was going to college with my mom. And she eventually became assistant director of finance at British Petroleum in Rockefeller Center in New York. And I would go to visit my mom at work so that I could watch the tree lighting ceremony from her office in Rockefeller Plaza. So, she just taught me that there's no bias. You just work hard and you get your education and you go for it and you'll get there eventually. Even though it took her years to get her B.S. on the side, it's there.
So thank you for reminding me about my mom.
Emily McNamara: My mom, too. Absolutely. I think we turned out great because we've got some great influences. I do want to point out one more thing, though, because I think that as much as we're talking about how we want to be equal and there's these biases about being women, I also think that it's a good thing to embrace our womanhood and embrace the fact that we do have at the core certain qualities that make us a woman and make us who we are and allow us to be strong in our ways and men to be strong in their ways.
I think having that recognition, but not allowing us to hold us back or be delineated in a negative way is kind of the resounding message here. If you are proud to, like you're speaking about your mother, there's a nurturing nature knowing that that's there and that you grow from that. And then how that applies to your professional life, all of that matters. But just to say that we were focusing more on our powers, our positivity, all the things that are good about being a man or a woman or whatever you identify yourself as. I think just embracing that part of you and growing from that is the most important part.
Azalea Phangsoa: I think there's a stereotype of like, oh, being in a male-dominated industry it's a little bit more aggressive, maybe you come across maybe a couple more egos and there's just sort of a different dynamic when there's a room full of men. And then being a woman coming into the spaces they're like, hey, make sure you stay on your ground, make sure you're tough, make sure you're hard on everyone. And sometimes they sort of think like maybe they need to be a little bit more empathetic, maybe they need to embrace a little bit more compassion. maybe we would go further with some of those traits as a team.
And perhaps that's why it's so important to have a balance of males and females in the room and on a team because it's important to have those traits as well and being able to offer those to the team. And as much as a woman can be aggressive and advocate and go head toe to toe with really strong personalities, I think it's also great when you can see men come to the other side of that and embrace being a little more vulnerable and kinder and gentler with what their intentions are and how they're trying to make their point come across. And I think that's something that having women on the team, women in the workforce, really offers a lot of team dynamics.
Nikki Bossonis: Very well said.
Okay. Well, I think that wraps it up. Thank you so much for being here and for sharing. This is amazing. I hope we can do it again soon.
Emily McNamara: Sounds good. Thank you.
Ashley Hemmingway: Thanks, everyone.
Azalea Phangsoa: Thank you.