“How To Navigate The Gatekeeping Culture in Tech”: Cynthia C. Harbor, Senior Technical Program Manager at CACI (Video + Transcript)

March 19, 2023

Cynthia C. Harbor (Senior Technical Program Manager at CACI-Federal) discusses “troot mout” and calls a thing a thing. Gatekeeping is not always bad. Become a subject matter expert.


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Angie Chang: It’s our sixth annual Conference and Career Fair and we are so excited to have with us today Cynthia Harbor, who is a champion for women and girls in technology. And she’ll be here, she’ll be speaking with us today about gatekeeping culture. Welcome, Cynthia.

Cynthia Harbor: Hi. Thanks so much for having me <laugh>. Hi everyone. Here we are. I’m Cynthia Canteen Harbor and I am a walking, talking manifestation of God’s light and love. I reflect this with my family and friends, acquaintances, and in my career. I strive to be a loving mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend and colleague, and I try daily to acknowledge and honor my Gullah Geechee ancestry and culture.

Cynthia Harbor: Welcome everyone, and I started with that because you have to know who you are without the titles, roles and responsibilities. They do not define you professionally. I work with CACI as a senior technical program manager. I’ve been in my career a little over 20 years now. Having been at one point a developer a business analyst, a project manager, and now a program manager overseeing a program worth about 55 to 60 million.

Cynthia Harbor: I have the pleasure of working with the group of talented people on the public health surveillance system, providing technical and programmatic support to our client at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the last 14 years. I earned a bachelor’s from Shaw University the oldest historically black college in the South, and I’m very proud of that. I also earned a master’s degree from University of Iowa – go Hawkeyes. I’m a daughter of the American South. I was born and raised in the low country of South Carolina in a small seaside community called Georgetown. And you’ll see Georgetown there in the background of my slide. It was there. I developed many of the skills and the resilient mindset that has helped me in my career.

Cynthia Harbor: If anyone tells you that they have all the answers on how to navigate the tech industry run, no one person holds the key to the kingdom. In full transparency, I’m gonna have what we say in Gullah, a ‘troot mout’. A ‘troot mout’ that means to tell you the real deal for a moment. It’s in spaces like these Girl Geek X, these types of platforms is how you gain insight on how to create and navigate your journey in technology.

Cynthia Harbor: It’s sharing our collective experiences that inspires and basically informs us. And the truth is, you’re going to have many challenges. You’re going to experience many challenges within your respective college or certification programs and even on your job, like there are barriers like gatekeeping, which I’ll discuss a little bit more, more later, to getting into technology and into the industry. There’s no one path to take.

Cynthia Harbor: Linear thinking does not serve you well here. And then when you finally have arrived, you’ll need systems in place to keep you there because the truth is women hold <laugh> 26.76% of tech-related jobs, and there are even fewer of us in tech leadership. But here’s some more truth. You have more power than you realize.

Cynthia Harbor: Sometimes it just takes us to pivot or reevaluate our perspective to realize we are in control of our actions. We may not control the outcomes or get what we want as quickly as we want, but we can certainly control how we respond.

Cynthia Harbor: And here’s a little bit more truth: we are intentional, not imposters. There’s been a lot of talk about imposter syndrome and how it’s real. You know, you may feel that you don’t have enough education or the proper training, or that you’re not technical enough. We’ve all been told to sort of fake it until we make it. But here’s my truth.

Cynthia Harbor: In my experience, I didn’t have the luxury of faking it. Anything, you know, in an environment where people are already questioning why you’re there, or why you’re at the table, or why you’re the one leaving something, I couldn’t afford to fake it. Instead, I had to get real intentional about what I was doing, and I made mistakes, lots of mistakes, but I tried my best to embody a successful feeling and do my best, and I stand firmly in my truth that intentionality beats imposter syndrome any day. So big, big facts, you are going to encounter roadblocks and gatekeepers every step of the way, but you can navigate this by becoming a SME – a subject matter expert.

Cynthia Harbor: Let’s call a thing a thing. There are several definitions of gatekeeping, but let’s go with this one first. Gatekeeping is the activity of controlling and usually limiting general access to something that’s pretty benign, right? But we often associate it with a negative connotation, and I believe if you look for the negative, you’ll find the negative.

calling a thing a thing gatekeeping

Cynthia Harbor: But gatekeeping has also been used for good – think about it! In the height of the civil rights era, grass-root organizations and the church served as gatekeepers from politicians and developers and others that try to encroach on the African American community. In non-English speaking homes, the one person that speaks American standard English will often serve as a gatekeeper for the family. In those two examples, the gatekeeper was actually protecting something of great value, so all gatekeeping is not bad.

Cynthia Harbor: I’ve seen other definitions. Another one that I’ve found is to limit another party’s participation in a collective identity or activity, usually due to undue pains, resentment, or even overprotectiveness. The reality is gatekeepers have biases, unconscious or otherwise they exist. I have seen it. Some may only wanna interact with people who look like them, have the same religious beliefs as them, have a specific gender or identity. Some can only take directions from a specific gender. Someone who is from where they’re from only want to interact with people with certain pedigrees. They’re not willing to learn or work with people who are neurodivergent, or any combination thereof.

Cynthia Harbor: And a gatekeeper can be a recruiter, a leader member of an organization, a manager, a director, an executive, an administrative personnel, anyone that serves as a gateway or a door to that thing that you want or you should be a part of.

Cynthia Harbor: Now, just imagine if any one of these people that I mentioned has biases. It’s hard to be successful in an environment or with people that have allowed unconscious or, or biases to dictate their decision-making and how they conduct business. Let’s call it what it is.

Cynthia Harbor: Bias gatekeeping can lead to discrimination, thereby making it difficult for women and people of color to access these tech and management roles. I’m not saying that these people, you know, who are serving as these gatekeepers are against you. I’m saying that they may not necessarily be for you because here’s the facts. 57% of women working in tech have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace compared to just 10% of men. Black respondents according to this survey, were more likely to experience racial discrimination in the tech sector compared to any other group. And then gender and race, were also known to affect respondent’s experience of burnout in the workplace.

Cynthia Harbor: When folks tell you that they’re tired, believe them <laugh>. Here’s what you have to remember, because we get it confused. We have to forgive ourselves for viewing their biases and lack of acknowledgement as a challenge for us to convince them that we’re worthy of their time and attention. We do not negotiate our value. Okay? So here’s, that’s what they often don’t tell you. We’re often told not to sweat the small stuff.

Cynthia Harbor: And generally, I do agree, but in an industry where attention to details really matters, you may not wanna sweat the small stuff, but you certainly need to pay attention to them because the small stuff prepares you for big things. Micro-aggressions, they’re called micro for a reason. Microaggressions the insensitive statements, the questions or assumptions aimed at traditionally margin. Marginalized identity groups can happen to anyone of any background at any professional level.

Cynthia Harbor: Women can hurl microaggressions at women, men can hurl microaggressions at men and vice versa and so on. For women and people of color, we know what this looks like and feels like, but just in case here are a few examples. So being slighted left outta meetings or left off email distribution and then added later in the act of passive-aggressiveness, or being questioned by the tone police. Black and Latinas are especially want to deal with this – the tone police, how we say things the speaking over you as you’re talking – the disruption the doubting and questioning of you in workspaces, whether it’s on Slack or Teams or in conference call, not with the intent to understand, but with the intent to denigrate or approve a point or counter you in some way. The over-explaining or the man-splaining after you repeatedly said that you understand. And then the final one, which is traditionally, you hear this all the time, oh, you speak so well, or he’s very articulate, or she’s very articulate.

Cynthia Harbor: Look, I love to hike the trail near my home. It is so serene. You know, the rustle of the leaves, the hush of the wind, the babbling brook, it is so peaceful, but the truth is, it’s the woods. And while I do appreciate the beauty that’s around me, I still recognize that it’s the woods.

Cynthia Harbor: You’ve got to be able to read the room. There’s a level of emotional intelligence that’s absolutely necessary. Daniel Goldman wrote in his book, emotional Intelligence. He said, if your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. Now, does emotional intelligence neutralize micro-aggressions? No, because you cannot control how other people act, but what emotional intelligence does, it makes you better.

Cynthia Harbor: It makes you more self-aware. Let’s continue to be a sme. The first is as, so let’s set some realistic expectations. Now that you’re able to read the room, you can go forth and then set realistic expectations for yourself.

Cynthia Harbor: Here’s one of my tips. In project management, the stakeholder analysis is the GOAT of tools. A stakeholder analysis is the process of identifying people before the project begins. Grouping them according to their level of interest participation and determining how best to involve and communicate Each of these stakeholder groups throughout <laugh>, there are usually four steps in creating a stakeholder analysis. The first is identifying the stakeholder. You gotta know who you’re talking to, you clarify the interest. You gotta understand why they’re there. You agree on the process of engagement between the stakeholders so you know how to approach them.

Cynthia Harbor: And then the final thing is managing the relationship with the stakeholders. You know, otherwise that means that you’re not being disingenuous because you’re reaching out to them. If you can understand this, if you could understand their why their “WIIFM” ( what’s in it for me), you could then calibrate your ask. Thereby not setting yourself up for letdown. You now know who you’re dealing with, or if you don’t, if this is like a code contact and you don’t know the person that you need to reach out to, then you appeal to the greater good. You speak to your integrity, honesty, character. These are the building blocks upon which expectations are set, that is your foundation.

Cynthia Harbor: Next is make your intentions known. Remember previousl,y I mentioned integrity, honesty, character, and how, you know, they’re the building blocks. If those things are in place and then your words and your actions that they align, you know, you’re absolutely making your intentions known. Intentions are the heart of what we call characters, the value, the norms, goals and priorities that drive someone’s actions and choices. Now I took that from the Harvard Business Review.

Cynthia Harbor: You have to be able to speak about your intentions, what’s important to you, what’s the goal that you seek, the value and the motives that guide your actions and decisions. If I see that there is an alignment with what you say and what you do access granted, you are who you say you are. Oftentimes we believe that taking the direct route is a given, but sometimes we get help in the least likely of places.

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Cynthia Harbor: The person to help you may not always be the person that has the authority. Now, they may not be in charge, but at one point in my career, I was trying to access quite a few things, but I knew I couldn’t get there alone. And I’ll tell you, I’ve had quite a few people in my life that have provided guidance, mentorship, sponsorship. Just be true advocates for me. And I know I could not have gotten there if they weren’t rooting for me and I had to make my intentions clear.

Cynthia Harbor: I’ve had several advocates who were essentially gatekeepers in my life, and several of them were men. One was a curmudgeon old newspaper editor that I worked for one summer as an intern. I was told that if I wanted a job, I had to convince him. I was terrified, but my desire to be in journalism was bigger than my fear. And I went for it and I landed the internship. It was one of the best summers in my life.

Cynthia Harbor: Another time when I was transferring graduate schools. Who transfers in the middle of graduate schools? It’s just a two year program. But I felt that I wasn’t getting what I needed from the school I attended at the time, but I just didn’t know what my options were. And I met a black man at a conference who told me to transfer. I’m thinking, I’ve got to stay confined to this box, this two year box, and just sort of grin and bear it, and he put the thought in my mind that no roll out <laugh> and as a matter of fact, apply to my alma mater, University of Iowa.

Cynthia Harbor: Help comes in the least likely a place and I would say that over the past decade, my biggest advocates has been a white man and a black woman. And they see me, they know me, they know my intentions, I see them, I know their intentions, and I’ve had people to pour into me over the years. Growing up Orly Lee taught me the importance of community service. And I’m gonna say her name in honor, women’s History Month Ernestine Joneses, Loretta Jones, Antoinette Gardner, Linda Carter, my auntie. These women have loved and poured into me. And since I was 10 years old, I’ve had a mentor. My sixth grade English teacher, Dotty Green, who modeled integrity and has taught me discernment. And over the past 30 plus years that Dotty’s been in my life, she has shown me that not all doors are for me.

Cynthia Harbor: Not all doors are for you, right? And I’m okay with that, so door open, you know, access granted or door closed, access denied. At the end of the day, I’m okay with that. You know why? Because I know who I am. I am a walking, talking manifestation of God’s light and love. And no door could ever change that. It didn’t give it to me, and it can’t take it away from me. Do you know who you are? Okay, so Stephen Covey, in his book, the Speed of Trust talks about consistency and competence being the two important aspects of gaining trust, consistency, competency. Just around that. Just imagine you’ve gotta beat that drum consistency and competency. And I’m gonna wrap up.

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Cynthia Harbor: This is my last point I wanna make. Consistency and competency basically enables trust. How do you navigate gatekeeping culture? One, you have to know who you are. Two, you have to show them who you are. One, we have to set realistic expectations. You have to do your homework, right? Boom. Consistency, competency, consistency, competency. Two, make your intentions known. Why are you here? Three, explore multiple points of entry. Remember, the person at the top may not necessarily be the person that grants you access, okay? We have to recognize that emotional intelligence plays a critical role. You’ve gotta be aware.

Cynthia Harbor: Remember, don’t sweat the small stuff, but pay attention to them. Don’t negotiate your value. We don’t negotiate our value for anyone. And remember to be intentional and not an imposter because intentionality and imposter syndrome cannot coexist. And you have to show them who you are, right? Because at any moment you can shift from waiting on it to walking in it.

Angie Chang: Thank you. Thank you, Cynthia. I love the slides so much. You have a website, LinkedIn. I’m sure you’ll be around this conference maybe to talk to people. We’re gonna move to our next sessions cuz we’re a little one minute over. Thank you so much, Cynthia.

Cynthia Harbor: Thank you Angie. Thanks for having me.

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