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Women in Tech: Q&A With ESPN's Stefanie Gjørven

BRISTOL, CONN.—When asked how she climbed the managerial ranks at ESPN to become the leading sports network’s senior director of technical operations and engineering, Stefanie Gjørven attributes much of her success to a great support system, effective networking and persistence.

Mat Hathaway, Quinn Hazelwood and Stefanie Gjørven discussing an upcoming project. In reality, her success story may be better summed up by the Roman philosopher Seneca, who is often paraphrased, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” She had the right skills and experience to make the most of the strategic opportunities she encountered.

Since there are so few female broadcast engineers, TV Technology asked Stefanie to share her thoughts on how we as an industry can encourage more women to pursue careers in broadcast engineering and succeed. Here is her story.

TV TECHNOLOGY:What does it take to make it to a top engineering job at a major network like ESPN?

STEFANIE GJØRVEN: When it comes to career advice, my favorite quote is, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” For example, networking is not easy for most people but it’s essential in supporting your professional growth.

By getting out of your comfort zone and taking on new challenges you gain valuable experience, skills and confidence. In my current position, I draw on my life experiences and the skills I’ve learned along the way. From a young age, I always had an engineering mindset and liked building things and putting pieces together in new ways.

But I also had a creative mindset and wanted to be an artist. In fact, I majored in Fine Arts at Rutgers, with a minor in computer science. I am now pursuing a Masters of Science in Computer Science. Today, whether a technical challenge involves hardware, software or broadcast design, I approach it not only with an analytical mindset but also with creativity. That’s the key to finding innovative solutions that improve the end product and also to doing well in this field.

TVT:What’s it like to work in a traditionally male job in a predominantly male environment?

GJØRVEN: There are over 4,000 employees on the Bristol Campus and the majority is male. When I walk into a meeting, I’m often the only woman in the room. But I don’t see that as a disadvantage. Everyone knows I’m there and they remember me. I stand out and to me that’s a benefit.

I’m not intimidated by being in the minority and I don’t hesitate to voice my opinions and take on a leadership role, such as team building. But there have been times where telling my team members how I wanted things done and pushing them towards my goal was misunderstood. I needed to change my tone, my body language and the way I listened, which increased teamwork and collaboration.

What discourages many women from getting into the technology field is the pressure they put on themselves to be more like a man or act like their male coworkers. Women need to be themselves, be confident and surround themselves with people who support them when they fail. Some of my most important accomplishments are the result of my biggest failures.

TVT:What can be done to encourage more women to become broadcast engineers?

GJØRVEN: Men and women think differently, and both perspectives are valuable in the workplace. To strive for a better gender balance, we need to educate everyone to be more inclusive, not just male versus female but also cultural diversity and diversity of thought.

I think part of growing women in technology is growing men in technology. We need to encourage men to attend women’s organization meetings and groups directed to the growth of females in technology. We have to work together with men to solve this issue.

I’m very fortunate because Disney/ESPN is a very collaborative, inclusive and flexible workplace that values diversity. When I became senior director, after several promotions, I took a four-month maternity leave twice, when my two daughters were born, and everyone here was very supportive. But many women in today’s workforce find it difficult to balance career and family demands, especially in the technology field, and that’s one reason we see so few women in the top jobs.

TVT:What are you doing to mentor young women seeking jobs in broadcast engineering?

GJØRVEN: In mentoring both young women and men, I tell them they need to be passionate about the work they do and persistent in pursuing it. They also should never stop learning and advancing their knowledge and skills.

I want to be a strong advocate and good role model for women. There is also a need for men to advocate for women in positions of all levels in technology, especially management and be willing to mentor them. There is a lot of work to be done in this area but I feel the awareness is there and efforts are being made to progress.

If women are too forward or opinionated they’re seen as aggressive; and when they’re too docile or quiet they’re seen as weak or lacking enthusiasm. That’s why having strong female role models is important for everyone to foster a more accurate impression of women in management roles.

I was very fortunate to have a mother who, back in the ‘80’s, was a software engineer and eventually the chief technology officer of her own successful entrepreneurial information technology consulting company. She raised my brother, sister and me in a gender-neutral way and because of her it was very natural for me to see myself as an engineer, a software developer and in other technical jobs I’ve held. I attribute my successes to my mother

Aaron LaBerge, ESPN executive vice president and chief technology officer, said this about Stefanie:

“Stefanie is a brilliant and creative problem solver. When I look at her, and the other women on our team, I see many future leaders of our organizations. They are important members of the best technology team in the world. They are passionate, talented engineers, technologists and innovators—who bring a unique view to problem solving and management.”

“The STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields benefit greatly from diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. Not only because it brings new perspectives to problem solving, but also because it brings new perspectives to identifying problems. When you can’t see problems, they’re hard to solve.”