Meet Tech’s Newest Superhero

Ann Gaffigan’s ascension from an American record holder to the tech industry’s modern-day Wonder Woman.

Gaffigan competing in her last race, the 3000m steeplechase at the 2008 Olympic Trials. (Photo via Eric Naslund)


The Legend of Wonder Woman

It’s hard not to think that in 1941, when William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman, that he didn’t have a picture of Ann Gaffigan in his mind.

After all, when Marston first developed the famed DC comic, his intentions were very clear.

“Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

And despite various renditions of her appearance since the character’s inception in 1941, the values Wonder Woman has held are identical to the values that Gaffigan has internalized throughout her life as an athlete, as a business owner, as a tech guru and as a mom: strength, bravery, grit, ingenuity, resilience and the reliance on emotional intelligence and critical thinking to solve problems.

But the similarities don’t stop there.

The Origin

Just as the origin of Wonder Woman centers around a young woman leaving behind everything she’s ever known to help a world who may not accept her; Gaffigan’s journey to becoming an American record holder centers around a young woman competing in an event she’s never tried before (steeplechase wasn’t introduced until her freshman year of college, 2001) and doing so before the Olympics was ready to accept her.

But in true Wonder Woman fashion, in 2004, Gaffigan rose to the challenge and became famous for unexpectedly winning the 2004 Olympic trials, setting a new American record, and doing so all before the women’s steeplechase had even been added to the Olympic Games. To some, the prospect of winning the trials and not being able to go to the Olympics would taint the memory of that day, but to Gaffigan, that race was the memory of a lifetime.

“When the time came to race everything fit. I felt good. I was excited to run. I wasn’t overly nervous. There wasn’t pressure on me. The weather was great. My family was there. I ended up running a 9:39 and setting an American record. And to this day, that was the best day of my life.”

After the 2004 trials, Gaffigan spent the next four years training for the 2008 games and managing the personal and professional ups and downs of her post-collegiate career. By the time 2008 rolled around, Gaffigan’s dreams of finally competing in the Olympics were within reach, but unfortunately, were never realized due to a 10th place finish in the trials.

To Gaffigan, the undesirable finish coupled with a diminishing passion for the profound emotional, physical, and mental commitment associated with training lead to her decision to retire from the sport in 2008.

The Mission

Eager to see how the next phase of her life would evolve, Gaffigan devoted her full attention after retirement to her first business, Gazelle, Inc. a web based solution designed to integrate online systems that allows organizations to connect their data and eliminate duplicate entry and human error. With more business than she knew what to do with, Gaffigan considered herself to be successful and was soon thriving as the tech industry’s newest entrepreneur.

And with her new-found success, Gaffigan began to realize that there were larger injustices within the tech industry that needed to be addressed.

Gaffigan’s first venture as a tech entrepreneur (Photo via Ann Gaffigan)

According to CNN Money, by 2020, there will be 1.2 million job openings in computing that require at least a bachelor’s degree. However, at its present pace, the United States can’t even produce half of the graduates needed to fill those vacancies.

That number further confirms Gaffigan’s biggest fear, that the country will get left behind if it doesn’t address the widening gap in labor that’s occurring due to the lack of financial resources and educational opportunities surrounding STEM fields.

“We aren’t going to lose jobs forever because of automation and artificial intelligence, but I do think that the jobs are going to shift. We are going to need the same number of people to make the world work, but they are going to need different skills. So the question is, are we properly educating our kids to be ready for that? I don’t think that we currently are.”

When asked what factors she thought were the largest contributors to the disparity, Gaffigan cited a lack of financial resources and comprehensive STEM education in schools as huge factors. And although those two issues need to be addressed, she admits that the question of ‘why are there so few women in tech?’ plagues her on a regular basis.

The Battle

According to a 2016 study titled — “Women in Tech: The Facts”, in 2015, women held 57 percent of all professional occupations, yet they held only 25 percent of all computing occupations.

That same study also states that 88 percent of all information technology patents (from 1980–2010) were invented by male-only invention teams while only 2 percent were invented by female-only invention teams. These statistics (among others) imply that the technology that helps our world operate is being created by a somewhat homogeneous group of people.

And that same group of people more than likely doesn’t include women, and moreover, likely doesn’t include women of color (Latinas and Black women hold only 1 percent and 3 percent of computing jobs, respectively).

A sample of the 25 percent of women who hold computing roles in tech. Gaffigan and her colleague, Sandi Barr, at the end of the Kansas City Developer’s Conference where Gaffigan was a session speaker.

The lack of women in the tech industry is a conversation that has been brought up across the country, as the pay and employment gap between men and women in the industry continues to widen. When asked how to solve the problem, Gaffigan channels her inner Wonder Woman and poses an emotionally intelligent response that asks society to look a little deeper than what may appear to be the issue upon first glance.

“When you get your first job as a developer and you’re sexually harassed or you’re made to feel like you don’t belong, that’s horrible and needs to be addressed. But what people don’t notice is that you got there in the first place and so many women don’t. So I ask myself, what’s really happening there?”

To Gaffigan, the reason why women are absent in the industry isn’t as simple as “women don’t feel welcome in tech.” She agrees that an unwelcome working environment may be a part of the problem, but believes that the issue starts all the way back when girls are in school; years before they even earn their first computing job.

So how do you change a systemic injustice that has developed in our society through years and years of gender-biased thought? Gaffigan thinks that you do it one step at a time and you do it by working with the very minds that haven’t yet fully subscribed to traditional gender norms: young girls.

“As a society we need to raise our daughters to be confident. We need to raise them to believe that any job out there could be their job and we can’t steer them into specific activities or career fields because of their gender. We also need to fight the belief that women aren’t naturally good at STEM because that’s just ridiculous.”

But what’s the first step? Gaffigan says that we need to meet young girls where they’re at and encourage them to participate in activities that otherwise may not be advertised as being “for girls.”

A mother and Kansas City native, Gaffigan used a program created by her friend, and founder of Kansas City Women in Tech, Jennifer Wadella as an example. When Wadella launched a weekend coding class for boys and girls in Kansas City, she received some very interesting feedback after the first few sessions.

Gaffigan, her partner Jason High, and their daughter Jaelyn. (Photo via Ann Gaffigan)

The fathers would ask Wadella, “How do I get my daughter interested in this? She doesn’t want to come.” And then mothers would reach out to Wadella and say, “This is really interesting, I’m going to sign my son up for it because I don’t think that my daughter would be interested.”

Those were all common responses that Wadella received from multiple families which illustrates that sometimes, even if they don’t mean to, the message at home from parents to girls is “I don’t think you’d be interested” OR if parents receive push back from girls who don’t think that STEM is “for them,” the reality for parents becomes “I can’t get her interested in this so why try?” without the young girl ever even engaging with STEM.

The approved solution from Wadella to this deep seeded problem?

“Pink-ify it.”

Wadella addressed the absence of young girls in her program by tailoring the coding event to appeal to the girls that connected with marketing based on more traditional gender norms. And thus, Coding and Cupcakes, a mommy and daughter coding class, was born. The revamped program had the same curriculum, structure, and instruction level as the original coding class but with an aesthetic that appealed more to girls.

The result for Wadella? Increased participation in her program (Coding and Cupcakes sells out each month). The result for girls in Kansas City? Access to the opportunity to learn about STEM and get first-hand experience in computer coding.

Admitting that the word “pink-ify” used to give Gaffigan the chills, she says that over time she’s come around to the idea.

“It’s okay that we create things for girls and make them feel like some things that are traditionally ‘male’ were created for them. It doesn’t mean that we dumb it down, but I don’t think that we should force them to be interested in stuff that clearly was made with boys in mind. I think that as parents we have to get more creative about how we expose our daughters to occupations, activities, and behaviors that mainstream society may be reluctant to promote among girls.”

And it’s the concept of meeting society, and our girls where they’re at that leads Gaffigan to share the story of her daughter Jaelyn’s accidental trek down the “boy” aisle at Target that ultimately got her daughter excited about something other than princesses, and got her to start viewing herself as the powerful young girl that she is.


“When she made it into the aisle, I frantically began to look for a female superhero but I couldn’t see any. And the only picture that I could find was of Wonder Woman on the back of another superhero’s box.”

So naturally, Gaffigan did what any mother would do who needed to think quick on her feet in an effort to appease a curious child, she lied.

Gaffigan told Jaelyn that the reason Wonder Woman didn’t have any toys was because her toys were sold out and that they would order some when they got home. A woman of her word, Gaffigan rushed backed to the house and made what would be the first of many Wonder Woman purchases on Amazon and from that moment, Jaelyn’s obsession with superheroes was born.

As a result of that obsession, for the first time Jaelyn began to see herself represented in popular culture in a way that promoted her intelligence, strength, athleticism, ingenuity, and beauty as an independent young girl primed to take on the world.

Not to mention, in the years that have passed since Jaelyn’s first trek down the “boy” aisle at Target, Gaffigan has become pleased that stores are now doing more to widen the variety of options available for girls in the aisles. Girls can now walk down “girl” aisles at stores and see female superheroes marketed to them without having to go to the boys aisle. There’s still a long way to go in the battle to eliminate gender bias but Gaffigan feels that this move is a victory worth celebrating.

The Next Chapter

Just like her alias Wonder Woman, Gaffigan is committed to advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves and will continue to serve others in roles with Kansas City Women in Tech, Girls Who Code, Win for KC, and the USA Track and Field Athletes’ Advisory Committee.

She is also a major player on the tech speaking circuit, and is scheduled to talk at the prominent tech conference, ZendCon at the end of the month.

But more importantly, Gaffigan wants to use her platform for the good of others and believes that it’s her responsibility to open doors for women who are coming up behind her in the tech industry.

“As women who actually got to this point in tech, we have to take responsibility. For whatever reason we got here and we made it against all odds. We are the rare ones. And now we have to rise to the challenge and get other women to feel comfortable walking through that door and making names for themselves in this industry.”

Gaffigan also plans to one day create a non-profit dedicated to helping kids from underprivileged backgrounds get a leg up in STEM, sports, and other areas that are critical to their holistic development.

It’s her hope that by starting this entity, she’ll be able to do her part to better equip students with the skills they need to pursue jobs in the STEM fields after their formal education is officially over.

The Legacy

When asked about his inspiration for creating Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston said:

“The only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development, and equality of women in all fields of human activity.”

So as a civilian, and as a fellow woman, I’m hopeful about the direction our society is heading.

Why?

Because I know that women like Ann Gaffigan are striving to enhance the freedom, the development, and the equality of women around the world and she won’t stop until it’s done.

Gaffigan at the 2004 Olympic trials after she set the American Record in the 3000m steeplechase. (Photo via Jesse Squire/Getty Images)

This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.


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