Perception vs Reality: Gender rights advocate Carolyn Herzog and her challenge to change hearts and minds

equal rights

Carolyn Herzog








When it comes to leadership, in life or in business, role models come in all shapes and sizes. Nevertheless, few can surely be as inspirational as Carolyn Herzog’s Jewish grandmother, who survived the Holocaust through unshakable determination, a skill for networking and a passionate career in fashion that saw her gain sponsorship (and escape) first to Paris and then to New York. Or her mother ― just as strong in different ways ― who insisted Carolyn’s education was as important as her brother’s, and took her to political campaigns and environmental rallies before going to law school herself in her 40s. Or her own husband, who decided to stay at home with their daughters ‘before it was cool’.

Together, these exceptional family members have provided the inspiration, values and solid foundations on which Carolyn has built her own business career. Today, she is the Executive Vice President, Chief Compliance Officer, Company Secretary and General Counsel of Arm, the world’s leading semiconductor IP company, having previously held senior roles within Symantec Corporation in Europe and the United States.

And yet, speaking from her home in California about her passionate advocacy of equal rights and opportunity for all ― regardless of race, colour, religion, gender or sexual orientation ― she is quick to acknowledge that strong role models can also be found in all sorts of surprising places, whether they’re transforming their own realities or fighting against societal prejudice or misperception.

“Obama, yes of course,” she said. “He showed African-Americans ― everyone ― how far you can go; what you can achieve; how you can be the best leader you can possibly be. But I don’t think you should underestimate how much perceptions can be changed by life experiences or even by roles on TV. Geena Davis (in the 2005 series, Commander in Chief) changed perceptions that a woman could never be President, and perhaps even helped Hilary Clinton’s campaign.”

Perception. It’s something that Carolyn talks about a lot. The perception, for example, that Harvey Weinstein was untouchable, until someone found the courage to challenge it. As the New York Times story was breaking in October 2017, she described her admiration for the women who were speaking out. “Who would have thought in the male-dominated world of Hollywood of all places that someone like Harvey Weinstein would be fired by his own company. It proves that some things are changing.”

Change, of course, can be painfully slow. Having spent most of her career in the technology sector, Carolyn is only too aware of some of the most difficult challenges facing women. “I have witnessed and heard most of the classic misconceptions that women experience working in the technology sector,” she said, highlighting inappropriate comments about dress or appearance, fewer promotion opportunities and unequal pay.

It's a deep-rooted problem that can only be tackled by having more women in senior positions. Indeed, everywoman's own research found that 56% of women in technology believe a lack of female role models is the primary cause of the industry’s gender gap, while 25% say that being able to see more women in senior positions is the thing most likely to make them want to stay with their current employer.

Added Carolyn: “There are numerous studies about excessive focus on personality as opposed to capability. For example, 70% of females being criticised about their personalities in performance reviews, and only 10% of men. But one of the worst things I have experienced is men openly talking about women not being as effective when they return to work after maternity leave, ‘because their biology changes when they have babies’.

Now, that’s completely inappropriate behaviour but it doesn’t matter what I believe. We have to change the conversation. If we don’t promote conversation (about equality), people will simply fall back on the same old assumptions.

It is, she says, the simple conflict between perception and reality. Worse, she adds, is the alarming truth ― whether we like it or not ― that all too often perception is reality.

It’s a statement that was included in an email from a former boss, and has stuck in her mind ever since. “Perception is reality. I felt it was terribly unjust at the time, until it finally sunk in. But I realised he was absolutely correct: it didn’t matter how right I was or how wrong I thought everyone else was, what mattered was how everyone else ‘perceived’ the situation.

“I needed to change that perception; to win hearts and minds, and bring people along with me.” It sounds obvious. “Yes, but it was something that took me a long time to learn.”

So, does the notion that perception is reality also apply when talking about gender equality? Carolyn hesitated for a moment. You get the impression she wanted to say no; that perceptions within the tech industry or within society as a whole are just plain wrong, and shouldn’t be given any credibility. Instead, she breathed deeply and said: ‘You know, it’s a valid point. I think that very often we look at the question of gender equality purely through the eyes of a woman. Although we know we’re right and feel justified in the way we are thinking, to make progress we have to work on changing the perceptions.”

Almost immediately, Carolyn jumps back in to dispel any thoughts of gender bias in her thinking. “In my career, I have had some spectacular managers ― and the men were far better than the women I am sorry to say. Looking back on some of my life experiences, women are not always the most supportive gender of other women.” Moving from a fictional US President to a larger-than-life former US Secretary of State, she quotes Madeleine Albright. “There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.

As women, we hold the key to gender equality because we live the experience of being under-represented.

All of which brings us neatly to everywoman, and Carolyn’s role as a corporate Ambassador ― one of a group of senior-level men and women who are driving diversity strategically across their organisations and sectors. ‘Champions of change’, everywoman calls them, but in Carolyn’s case the respect is mutual.

“I’ve been aware of the work everywoman has been doing for some time, and have always been very impressed,” she said, “so when I was asked to become an Ambassador, I didn’t have any hesitation. But I also wanted to know exactly what my role would be, because I didn’t want only to be a figurehead. I wanted to play a role in developing the conversation and help everywoman with some of the wonderful work they’re doing today.”

One might expect someone who is a senior executive within a FTSE 100 and NASDAQ company that makes products for iPhone and 50% of the planet’s Android tablets (not to mention her experience in the non-profit sector and at The World Bank) to be a pretty impressive figurehead to have, full stop. But Carolyn’s more human, typically modest story is in many ways more of an inspiration.

She added:

I’ve been fortunate in the positions I’ve held and some of the world exposure I have. It’s not been difficult to be who I am, and state what I believe… to be true to my core values ― I believe fundamentally in equal rights for all human beings.

“But I have also at times lacked confidence. I haven’t overcome it completely but I do recognise it and manage my expectations. I ask for help from my team, from my friends and from my mentors. I work hard and I know I am good at what I do, but that little voice in my head will still tell me that it isn’t good enough. That’s something that many women have in common.”

With those final words, Carolyn Herzog sums up the challenge that lie ahead. But few would bet against her succeeding. Global business leader, human rights advocate and everywoman Ambassador. Reality trumps perception every time. Her grandmother would be proud.