This is the second of two blogs written by DockYard engineers for Women’s History Month. You can find the first blog by Chantal Broeren here.
As we wrap up Women’s History Month, I’ve been asked to reflect on some of the experiences I’ve had in my journey as a woman in the tech industry. I’m entering the 14th year of my career as a software engineer, and so many hard-earned lessons have been top of mind. Women and minority groups are still underrepresented in tech, and for many of us, it can feel daunting to “be ourselves” at work. But, paradoxically, being ourselves is essential for companies to become psychologically safe, attract more diversity, and make space for others to grow.
How can we be ourselves, when it so often feels like we can’t? I recognize that my ability to be open has taken a long time to develop. There were many years of enduring environments that weren’t quite right, or even toxic. I thought about leaving the industry many times. Ultimately by sticking it out, I’ve ended up with enough experience to be choosier about where I work.
I’ve learned to ask the right questions in interviews, and I’ve learned to trust my gut about company cultures. I’m extremely grateful to DockYard for giving me a “work home,” in which my personal values are aligned with my company’s, and I can truly be myself. I’m also grateful, in a way, for the tougher years, which have given me these lessons to carry forward.
Ask For Help
The hesitation to ask for help has a strong hold on all of us, especially when Imposter Syndrome is creeping in. Asking for help means admitting we don’t know something, and that can feel risky. Risk isn’t just a feeling for some; stereotype threat is real—as a member of an underrepresented group, asking for help can reinforce negative stereotypes about that group.
If you’re a member of the majority group, or if you’re a minority group member who has adequate support, ask questions, and ask them publicly. Chances are, someone else has the same question, or didn’t think they could ask their own question. By speaking up, you’re reinforcing a psychologically safe company culture AND getting your question answered. Win-win.
Embrace Imposter Syndrome
I mentioned Imposter Syndrome because, well, I used to feel like an imposter. Everyone knew more than me, I was WAY out of my league, and once they found out…chaos would ensue. It might sound like a casual topic, but there’s a lot of shame surrounding Imposter Syndrome.
What if, instead of shame, we let ourselves feel temporary discomfort? Time has shown me Imposter Syndrome is a sign that I’m at the beginning of a learning curve, and if I keep going, it will diminish. Not everyone feels Imposter Syndrome, but lots of folks do, especially minorities in tech. I’ve learned not to feel ashamed of it, and to try to embrace it as a good thing, because it means I’m learning. By the way, nobody knows as much as you think they do, and nobody knows everything you know.
Don’t Carry That Weight
Earlier in my career, I spent a lot of time trying to shift the gender balance in tech. I’d heard endless stories of women and minorities feeling isolated or actively discriminated against, and I felt a moral obligation to help where I could. Unfortunately, I took on way, way too much. I organized and taught programming workshops, I started a meetup, and I spoke at a conference and a handful of other events. I wrote for my company blog, wrote and produced programming screencasts, and co-hosted the podcast that my company produced.
Sadly, all of this effort had little to no payoff in terms of my goal to bring more women into the industry. Instead, the effect it had was on me: burnout. My advice to anyone who is part of an underrepresented group is to shut it down when you start feeling pressured to perform emotional labor on behalf of your group.
Social change takes a long time and a lot of support, and the burden should never be on the shoulders of someone in the underrepresented group (who is already carrying the weight of being underrepresented). Activism is important, but mental health has to come first.
Take Up Space
Taking up space is a crucial part of being a whole person at work. I’ve had more than my share of meetings in which I was the only woman in the room. Or the only female engineer. I used to be scared to even sit at a meeting room table full of men, much less speak up.
Eventually I did sit, I did speak, and eventually I tried spreading my things out in front of me – notebook, pen, giant water bottle – just as men tend to do. The difference may not have been outwardly visible, but internally I felt a greater sense of power, belonging, and influence. So, sit at the table, hold your head up at Scrum meetings, and if you’re left out of meetings altogether, speak up about it! And use some of that new confidence to be a champion for another woman or minority.
As companies recognize the value of diversity, and employees are no longer content with the status quo, tech, like many industries, is slowly shifting away from male-dominated spaces. For the women and minorities looking to make their careers in tech, it’s important for us to translate our lessons into making space for them.
Change takes time and energy, but recognizing the structures in play both externally and internally, acknowledging their influence, and taking reasonable steps to combat them will lead to big results. We all belong here, and the future is ours to build together.