The most encompassing way of phrasing the lesson is that I wish I paid much more attention to gender issues earlier in my career, and taken the disparity more seriously. Admittedly, until it affected me personally I dismissed a lot of the discussion surrounding the issue as frivolous whining. I subscribed to the idea of meritocracy and believed that the issues other women were facing were a result of their lack of focus – and that the opposition they faced wouldn’t happen to me because I was smart, talented, and hard-working (so my mom tells me).
In retrospect I realize that it was naive of me to feel that way as an entry-level employee. I was at the bottom of the food chain and posed no threat to anyone. The enthusiasm, encouragement, and lack of repercussion I received for speaking my mind at that stage in my career only reinforced my view that I was just genuinely smart/talented, etc… It wasn’t until the past year and a half that I begun to experience the backlash of speaking up and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that around the same time many of my female design peers who are near my age and previously experienced the same sort of early career success began to have similar experiences at their workplaces.
When I would interview for jobs I always focused so much on evaluating the role from a design perspective. I would grill the company on the structure of their team, the design process they employed, the types of challenges they faced, and what kind of product vision they had in mind. I tried to get a sense of how much designers were valued at the company. I honestly never thought to ask the same question of women: what was the ratio of women in the company? What kind of roles did they employ? What were their responsibilities? Were there any women in the leadership? My current job is the first company I’ve worked at where I thought to evaluate such things (more on that later).
Sub-lesson #1: Being a ‘trailblazer’ isn’t the only way to advance the current state of women in tech. The reason I didn’t question these things is because I assumed that being the only woman on the product team (meaning PM/Designer/Development) was normal. That I would not find another awesome place to work with more than two women on the team. That if I wanted to work this industry, I had to be a trailblazer. So not true.
When I joined the last company I worked at I was the only technical female and one of two women in the whole company. I won’t lie, I romanticized the notion of being the first. I thought hiring me was an indication of open-mindedness on the part of the company (in reality it was because they viewed me as the non-threatening ingenue). I thought I would pave the way, be the point of change. I knew so many talented women engineers, designers, and product managers that I could potentially bring in to the fold. It was very telling that when I got one of them to interview, the experienced and talented female designer was met with criticism from my boss while he pushed me to give a boy who had no design knowledge nor evidence of intrinsic skill, who hadn’t even graduated college, an offer on the design team.
When I decided to leave and look for my next role, something occurred to me. The idea of being a ‘trailblazer’ is a very direct way of addressing gender equality. I am grateful to anyone who is or has been in this position: someone has to be the first and I know very well it is not easy. However, it is not the only way. By supporting companies that already demonstrate and value equality, you are also helping advance women. If, as research claims, diverse teams perform better, than I hope to help advance companies that already have their heart in the right place. Copy-catting is an undeniable tactic in the tech industry. Apple’s definitive success with design has increased the value of design and led to a slew of startups clamoring to hire designers. Imagine if the next Apple or Facebook’s definitive trait was having equal gender (or race!) distribution on their teams.
The ugly side of the “first woman on the team” coin is that not every woman wants to be a ‘trailblazer’. There’s an undeniably seductive quality about the “princess spot” (a term my friend Ash elaborates on in this comment). Don’t automatically mistrust other women – or other men, for that matter. Also, don’t let the subtle differences in your perspective on feminism stop you from being friends with other women.
There’s a lot of lists out there for women-in-tech who deserve recognition. I follow those, but in addition, I have a mental list of men that I want to make it a point to work within the future. These are all men whom I’ve seen publicly speak (or tweet) about gender equality. I think it’s important to recognize men too because they currently do make up the majority of this industry. My list is actually pretty long and I know that if I were to work with any of them I would be treated respectfully, and if I found myself in a questionable situation whether at work or a conference, these men would use their privileged position to speak up. So basically …
Sub-lesson #2: Know and embrace your allies (but not literally, because HR). As I mentioned earlier, when I started looking for my current job I had new criteria on which to evaluate companies. In a sense, I wanted to work somewhere in which Sub-Lesson #2 was irrelevant because there was no ‘us’ or ‘them’. I wanted a culture, not just individual people, that respected women. So what do you look for? Sub-lesson #3: Don’t rely on the ratio. Nowadays there’s a lot of focus on the percentage of female employees or engineers at a company. I think this potentially paints a misleading image. I tend to look at the company’s leadership. How many women are executives, VPs, etc. … I know it’s an easy decision to hire entry-level women because I’ve been one, but at the point of my career I’m at, I aspire to have more responsibility. Seeing women in the leadership at a company gives me physical evidence that upward mobility is possible, as well the potential for mentorship and advice.
The healthiest thing to see is women at all levels in a company. This can be hard to identify at startups that have a flat hierarchy, which is why speaking directly to a woman is so important in the interview process. Sometimes when I say this it gets misinterpreted as “since I’m a woman, if I interview at your company, you should throw a woman in the interview process to reassure me.”
No, I think that if you have technical women at your company, I would hope that at least one is involved in evaluating both male and female candidates. So in being interviewed by another woman I am reassured that women play a role in hiring decisions and building teams, and I am able to get a personal account of her responsibilities and trajectory within the company.
I wish I looked for these signs when interviewing earlier in my career and generally focused more on longevity and the potential to grow with a company. It might not be the worst thing to take an entry-level job in a glass-ceiling situation if your intention is to gain a certain amount of experience and move on. Though I’d still want “young me” to be fully aware of what she’s getting into.