Diversity in Tech is a Problem. Here’s How to Empower Yourself.

This post originally appeared in Harvard Business Review by Nahia Orduña, October 12, 2021.


Summary.   

People naturally connect with those who resemble themselves, and if you are the “different” one on a new team, you may come up against barriers or be overlooked. This is especially true in the tech sector, where women and communities of color make up a very small portion of the workforce. If you are from a community that is underrepresented in tech and interested in joining the sector, here’s how to leverage your differences as the assets they are and empower yourself as a worker in (or entering) the field.

  • Understand the value of diversity. Particularly in a field driven by innovation, like tech, a big part of your job will likely involve continuously pitching new ideas. That’s why diversity of thought, experience, and background is so essential.
  • Join communities and groups externally. Diversity comes in many forms, but whatever community you are part of, there are likely networks out there designed to support you in tech. The more you participate, the more connections you will make — with allies, mentors, and people who may be able to refer you for jobs down the line.
  • Research if your potential employer empowers diversity. Even simply Googling a company’s name, along with the word “diversity,” can teach you a lot.
  • Find a mentor. While finding a mentor outside of your organization can help you understand the industry, internal mentors are key to navigating corporate culture and office politics, or the unwritten rules around what it takes to succeed.

When I’m asked about diversity in tech, my mind wanders back to a work party I attended some years back. I had joined a global team based in London and was the only foreigner at the event. My colleagues gathered, engaged in a lively conversation surrounding the latest local TV shows and trends in the UK, spewing slang and humor unknown to me. Even though my professional English was great, and I was wearing my Christmas jumper (bought special for the occasion), I was an outsider. I smiled awkwardly, pretending, and counted the minutes until I could return to my hotel room.

Later in the evening, I began looking for opportunities on other, more diverse, teams. I may have been invited to the party that night, but I did not feel that I belonged. It was too tiring to try and fit within that context.

As a woman in tech, I have been tired a lot. There are many times when I’m the only woman in the room. My colleagues and managers — from my direct boss up to the CEO — tend to be male. I was born in Spain and left the country during the financial crisis in 2011. Since then, apart from being the only woman, I have also been the only person on teams who has a Spanish accent. I talk fast and like to use my hands, gestures that are common in the culture I grew up in. Even that, over the course of my career, has made me hesitant to speak up, afraid that I will be misunderstood.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being different. It is an asset, but it is also exhausting. People naturally connect with those who resemble themselves, and if you are the different one, you may be overlooked. To participate at the same rate as your colleagues, you have to try harder. I once memorized all the soccer players on the Bayern München team just to join in on the conversations of my male colleagues. (Spoiler: It didn’t work.)

As a new professional, this situation can be frustrating. If you are misunderstood, you may struggle to get support as quickly as those who just “fit in.” This is especially true for people entering the tech industry where women and communities of color make up a very small portion of the workforce.

One of the biggest problems with diversity is attrition. If certain groups are experiencing pay gaps, slower career growth, or bias at work, it is more likely that they will depart. At the same time, tech is an industry riddled with growth opportunities — and if we want to make it more inclusive, we need diverse candidates.

For me, it has been a long journey — one that could have had a smoother beginning — but I no longer experience my differences as a burden. If you are also from a community that is underrepresented in tech and interested in joining the sector, I want to share with you what I’ve learned about how to leverage our differences as the assets they are and empower ourselves as workers in (or entering) the field.

Understand the value diversity.

What would you do with an egg carton, apart from transporting eggs? When I asked in a team meeting, one person told me that she could use the carton to hold her golf balls. I would have never come to that idea, as I do not play golf. Someone with kids said they could use the carton to build a crocodile puppet. Others said they would use it to hold jewelry, organize Legos, or plant small flowers.

Then the real magic began. We started combining our initial ideas to create something even more unique. What if we painted the carton to look like a crocodile and used it to store Legos? What if we built a beautiful jewelry box with a little plant in the corner?

My point is, people with different backgrounds come up with different ideas and ways to solve problems. When we work together, we can join forces, make new discoveries, and develop solutions we would have never thought of on our own. Particularly in a field driven by innovation, like tech, a big part of your job will likely involve continuously pitching new ideas. That’s why diversity of thought, experience, and background is so essential.

As a person from a community that is underrepresented in the field, you need to understand that being part of the team is an opportunity for you and for them. I recommend you educate yourself on the power of diversity — because your “difference” is ultimately your super power. As soon as you believe that, you can start using it. Understanding the value you carry, and the unique point of view you can bring into any particular environment, will help you pitch yourself for more opportunities and give you the confidence you need to raise your voice.

Join communities and groups externally.

Diversity comes in many forms, but whatever community you are part of, there are likely networks out there designed to support you in tech. Join them, be it virtually or in-person.

The more you participate, the more connections you will make — with allies, mentors, and people who may be able to refer you for jobs down the line.

Volunteering is a great way to get actively involved. When I wanted to refocus my career on Big Data, I found Women in Big Data, a grassroots organization that aims to connect women in the field. At the time I joined, they had made a name for themselves in Silicon Valley but were not yet active globally. I partnered with others in the group to organize events in Munich, London, Barcelona, Düsseldorf, and even Johannesburg. Through this volunteer work, I was able to meet other professionals in my area, learn, and become more visible in the job market. Some of them have become mentors and helped me better understand the industry and what my role in it is and can be.

If there is not a network you’re interested in currently, get proactive and start one. You can take advantage of our “virtual everything” world, and launch an online community, partner with others, and organize virtual events on apps like Eventbrite or Meetup.

Tech organizations often looking into these groups to find diverse candidates. Research which companies are doing that work, and target them as a potential employer.

Research if your potential employer empowers diversity.

Before applying for a role, check if the employer empowers diversity. How can you do that? Look at the website. Many companies have their values and mission statements published, and this includes their commitments to inclusion. Even simply Googling a company’s name, along with the word “diversity,” can teach you a lot. Do they have a problematic history? Are they involved in any DEI initiatives? What do their founders and senior employees look like?

I recently joined a tech company, and one of the critical criteria for me was how I would fit in as a foreigner and a female on a very technical team. I asked my hiring manager directly during the interview process, “How diverse is the team?” He responded by telling me how important diversity is to him as a leader, how he believes diverse teams generate the very best ideas, and how he looks actively for people with different backgrounds when considering job candidates. His answer was a deciding factor for me when considering whether to accept the position.

Another good question to ask a hiring manager or recruiter is, “Does your company have a mentoring program or employee resource groups (ERGs)?” ERGs are groups organized around a shared identity, such as race or gender, in which employees and their allies gather regularly to exchange their experiences and offer one another support.

The recruiter’s answer to this question will help you understand if the organization can offer you the support you need to thrive. It will also set you apart from your competition by showing that you are seriously thinking about what is important to you in a new role.

Join internal communities and groups.

What if you’ve already accepted a job offer? My suggestion in this case would be to get proactive as early as the onboarding process.

Look into ERGs or consider creating one yourself if none exist. In the second week of my most recent role, I joined one of the company’s affinity groups, and it fast-tracked my ability to build relationships with people outside of my team and better understand the company culture through different perspectives.

Making your own group may feel overwhelming as the “new person,” but you can start small. Reach out to others in your same situation. Your first few weeks in a role is a great time to invite your new team members to a quick virtual (or in-person) coffee. Use these opportunities to learn more about them and their experiences at work. You may discover that others have been thinking about creating a group themselves or find allies and confidants with whom you can share your stories and experiences with down the line.

Find a mentor.

While finding a mentor outside of your organization can help you understand the industry, internal mentors are key to navigating corporate culture and office politics, or the unwritten rules around what it takes to succeed.

If you feel like the “only” you on your team and are struggling to find peers who you can relate to, look for a senior colleague who you feel connected with in some way, and reach out to them to initiate a conversation. In my experience, this works best if that person isn’t your manager, but rather, is a member of another team or works in a different department. This distance is valuable because it will allow your mentor to view your situation from an outsider perspective, making it easier for them to offer unbiased advice — which is more difficult for someone in your direct reporting line — and, in turn, build a strong foundation of trust.

In your initial message, try to relate to your potential mentor in some way. Maybe you share a hobby, are alumni of the same university, or have similar cultural backgrounds. For example, in a previous role, I noticed that our new department head was, like me, from a region in Southern Europe. At the time, we were working out of an office in Germany, which is culturally very different than our respective home countries. I thought, “If this woman can land a leadership role despite those differences, then so can I.”

When I reached out to her, I mentioned that I was also “a southern European” and asked her to have a virtual coffee to get her insights about how to work more effectively in such a different culture. I was nervous when I hit the “send” button, but her response was positive and she actually ended up becoming my mentor for several years. Every three or four months, we would meet for an hour and chat. She taught me how see my differences as an advantage and how to thrive in that particular environment.

There have also been times when I’ve reached out to someone I admired and never heard a response or was turned down. If this happens to you too, remember that it’s common, especially if someone is in a position of power and has limited time.

Don’t give up. Keep knocking on different doors, because eventually one will open.

Be the driver of change.

Inclusion is critical for diversity. When there is inclusion in an organization, then diversity and equity can thrive. As an underrepresented person, remember it is never your job to make this happen — it is the job of the business itself. That said, you should never feel powerless. If and when you have the energy, there are steps you can take to help drive the change you want to see.

One of the most valuable things you can do is be a mentor. When I started in tech, I thought that I needed to be very experienced to hand out guidance. But I was wrong. Much of the practical advice I found most valuable was given to me by people who were just a year my senior and who could relate to me in the moment. Why couldn’t I do the same for others? Why can’t you?

Each step forward you take, you learn something. Share that with the person behind you. Just like you need allies and confidants, so do other underrepresented people in your organization. Support them in the same ways you wish to be supported. And if you are at a party, and you see that somebody, but not included in the conversation, approach them. It’ll make a huge difference, I promise.

This month, in honor of Black History month, InfoSystems continues to highlight statistics, remember historical events, and celebrate those that are fighting against injustice every day.


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