How white women in tech can harness their privilege to help create diversity
For starters, focusing on “women” as a category is reductionist and counterproductive.
This article originally appeared in Recode on March 6, 2017.
We hear about the dearth of women in technology now more than ever. But the truth is that focusing on “women” as a category is reductionist and counterproductive, and overlooks an important fact: White women have privileges not afforded to their sisters of color that significantly impact their ability to get hired, thrive while there and rise in the ranks in greater numbers. Consider that only about 10 percent of Fortune’s list of the world’s most powerful women are women of color (despite women of color making up more than 35 percent of the U.S. workforce). If this challenge is just about gender, wouldn’t we see more nonwhite women on this list?
Take me, for example. I’m mixed race, but I look undeniably white. The privilege of looking a certain way made my path much smoother than if I had darker skin: I have never been mistaken for the custodial staff at work. My colleagues have never repeatedly confused me for the other woman of color on my team/in my department/at my company. I can look at lists of the most powerful women in business and see many people who look like me. But here’s a great thing about privilege, which Alan Jones, a friend and Aussie venture capitalist, taught me: It becomes an infinite resource only when shared. So, I ask all the white women reading this — what are you doing to share your privilege?
Women helping women: Not always easy, but necessary
Before we get into what you can do, it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a good chance that this notion feels counterintuitive or uncomfortable to you. For starters, you might not realize you even have the power to help other women: 65 percent of leadership roles at top tech companies are held by white men, which can make women feel disempowered to effect organizational change — regardless of race. Research also shows that when we perceive there is only room for one “minority,” we fear that helping others can hurt our own professional trajectory. That means we’re incentivized to compete, not collaborate.
But the benefits of white women using privilege to bolster the role of other women far outweigh the risks. Not only is serving as an ally for other women the right thing, but it has numerous other benefits: Diverse teams consistently outperform homogeneous groups, and supporting women of color increases the pool of available technical talent, which already is under strain.
If you’re a white woman, here’s how to become a part of the solution. (And if you’re not, consider whether you are able-bodied, documented, middle- or upper-class, speaking English as a first language, etc., and replace your privileged identity with “white” and “women” below.)
Examine and identify your privileges: The first step to successful allyship is to understand how your identity has impacted the opportunities that have been presented to you. For instance, challenge yourself to make a list of how changing one of your identities (like being black versus white, or in your 50s instead of 20s) might impact your personal and professional experiences and how others interact with you. Jason Ford did this to great effect in a recent Medium post, describing how his privileges helped make him the successful entrepreneur he is today. Chances are, being honest with yourself will breed empathy and put you in a much better position to be an ally. This brings me to my second suggestion.
Practice continuing education: If you work at a larger startup or technology company, chances are there are employee resource groups (ERGs) at your disposal. Consider joining one so you can learn about and participate in discussions about experiences and identities different from your own, and practice listening to other viewpoints with an open mind.
There are also some very simple things you can do on a daily basis to continue learning. For instance, rebalancing who you follow on Twitter can bring different voices into your worldview (feel free to email me for recommendations). Similarly, for every LinkedIn invite you get from someone similar to you, find someone else outside of your usual network to connect with.
Be a voice and shine a light on other women: Apply the things you learn to help your teammates and bolster their position in the workplace. If you’re in a management role, this might mean making a concerted effort to call upon a variety of people in meetings. And if you’re not a leader but see a woman of color being called “aggressive” or overlooked, pull that person aside and help them address the behavior. Chances are they don’t even know if they’re doing it. Heck, they might even thank you.
While individual steps are great, in some cases it could make sense to purposefully band together with others — for instance, in the case of work cultures where bias against women and women of color is especially ingrained. There’s a fascinating story about the struggles of women in Obama’s administration in the early days. After recognizing they were being overlooked in meetings (if they were invited at all), they got together and came up with a brilliant strategy. From a 2009 story in the Washington Post:
Female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.
The outcome? People noticed, and men began to call on women in the administration more often. The lesson here is that shining a light on other women will not make you weaker or diminish your own chances for success, but will make all your female teammates collectively stronger.
Women will be underrepresented in tech in the short term; we’re more than 100 years away from gender parity in the C-suite. To make the progress we want to see, white women must also be a part of the change by recognizing their privilege and listening, learning and acting with intentional sharing of that privilege for the good of everyone. Together, we can ensure there is a voice for every type of woman in this industry, not just the most advantaged among us.
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