We Need to Talk About Being the “Only One” in the Room

It’s high time we started talking about the experiences of women of color in the tech industry (and how to navigate being underrepresented)

Author’s Note: When I first planned to write this article, George Floyd hadn’t been murdered. And the United States hadn’t begun the largest conversation that we’ve had about racial relations in America (more specifically racism towards Black people) in my lifetime. I’m encouraged that people are listening. The stories of Black people and people of color need to continue to be told.

Thank you for listening.

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What does it feel like when you’re the “only one” in the office?

When businesses get called out for poor word choices or campaigns I find myself asking, “Was there a person of color in the room?”

And it’s not just about policing yourselves or being politically correct. There are so many reasons that hiring women of color is a smart decision. Inclusion aside, a diverse team is more likely to grow. Companies with inherent (based on traits you’re born with) and acquired (gained from experiences) diversity are 45% more likely to report market share growth from the previous year and 70% more likely to capture a new market. (Harvard Business Review)

I spoke with Michele Heyward of Positive Hire, a company that connects women to tech companies. She points out that women of color, “solve problems you have never experienced by looking at data differently… based on their lived experiences.” By inviting women of color into more conversations you’re able to tap into varied life experiences, which can be especially helpful when they are more like your customer avatar than you are.

We hear so much about how hiring people of color is a win-win, but what does it actually mean to end up being the “only one” in the room?

If you’ve ever visited a tech office and walked through you’ll have noticed something: there are most likely a lot of men. Women make up 47% of the workforce but only hold 25% of computer-science related roles. And within that 25%, only 5% are Asian, 3% are Black, and 1% are Latinx.

To be clear, that means that Asian women hold less than 1.25% of the total computer-science related jobs, Black women hold less than 0.75%, and Latinx women hold less than 0.25%.

It’s no secret that tech employees are mostly white, cis, males — but what sometimes is secret is how this reality actually feels for women of color who account for these meager statistics.

What does it feel like to be the “only one” in the room?

If you are a woman of color working in tech or looking to get started, then you know: there is no singular, defining experience. Being the “only one” on the team can play out in a lot of different ways.

When I asked Heyward, “Have you experienced being the only woman of color on a tech team?” she chuckled and responded quickly, “When haven’t I been the only one on a tech team?”

And it’s not just about being the only woman of color on the team. Often women of color are also the only woman on the team. In her near 20-year career, Heyward has been the “only one” in the room, “even when working in divisions with thousands of people.” As an engineer, running into other women wasn’t common and running into other women of color was sometimes unheard of.

I also spoke with Product Manager Rebecca Garcia and E-Discovery Consultant Awnya Creque. In Garcia’s eight years of experience she’s grown familiar with being the only woman of color on the team, and Creque, with six years of experience, has too. Garcia also agreed with the frequency of seeing other women in a tech environment. As a product manager she was often the only woman on the team but knew of “five or six other women out of a team of 80.”

For the women I spoke with, being the only woman of color in the room wasn’t all bad. Heyward noted that it helped her learn how to speak up for herself instead of letting problematic situations fester. It’s been the key to her maintaining good working relationships, and she’s also grown into a resource on “how to handle tough conversations” for fellow women of color on her job.

Of course it can also be extremely difficult at times. Heyward has experienced everything from finding private email conversations where she’s labeled as aggressive, to being pushed out of engineering roles. She also noticed “men getting promoted on potential where [she] would have to get promoted on proof.” Some of her superiors even discouraged her from senior-level engineering roles by encouraging her to transfer to internal HR positions because of her “good communication skills.”

For Creque, being the only woman of color on a tech team has had more of an effect on her office relationships. Even when her teammates have been inclusive, she’s noticed that when something happens in the news it’s clear that her colleagues “don’t know what to say or how to say it.”

When you spend your whole day constraining your reactions to what’s on the news or microaggressions from coworkers, it can make it easier if you just put your head down and do the work. In my experience, this could mean going missing from all the late-night hangs, not joining the Gilmore Girls group chat, and not putting yourself into awkward social situations that don’t directly affect work.

The end of the work day is freeing when you spend most of the day making yourself smaller to make people comfortable.

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What you wish you could say to your coworkers about being a woman of color in tech

There’s no “one and done” solution to making women of color feel safe at work

Something a lot of people are learning now is that “Black” is not the same thing as “person of color.” So there’s not one fix to building an inclusive team for Black women that’s also going to work perfectly for Latina women, Indigenous women, Asian women, etc.

For one, it’s important to spend time learning anti-racism so that you know the issues different types of women of color are actually facing instead of attempting to impose your own solutions.

Creque recalls working at a startup that was attempting to diversify. Their first step was creating Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Garcia also worked at a startup that attempted to diversify after a big funding round. Their solution was to hire more entry-level employees of color.

The problem with both of these solutions? Diversity has to start with representation at the top. New initiatives and processes are always a little wobbly, and without buy-in from senior management it’s easier for an initiative to fail at delivering the desired results.

When it comes to building an inclusive company culture this is even more true. Diversity is important at the top, but some disagree with what kind of diversity is necessary for an inclusive culture. Is “diversity of thought” enough? Does it work just having anti-racists in seats of leadership making decisions, or does diversity have to look like representation?

Which type of diversity needs to come first is up for debate. Regardless, everyone I spoke with agreed that the answer is both. And I completely agree — if a company grows without continuing to incorporate women of color into the leadership (and later throughout the company), women of color already on the team are only going to feel more alone and question whether or not their voices are heard at the top. And it’s also going to discourage new women of color from joining the team.

Sometimes you’re the first one in your family

Sometimes you’re not just the “only one” in the room at work, you’re also the only one in your family to work a tech job. When you’re the first one in your family, you could find yourself with more financial responsibilities than your coworkers, but often it just means you have to navigate more on your own. You don’t have a long list of people you can go to to help you develop your career path, figure out what is and isn’t wrong, and aren’t discouraged from doing things like taking out a mountain of student loan debt.

It means balancing wanting to be good at your job yet being unsure if you even deserve to have the job (especially as a non-traditional student who doesn’t hold a four-year computer science degree) without having someone you know for sure has your best interests at heart to rely on.

Early on in her career, Garcia had a mentor tell her, “You don’t need to know everything.” She walked into a new job with the feeling that work was like school and she was going to get a passing or a failing grade everyday. When she learned that just wasn’t true she allowed herself to try things and ask for help instead of sitting in the corner and beating herself up.

How much you grit your teeth when you hear the phrases “it’s a pipeline problem” or “not a culture fit”

In the context of hiring, a “pipeline” refers to the flow of new engineers finishing their academic studies and entering the tech field. Proponents of the pipeline problem say there are not enough women, and therefore not enough women of color, entering into tech.

If it really was a pipeline problem, most of the women of color with computer science degrees would be working in tech. In reality, only 38% of women with computer science degrees actually have technical jobs. Recruiters don’t always source from diverse talent pools and end up cycling through more “traditional” candidates.

And when it comes to candidates not being “a culture fit,” the issue is not with the candidates. It’s with the environment. Heyward insists that instead of molding yourself to fit in with the tech environment you should “feel like you are a culture add.” Women of color have unique points of view, experience, and background, which means they can add richness to the team. They shouldn’t be excluded because they don’t understand your Friends references or you don’t think you’d like to hang out with them at a bar after work (after the pandemic!).

If you find that everyone applying for your open positions are white, it’s not because there aren’t qualified women of color for the role, it’s that you don’t appear welcome to diversity. Women of color sense that and don’t want to engage in what may be an unsafe environment.

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What you should know about getting a job and staying in tech as a woman of color

Get a mentor or an ally, stat!

Having a mentor or an experienced ally is helpful for navigating any new job, but is almost necessary for women of color who enter teams as the “only one” and want to be successful.

The key to a great mentor is simple: find someone who is experienced working in your new environment. And that mentor may not look like you. Garcia and Heyward said the old guard, cis, white males, helped them navigate life in tech. Their mentors helped give them a different perspective on situations and approach solutions in ways that allowed them to be more assertive. This didn’t always feel natural, but these relationships contributed to their continued success and longevity in tech.

Though some companies do have mentor matching programs, many long term mentor/mentee relationships are formed organically with the mentee reaching out for advice. In other words, you can find your own mentor by asking experienced people in your field for help and building a relationship.

Make sure the company you choose is the right fit for you

When you’ve been job hunting for a while, it can be tempting to accept an offer from the very first employer who says yes, no matter who they are. However, the job hunting process is not a one-way street. As much as an employer is making sure you’re qualified and are a fit, you have to make sure that the team is right for you.

1. Verify that the job posting is inclusive and shared on diverse channels

When applying to jobs, you can decide to trust your gut, or you can use tech tools to make sure a job posting is actually inclusive.

Tools like Joblint make sure that job postings are inclusive. Job lint scans job postings to make sure descriptions are free of “issues with sexism, culture, expectations, and recruiter fails.” It scans for words like “guru”, “ninja”, and “bro” as well as phrases like “hit the ground running.”

Job Lint screenshot

One tip to find companies that value diversity is to use job boards that do the same, like Tech Ladies and Diversify Tech.

2. Ask the right questions

In the era of the Coronavirus pandemic, how companies treat their employees has been more and more important. The pandemic has given us a new baseline for rating how companies value their staff and what is and is not acceptable.

When interviewing, ask “How did your company respond to and treat employees following the outbreak of coronavirus?”

A company that brashly fired employees seems less likely to be supportive on a day-to-day level. However, a company that provided robust severance packages and new job assistance to laid-off employees seems more likely to support new employees.

3. For Black women and allies of Black women (and men), the questions need to go even deeper

For example, how did the company internally respond to George Floyd’s murder? Ask questions like:

  • Did you address the situation?
  • Did you ignore it?
  • Did you give or suggest Black employees take mental health days or provide access to counseling?

In the week after his murder, did the company make a public response to George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed? Ask questions like:

  • What kind of response did you make?
  • Did you address what happened?
  • Did you address the longstanding history of dehumanizing Black people in America?

More importantly, what kind of action did the company take? Ask questions like:

  • Did you donate to civil rights organizations or bail funds?
  • Have you made calls to politicians encouraging them to take the necessary steps to start fixing what is broken?

And once this period of time has passed, you can consider asking in interviews:
What do you continue to do as a company to educate your staff on anti-racism and support organizations dedicated to ending police brutality against Black people?

A company’s response, or lack of response, to questions like these is going to be very impactful now that the US (and the world) have “woken up” to the continued repression and injustices against Black women and men.

For women of color entering new work environments, knowing that a company respects and protects the lives of vulnerable people will help indicate how they can expect to be treated.

As a current employee, if you feel your company is not doing enough to support Black employees or your Black audience, you can write a letter to your employer holding them accountable for racial injustice and how it’s approached internally and externally.

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How can allies support women of color in tech?

Women of color didn’t create the problem here, and it isn’t on women of color to fix it. White allies need to step up and take responsibility for making others feel safe and supported at work.

If you’re on a team that doesn’t feel diverse, ask hiring managers about plans to recruit women of color

Something as simple as setting up a meeting with your HR manager can help you, as a woman of color or not, advocate for continuing to diversify the company. Creque says at her company, all employees are expected to help informally recruit new team members as they rarely post “open applications.” Knowing what tactics and strategies are used can let you know where to start helping.

You can challenge the “pipeline issue” by sharing open positions and advocating for hiring women of color in your community.

Always encourage diversity to start from the top. If the C-Suite is very one note, it’s going to be hard to recruit and hold on to women of color who may not feel their points of view are always valued.

Don’t expect your diverse coworkers to do all the work for you

A lot of Black women are very vocal about the injustices that are going on, and we’re sharing all of the hurt we’ve held onto most of our lives. But that doesn’t mean we want to be an encyclopedia of the Black experience for our coworkers. Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian women also don’t want to explain why Thing X is offensive or why your perspective on Thing Y is shortsighted — when Google is free.

In asking women of color to recount their stories of racism and discrimination, you are reintroducing trauma. So take a second to ask yourself — “Is there another way I can get this question answered?” — before asking a woman of color to tell you about a time she faced discrimination.

If a woman of color offers her experience or shares her story with you, be appreciative but don’t expect her to do everything. There is an abundance of resources on anti-racism and how we can support women of color in the workplace. Rachel Rodgers has an extensive breakdown of how to systematically approach creating diversity in your business, and there are a range of courses, master classes, books to read, and experts to follow. We posted a few ideas for how to start combating racism on the Skillcrush blog recently.

Finally, make it about the numbers

Companies with more diverse staff (especially C-Suites) are more likely to report growth. If you’re an executive and find that you’re solving big problems quickly, it could be because you aren’t taking all points of view into consideration.

And if you find that you’re frequently having to defend your solutions externally or to non-executive staff, it’s probably because you need a new voice in the room.

So that there’s not someone on the receiving end of a campaign asking, “Was there a person of color in the room?”

📌 Related: 5 Immediate Actions You Can Take to Support Black Lives (And What We’re Doing Now)

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Adda Birnir

Adda Birnir is the founder and CEO of Skillcrush. She was named one of 20 Women to Watch in technology by the Columbia Journalism Review, has been featured by Fast Company and the BBC, and serves as a member of the New York City Workforce Development Board. Adda is a graduate of Yale and lives in Queens with her husband and two sons.