One of the few girls in the room: How do we accelerate equality in tech?

I’ve been wanting to write on the topic of gender for a long time now, but haven’t been able to find the words. And admittedly, I’m still trying to find my position in all this. It’s a tricky subject for me to navigate: on one hand, sharing challenges might paint me as weak, a victim, or a radical feminist (even the word “feminist” seems to have a negative connotation). But on the other hand, not talking about the challenges – or even sharing positive experiences – can mean that I don’t recognize the real struggle and don’t support other women.

I’m sure I’m not the only woman who feels this way.

Most of my life, I have been one of the few girls in the room. I was my grandparents’ only granddaughter, growing up with my brother and three male cousins. For me then, being the only girl was a badge of honor. I gravitated toward STEM as a child, which led me to pursue degrees in engineering. I moved to the SF Bay Area where the ratio of men to women is 121:100, entered the entrepreneurial world, and then joined VC.

Throughout this time, I never thought about how being a woman could be a barrier. I let my work speak for itself. And while my experiences have been far from perfect, they thankfully, have been far from awful.

I know this is not the case for everyone. Like you, I’ve read the stories. And like you, I want to work at making sure that everyone is judged on his/her merit. That no one feels discouraged or intimidated to pursue a certain career path. That no one stops speaking because they feel their voice has been ignored one too many times.

I know we have a lot of conscious and subconscious biases in the workplace and society at large. We still have a lot of work to do to get to gender equality, but I am optimistic that we are moving in the right direction. The discussion that I’d like to have today is how we can get to the right place faster.

Last week, I attended a Women in Tech night. This event was special in that it was the first Women in Tech night that I’ve attended where men were included in the room and where we talked about actions we all can take to make the tech world more inclusive. The experiences shared were powerful, as were the compassionate, positive, and action-oriented responses that filled the room that night. The nature of Women in Tech nights means that we keep all stories and anecdotes confidential. But, I can share some of the high level points…

Building yourself up: negotiate, build your network, and don’t be naive

Yes, there are many factors contributing to gender inequity in the workplace. However, women often don’t get what they deserve because they never ask for it. Studies have shown that women are less likely than men to negotiate for what they want. And unfortunately, it’s not enough to just put your head down, work hard, and expect to be rewarded. You need to advocate for yourself.  

Some of the best advice I have ever received in this area is to build a case for myself. Dedicate a couple of minutes at the end of each week to compile a list of all the things you have done and the impact you have made. This will give you the confidence you need to negotiate. If you’re uncomfortable talking about yourself, you can always lean on these facts.

Also remember that you don’t have to go it alone. I am fortunate enough to have an incredible group of people surrounding me. Who’s in your network? Are they positive influences? Do they elevate you? Are there people you can trust to stick by you when the going gets tough? Who are your best advocates and who can help you fight the good fight when you feel mistreated? It’s important to build your network (your foundation) so they can help lift you up.

My last piece of advice around building yourself up is to not be naïve. I know, this is an incredibly controversial thing to say, because I am putting the onus on women to protect ourselves from being mistreated or discriminated against. However, at this stage, I see this to be an important solution. For example, I have a rule not to hear pitches after 5 pm over drinks because I don’t want it to be misconstrued as anything more than business. Maybe I’ll miss a deal or two, but I don’t think there’s anything that can’t be done during business hours. Similarly, I know other women have rules like “don’t ever serve the coffee.”

Feel free to stay true to yourself, but be aware that we still live and work in a world where we have to take charge of where we are and what is happening around us.

Bringing others up: making our voices heard

Have you ever been in this situation? You make a pretty good comment in a meeting or on Slack; you’re ignored. Five minutes later, someone else makes the same comment and the whole room thinks it’s the greatest idea. If you’re a woman working in a male-dominated field, I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about.

To help ensure that their voices are heard, female staffers in Obama’s White House adopted a practice called amplification. From The Washington Post: “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.

Amplification is a great example where women can band together to improve the condition for everyone. We can’t bring about meaningful change on our own; we need to advocate for others.

It’s important to speak out and reach out when you see someone being mistreated, disrespected, or discriminated against in the workplace. Sometimes, just a small gesture as letting your colleague know that you saw what happened and understand how they must feel can mean the world of difference. Empowerment wanes when someone hurting wonders if they are just “imagining things” and don’t have the backing of others.

Championing for the future

We’ve made tremendous strides over generations, but it will still take time. My grandmother, who was one of the few women who went to university before the Chinese revolution, inspired my mother. And my mother, who was a refugee of the Vietnam war and worked everyday of her life when she set foot on Canadian soil for 35 years, inspired me. And likewise, we need to set the example for the young women of the future.

What can you do? Tell young girls that they are smart. Compliment them on their accomplishments and not just their appearance. Reiterate that they are capable of anything. Encourage girls to pursue STEM, as well as embrace their creative side, which is why I’m super excited to see initiatives like Canada Can Code. Lastly, we need to empower our girls with tips on how they can advocate for themselves and others.

We need to keep paying it forward. As my “champions” did this for me, I hope to be a champion for my nieces, Cassidy, Katelyn, Cayley and Charlotte. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I am optimistic we can get there.


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