We’re told that role models are a powerful tool to help minority groups enter underrepresented spaces, and the same can be said for women role models in technology. Larissa Suzuki, Technical Director at Google Cloud and winner of the Woman of the Year award at the Women in IT Awards UK 2022, is one such role model.
Here, she speaks to DiversityQ ahead of her appearance at the upcoming Women in IT Summit UK about her journey into STEM and the challenges she has experienced, her role as a mentor to other women, the value of diversity in tech, and much more.
Why are you so passionate about advocating for the power of difference in tech?
One of the things that we cannot forget is how all the great technologies surrounding us, like the computer, internet and wifi, voice capabilities and the code behind them all were not solely invented by one type of person.
My passion comes from the fact that diversity creates stronger, more resilient technologies, which, as a society, helps us to realise that together we can achieve remarkable things, but, working alone, we won’t get very far.
Can you tell me about when you decided that you wanted to enter the STEM world and what first step you took?
Growing up, my parents wanted me to become a musician, but I’ve always loved engineering. When I was a child, I would take my toys apart to understand the mechanics inside of them! It’s probably the main reason why I only received clothes as presents from the age of about eight onwards!
I studied music at university but dropped out to study computer science instead. Unlike my dad, who was a civil engineer and was very passionate about structures that couldn’t move, I was very focused on moving parts and getting them to do what I wanted – bringing technology into this mix just felt natural to me.
As soon as I switched to focus my studies on engineering, I immediately felt more comfortable and happy – and have been happy in my profession ever since!
What value does/can cognitive diversity bring to tech workforces?
I find it important to remember that we each have a different way of thinking and can offer a unique perspective on any project or product development.
At Google Cloud, we create solutions that impact many people across the globe. Therefore, it is so important to hear from as many different and new perspectives as possible to ensure that what we create is beneficial to everyone.
Ensuring that we have a diverse workforce allows us to hear from different experiences and these experiences bring about new ideas and innovations that can then help people. A diverse team is like having a perfect puzzle that brings everyone together to create something beautiful and successful.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your tech career to date, and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge for me is learning how to be comfortable in my own skin and own my passion, fighting for the values that I think are worthwhile. Becoming confident and empowered to take control is something that took me years, and I see a lot of women going through the same experience nowadays where they’re questioning whether or not they “fit” into the industry.
But I truly think that fighting for the future you want to see is extremely powerful, so even when I question myself some days, I know that I am doing the right thing!
During your time studying your academic degrees and programmes in STEM, was the environment gender-inclusive? Did you face any challenges based on your identity? Is changing for the better in STEM academia today?
I have, unfortunately, experienced challenges during my time in academia. For example, I once shared a large piece of coursework with a male student in my class as he wanted to understand how to prepare the work. He wasn’t a particularly good student, and I was the only woman in a class of 40 other students. He plagiarised my work exactly, and we both submitted the same piece of coursework – yet I was the only one who was questioned, “where did you get the work from?” by the professor!
This culture of underestimating the work that women can deliver can be debilitating to those who put time and effort into their academic studies and careers – and it really has to change. I can’t speak much about the experience of students at the moment, but I do hear, through my mentees, similar stories like mine.
I do believe that faculty members at all levels of education have to take the time to understand and recognise general bias and their own unconscious bias. This is why diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training is so important, not just in education but also across all work industries.
We are often told that the visibility of role models is essential to inspire underrepresented groups to succeed in certain sectors. In tech, what responsibility do existing women leaders have to help stimulate the women tech talent pipeline? What should they be doing?
One of my favourite quotes is, “you cannot be what you cannot see” (Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund), and it is so true. It is difficult for underrepresented groups to see themselves as CEOs, CTOs, CFOs, etc., if we don’t have many role models in those leadership roles. For many businesses, that currently is not the case, so I encourage those in leadership roles to take the time to become an ally for underrepresented groups and drive change for the future.
But, we all must support each other. We need to lift and help one another – whether through a mentorship programme or as a manager – to ensure that we continue to grow the number of underrepresented groups in leadership roles.
Have you ever experienced impostor syndrome in your career? If so, how did you deal with it?
Imposter Syndrome is one of my closest friends! I deal with it most days!
Much of this comes back to learning to be comfortable in my own skin and rise above those intrusive thoughts we sometimes have. I follow a mantra which revolves around the word THINK, and I challenge myself by asking, ‘is this thought true?’, ‘is it helpful?’, ‘is it insightful?’, ‘is it necessary?’ and, most importantly, ‘is it kind?’
Adopting this strategy has helped me silence those moments of impostor syndrome and is something that I recommend to everyone trying to overcome those moments of doubt.
In your opinion, what are the best ways for women in tech to build resilient and effective communities today?
By not underestimating the power of sisterhood, to be there for one another and lift one another. When one of us wins, it is a win for everyone!
But also tap into the power of allyship and lean on allies who want to help women and other underrepresented groups move forward. Continue to incentivise and encourage these communities, so underrepresented groups choose to start and stay within this industry.
You’ve mentored over 400 women in your career. Can you give us three tips for being an effective mentor to women in this space?
1. Learn how to listen and remember that the challenges of others might not be a known challenge to you.
2. Build empathy and understand that everyone is built by different experiences and comes from different walks of life.
3. Create cause for action. Gather examples in a document that you and your mentee can use to show their development and progression, and be sure to celebrate the successes no matter how big or small!
You won the iconic Woman of the Year award at the recent Women in IT Awards UK 2022; what made your submission stand out to the judges, and why are events such as these important for women in your sector?
You know what? I’m not entirely sure! One of my amazing Google Cloud colleagues nominated me, so I wasn’t able to see my nomination.
Maybe it was something to do with the fact that my experiences come from a place of being a woman in an industry dominated by men, as well as being neurodiverse [Larissa is diagnosed as autistic], and I am very open about the impact these experiences have had on me.
Through my blog and other endeavours, I try to be a voice for underrepresented groups across the technology industry and use my voice whenever possible to highlight the impact that race, gender, neurodiversity, and age, can have on someone’s career.
That’s why events like the Women in IT Awards are so important, as it highlights the sheer number of women that actually exist within the industry – and it’s only growing!
Catch Larissa at the upcoming Women in IT Summit UK on 19th May 2022. Click here to book your place.