What I’ve learned on the way to the C-Suite (as a Black woman in tech)

Sharon Harris, Global Chief Marketing Officer at marketing firm Jellyfish, opens up about her journey up the corporate ladder in tech

I will happily admit it — I’m proud of where I am. Only a small fraction of tech executives are women, and of those, only a minuscule amount are Black.

I share more than just a first name with Sharon Prior, another Black and female tech executive – I share her reality. In an interview with TechMonitor, Prior explained that “As a Black woman, I’ve got two things against me before I’ve even got my foot in the door.”

If you haven’t lived that experience, it can be tough to describe how it feels – how it can be responsible for equal parts determination and frustration. In the U.S., around 25% of technology jobs are held by women, and only 3% are held by Black women.

As you might imagine, that ratio only worsens the higher you move up the corporate ladder. Far less than 1% of C-suite positions are occupied by women of colour. And, regardless of where they are in the hierarchy, women are still 100% more likely than men to quit their jobs in tech companies.

It’s not that society isn’t making progress toward gender and racial equality because it certainly is. Unfortunately, however, many organisations unintentionally operate as echo chambers, creating a series of self-fulfilling prophecies about women (and especially women of colour).

“If women want to be here, why aren’t they here?”

Partly because the boy’s club culture is making them quit at twice the rate of their male colleagues.

“Women are just here to fill diversity quotas, not to really contribute.”

If that were true, it would only be because those who do have great ideas are continually being interrupted and silenced.

“There’s just not a big enough pool of women candidates.”

Probably because it takes an extraordinary amount of ambition and courage to set your sights on an area where so few people who look like you are finding success. I don’t mean to give a pass to other industries, either, but technology, in particular, is suffering from this kind of flawed logic – and it happens to be the field I call home.

Experience Trumps Data  

There are plenty more statistics out there worth highlighting, but the more poignant discussion to be had surrounds the experiences of women themselves. How do we beat the odds? When women like myself and Sharon Prior manage to rise to the top, how do we leverage our positions to disrupt current thinking? What encouragement can we offer our sisters in the ranks or those who want to be future disruptors themselves? Here are some lessons I’ve learned that are worth passing on:

Balance your focus between people and skills.

It’s obvious that jobs in tech – especially senior positions – require certain skills that can’t be glossed over. You don’t need to be a computing genius (I’m certainly not one), but you do need enough knowledge to be productive in the role you want. Skills are only one piece of the puzzle, though. You also need champions – people who are willing to go to bat for you and throw your name in the ring for projects or promotions.

Finding those people takes patience. My advice is to show gratitude, positivity, and persistence wherever you go and to treat every relationship as one that could blossom into the opportunity of a lifetime. It also takes a thick skin because even with those qualities, you may be let down repeatedly. Statistically speaking, any mentorship you receive is very likely to come from someone who does not look like you, so expecting the unexpected is a big advantage.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if the people around you truly understand you or where you come from. What does matter is that they clearly see the value you bring to the table – not just what’s on your resume, but your integrity, authenticity, and grit.

Look for opportunities on the edge.

In a sense, all tech jobs for women of colour are “on the edge.” Don’t be afraid to take it a step further and scout for areas where there is ‘no one who’s like you’, whether that’s a company, a committee, a club, or any other kind of social network. Pessimistically, yes, this may mean that there are additional roadblocks you’ll encounter on the way in. But, on the other hand, it’s an indicator that you may be in a unique position to contribute.

Amazon famously uses an “empty chair” policy to acknowledge the customer’s importance, but how many companies also have an empty chair for the unrepresented groups at the table? We can keep pushing that ideal at the societal level, but as individuals, the best-case scenario is literally filling that seat – in person.

I love to use the example of Google sheepishly realising it had designed the YouTube uploading app for iOS in a way that led left-handed users to upload content upside-down. The simple reason for the flaw was that the development team was made up almost exclusively of right-handed engineers. Google may have learned its lesson, but plenty of organizations haven’t, and they continue to pursue business goals in a way that ignores the experience of anyone who lacks a voice in the room. The takeaway here is that while underrepresentation of women of colour in tech may hinder them from getting in the door, it can be leveraged as a source of value once they do.

Finally, don’t give up.

Yes, this is a cliche, but cliches, by definition, include the most useful pieces of wisdom that humans have compiled throughout history. Given time, even a tiny stream will erode a giant rock. Divert the stream away from the rock, though, and you’ll never get to see its true power.

The people, attitudes, and culture that dominate the tech industry today are like that rock, and it’s important to recognise that in more ways than one: they aren’t the way they are intentionally. They are the result of historical processes that began aeons ago. Slowly but surely, however, they are eroding. And we are the stream.

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