Brave the Ask: Courage, Diversity and Equal Representation in Tech

November 7, 2017 Benevity, Inc

Two of Benevity's resident, self-aware tech talents reconvene to discuss their experience in the industry

At Benevity, we encourage our team to be bold, and the bravery required to do so doesn't escape us. Rosemary Sanchez, a People Leader for the Web Software Development team and Bailey Copithorne, a User Experience Designer, share their individual (and sometimes surprisingly similar) experiences as women in the technology sector.

The following is the continuation of the question-fueled repartee between two of Benevity’s best and brightest. They continue to prove bold enough to "brave the ask" (and what’s more? To share their answers).

You're affiliated with Operation Minerva, a job-shadowing experience for Grade 8 girls. Why was this important to you?

I have a distinct memory of being 13, wearing overalls while playing carelessly in the mud. This contrasts sharply with what I see more and more of today in adulthood. In the case of girls, sexuality is introduced both subtly and explicitly into clothing and expected behavior. Even toys polarize the cute and pretty with the functional and experimental. It’s a real issue for me that young ladies are force-fed these tokens of marketing so strongly at a time in their lives when they should be able to blue-sky formulate their own identity. Operation Minerva was important to me as a vehicle to level the playing field—to show that technology wasn’t a place just for boys. To show that if you feel creative and enjoy solving problems, there is a place for you.

In general, I think it’s incredibly important to support and empower one another, no matter their age or circumstance. That said, these particular youth represent a vast global community of individuals who have the possibility to contribute to and heavily influence the future of our species. I’m more than happy to help facilitate their growth by breaking down barriers to them reaching or even realizing their full potential. I want them to feel invited and comfortable to set and chase goals. My ultimate goal is for the young women to gain new perspective and insight into potential career opportunities and a confidence in who they are as individuals of value outside of how society may have pigeonholed them.

Last year you introduced the Brave Jar at Operation Minerva, can you tell us a little about that?

Well, for starters, it was initially called the Fear Jar, which says something in itself…

 

Haha, true. Regardless, it was all Bailey’s idea, but I was on board with it from the start—especially knowing firsthand how introverts appreciate the opportunity to take time to think about and put things in writing. Also, anonymity is a pretty good antidote for nerves and the fear of vulnerability.

Well, the idea came to me when I was asked to speak to a group of Design Students at ACAD about my experience in the working world. For me, my personal story didn’t seem that interesting. I didn’t know how best to filter my information for them and opted to shift the focus back to them—their lives, experiences and fears. I had students write down a statement or question, anything they were afraid of or didn’t feel confident in doing at school or work and submit it anonymously in a jar that we called “The Fear Jar.” We would then pull from the jar to spark a discussion as a group. This same principle translated really well later at Geeky Summit where we had a Brave Wall, instead. In general, because of this format, the things that get written down are more complex and personal than a Google search query.

Were you surprised by the outcomes of this exercise?

Going into it, I really thought that all of the questions going into the jar would be topics specific to women in technology being a minority. I was also surprised to find a lot of the Brave Jar questions weren’t specific to tech, but were instead about finding passion for a career and how to handle and navigate interpersonal dynamics. Some of these questions about careers and passion in general, as well as how to fit in (or stand out), are questions that I still struggle with at this stage of my career.

I agree, the topics surfaced by the Jar were more broad and varied than I would have guessed. But I think to a degree, I expected the unexpected. Because humans are unpredictable.

Were there questions or topics that you found particularly challenging to address?

Adding to Rosemary’s thoughts, there were some issues and questions raised through this exercise that I identify with—that I struggle with myself—making it hard for me to feel confident in helping others. While each of the Jar submissions were on some level relatable, two in particular resonated with me in a way that I could have written myself. The most relatable was an individual who was brave enough to admit that she was afraid of “failing and being judged.”

I found myself wishing for a time machine so that 14-year-old me could hear not only the strength of the women in the room with me, but my own reassuring and encouraging voice.

I agree. I also found that I had to try to answer questions in a way that inspired the young ladies without discouraging them. This was mostly about framing my own difficulties and struggles differently than I might have wanted to. But this was helpful for myself to hear, as well. As I heard the questions being answered by myself and my peers, I found myself wishing for a time machine so that 14-year-old me could hear not only the strength of the women in the room with me, but my own reassuring and encouraging voice.

That’s true. And, honestly, I think the fear of failure is a necessary tool that allows us to grow as individuals in general, but especially in our craft. By nature, our work allows us to fail quickly and often, so that we can learn. Embracing failure throughout the process often leads to a better end-result. If we were perfect in everything we did, we’d learn nothing. And where’s the fun in that? Where’s the innovation?

What does your perfect vision of the tech industry look like with inclusion and equality in mind?

Honestly, it’s not different from my vision for all industries. I hope to see a day come when all individuals have an equal chance at any role they set their sights on. I want to live in a world where chosen candidates are hired because they are the most qualified and the best fit regardless of anything superficial. Yes, that includes gender, but also looks, race, perceived disabilities, and so much more.

Yeah. Similarly, I try to be careful about how and when I say that I support women in technology. It’s not like I have a vision of just females in tech, but rather that I want everyone to work in tech because I appreciate everyone’s unique strengths and perceptions when working as a team to build something great or solve difficult problems. The more diverse the pool of knowledge, the stronger the solution will be. Unfortunately, unconscious gender biases that discourage women from even attempting to enter technology persist in a big way. Because of this, gender equality is still top of mind for anyone fighting for inclusion and diversity across the board.

On the other hand, I recall a real-life situation in which a male candidate was given an interview opportunity specifically because his name was perceived to be female, just so we could “get another female in tech.” It’s a great disservice to the industry that we continue to see gender more prominently than skill and potential. It fosters a sense of doubt within women who are hired and promoted—causes them to wonder if they truly earned it or if it was just granted because of optics.

It’s also our responsibility to be accountable for our influence on the world that we are helping create, especially on occasions like the one Rosemary described. We are accountable for the life and career opportunities we create for each other, and for future generations to come. Being a person gives me the right to contribute my ideas, passion and accountability to a team, and be part of the change that is inevitable in the technology industry. Instead of questioning something like what gender an applicant might identify as, we need to focus more on questions like “will this job help you advance towards your career goals?” or “is this person the best for the job that we are hiring for?”

Did being a woman influence the way you tackled tech? If so, in what ways?

The amount of misogyny, sexism, and sexual harassment I've experienced working, and in life in general, is pretty shocking. It happened so frequently that I spent a significant portion of my life and time fighting to just ignore it. Years ago, I started hearing other women's stories and what really hit home for me was that their experiences were very similar to mine—if not the same. I used to go home and cry about it, or be afraid and just wish that I could be looked at as a person with ideas, instead of a woman with a body that, to some dictated my disposition and my potential for success for some unfounded reason. Well, it’s been a while now since I decided that I had had it with all that. Over time, I became more vocal about the issues, and more confident in my abilities to stand up for myself and those around me—and in the moment it was happening. The biggest step I took was actively seeking a position somewhere the company values, and those of the team members I would work closely with, reflected my own. I exercised my right to choose the environment I invest my valuable time and thoughts in. This may be the most helpful advice I would extend to other women and other humans.

In the working world, I started off by trying to use the fact that I’m female as a positive differentiator, but then I began to feel self-conscious about it.  When I started looking for work, my aunt advised me to make my resume stand out, so I made it purple and flowery in a way that I felt expressed my personality. However, it wasn’t long before I replaced this ornate version with something more plain since I didn’t want to give the impression that I was “perfuming” my skills unnecessarily, however representative of my personality I was trying to be.

When I started to recognize and subvert some of these behaviors within myself, I became more confident in myself and began seeing my thoughts and ideas as valuable.

Exactly! When I started to recognize and subvert some of these behaviors within myself, I became more confident in myself and in the knowledge that my thoughts and ideas are valuable. I learned to be okay with changing my environment when necessary in order to feel good about where I am spending my efforts. My value as a team member and as a professional has absolutely nothing to do with my gender and everything to do with my own desire to grow in my field, and as a person. I try to affect change by encouraging others (of all genders) in their ideas and ambitions, I work one-one with my students, and want to instill confidence in their realization that they have true power to affect change in the world.

Any closing comments?

I challenge others to challenge themselves in their thinking, values and actions.  What we do as individuals does have a major impact on the world we create together. In tech, we are morally responsible for the influences and changes we create for and in humans, because of what we are telling computers to do and think.

Mic drop.

Until Next Time

As you can probably imagine, the wells run deep for these two ladies—and they are far from dry. We hope to have the opportunity to tap into further insight on this and so many more topics related to inclusion, diversity and thriving in tech in the near future. They are willing to share and we are learning to be brave enough to outright ask.

Stay tuned for more musings from Benevity-ites in months and years to come.

 

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Bailey Copithorne is a User Experience (UX) Designer at Benevity. She teaches Intro to Web Design for third-year students at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) and is herself a lifelong student of languages, having tackled many of the romance tongues already. Bailey is a gifted artist across traditional and digital mediums, but painting occupies a special corner of her heart.  She holds firm to the belief that people shouldn't be jerks, and asserts that through sharing love, food and the love of food, we can all affect positive change in the world!

Rosemary Sanchez is a Web Software Developer People Lead and a certified Scrum Master for her team at Benevity. She puts her talents to good use outside the office by mentoring and volunteering within the local tech community. Rosemary shares her knowledge and expertise through Ladies Learning Code, Chic Geek, and teaching information computer technology at the University of Calgary.  A problem-solver who uses both code and communication to get the job done, she is also a firm advocate of entrepreneurship, learning and inclusiveness in all of its forms.

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