Career Nav #42: Encouraging People From Underrepresented Groups to Speak Up

Career Nav #42: Encouraging People From Underrepresented Groups to Speak Up

Written by Emy Jamalian


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Sarah Healy, Digital Design Manager at Women Who Code, sits down with Emy Jamalian, QA Engineer at Staffbase. They talk about encouraging people from underrepresented groups to speak up for their rights. They also discuss Emy’s definition of advocacy and advocating specifically for Middle Eastern women and the LGBTQIA plus community who are affected by the laws of sanctions.

Tell us a little about your early career, how you got started in the tech industry, and how you got to where you are today.

I was born in 1991, and early in my life, my mom wanted me to learn two things. One was how to use a computer, and the other one was to learn English. The hobby of playing with a computer and figuring out what’s what, and getting to talk to random strangers on the internet ended up with me working in that environment. I decided to study IT at the university. I decided that I only want to work with businesses that are working online.

You’re originally from Iran, and you’re based in Germany. What are your experiences working in the international community, and what made you decide to work internationally? 

Staffbase is my first real experience in an international company. I was visiting Europe and joining conferences, but obviously, it’s completely different. I decided to work internationally because I thought I was living in a bubble, not knowing what was happening outside of it, and wanted to experience it. Also, sanctions affected my life so badly that I needed to make money with a different currency to be able to live. I had a chance to visit Europe, and I thought, okay, let’s see what I can do.

I started applying for jobs, and I found Staffbase. The team I was working with in the beginning was very international. It made it smooth for me and the transition from working with people in Iran to working in a global environment. When I switched teams, it was easier. There are always challenges coming from the Middle East. You might say things differently than people in Germany or the US would say. You don’t know that’s not the way they do it. There are a lot of challenges, but you can try to work on them and help people understand.

What challenges do you face, maybe due to discrimination or especially going through those sanctions in Iran and coming to a new country, especially in the tech industry?

I cannot begin to describe the ugliness of sanctions and their harmful effects on an individual’s life. We don’t have a banking system that’s connected to the world. We don’t have the possibility of working with people easily. They won’t be able to pay us because they don’t know how to handle the taxes and stuff. Many businesses related to the US are not allowed to work with us. If we live anywhere, we cannot just upload our resume on Upwork or Freelancer and accept any job because it’s against their policy. It goes even further when you get hired by a company. You might be in danger even though countries like Germany have laws against discrimination. They also have a  law to protect businesses from some threats.

If you can prove that your business is in danger because you have this person from this country under sanctions and your company has been trying to survive or make it work in the US, you can quickly fire those people for that. I call it sugar-coated discrimination because, by law, it’s not discrimination. This is just Germany, and I only know about Germany. I see a lot of countries have these kinds of laws. If you send a resume and you’re from any of these countries, they directly reject you, unfortunately.

Do you have any advice for other women going through this?

Most families in Iran are traditional. My dad was also one of those, and for whatever reason, when I was a teenager, he told me I was not allowed to ride a bike. I wanted to do that. My mom got me a bike from a friend. I thought, “Okay, so if someone says I can’t do something, it doesn’t mean I really can’t.” Later when my dad said, “Hey, I saw you with a bike, what are you doing?” I said, “I just like biking, and I don’t understand why I can’t do it.” He was a kind person. That was probably the first time that I stood up for myself. I wouldn’t let people harass me verbally or physically.

At my first job, I had a task given to me that was difficult for me. I accepted it because I thought it was my job, but I had to accept it. Every day during the daily meeting, I told my manager about it. At some point, I almost got fired because of my performance. I couldn’t help but think I was talking about this every day, how could they not mention this before? I had to say, “Hey, this is not right, and I won’t let you do this to me.” For years I was always working with men, I had to be bold and loud to be heard.

When I started working within the software development team, I was a QA. I had to be even louder to make my point heard. Moving to a different country was entirely not my safe space within a different culture, language, and understanding. I had to do it all again, finding myself and trying to find ways to be bold and loud to make other people hear me. It was different from what I had experienced with people from my country. It was helpful that I had already practiced it.

How did you recognize the importance of speaking up for others and start advocating for others just through yourself?

Whenever somebody asks me a question, I try to put myself in their shoes and tell them what I would do. It became important for me after the movement of Black Lives Matter. A group of people in my company started a DI committee. We must stick together when we have a common goal. I started making myself more aware of anything about diversity and inclusion.

I had never had this experience before but didn’t know what it meant. People would come for an interview, or they’re new joiners in a company, and they would say to me that I made them feel included. I never understood what it meant. I want to help people. A big part of helping is talking about these things because you have first to make people aware of something and then encourage them to do something about it.

What advice do you have for people to not necessarily jump the hurdles of depression but live with and work with it and overcome imposter syndrome?

I didn’t know about imposter syndrome until a couple of years ago. I saw a post on LinkedIn from a woman who was an engineer at Google. She wrote about it and thanked the community, which helped her. It was called I Am Remarkable. That’s where I started reading about it. It’s an initiative from Google and now is its organization. It does two things. First, it encourages people to speak about their achievements. Second, challenge the social norms that put people in a position of not talking about these things. The first step in doing anything about any challenge is understanding the problem.

Are there any specific people or stories that have inspired and helped you overcome?

My mom has had a significant impact on my life. I’m grateful for all the things she did while not knowing how it would change my life. There’s a huge list that I can go through, they were not precisely officially my mentors, but I’ve learned so much from them. One of these people is my fantastic friend Mark Mainemar. When I got to know him, he introduced himself as a speaker coach. He’s way more than that. In a very challenging time in my personal and professional life, I had the chance to have him as a coach. It was super helpful for me, and it gave me a great perspective.

TEDx or Ted videos have so many amazing things that you can learn. Everything in your life is about relationships. I’m invested in learning about relationships in whatever context. There is a romantic relationship coach, Esther Perel, but she’s also way more than that. Whatever she says is so good; you can use it in different contexts to understand people. I read the book Shoe Dog by the founder of Nike. Also, the kids on Instagram inspire me. I like movies about rebels. Those are things I get inspiration from.

What is your definition of being an advocate or even self-advocacy?

Advocates put all they have into that one thing to make a change. I talk about things, and I encourage people to talk about them. I don’t think that’s advocating. I see essential items, have a voice, and want to use them. I want to use this occasion to invite people to talk about what’s going on in Iran. I’m from Iran, I know how difficult it is now. Living that life is brutal and unfair for anyone on earth. It will be possible to fix it without international pressure, but it can be easier with international pressure.

People in Europe or the US might wonder what they can do. You voted to choose someone. You can invite them to do something and act on this. This is the easiest way. People are still really sacrificing their lives. Recently, many students have been poisoned in schools because they don’t want women to get educated. We have the same situation in Afghanistan. Women are not allowed in universities. This is important to talk about.

Guest: Emy Jamalian, QA Engineer at Staffbase
Host: Sarah Healy, Digital Design Manager at Women Who Code
Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Press and Digital Content, Women Who Code