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Conversations #74: WWCode Leaders: Black Women in Tech Corporate America

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Written by Natalia Daies & Samaria RooksFebruary 22, 2023

Women Who Code Conversations 74     |     Spotify - iTunes - Google - YouTube - Text
Natalia Daies, Director of Communications at Women Who Code, and Samaria Rooks, Chief People and Inclusion Officer at Women Who Code, sit down for a conversation about Black women in technology. They discuss Black women showing up boldly in corporate spaces, ways to measure a company’s commitment to DEI, and the importance of applying for positions without having every qualification.

ND: I've been excited to cover this topic of Black women in technology in corporate America who want to level up their roles and the challenges they face when navigating that process. Industry statistics show that Black women are significantly under-represented in leadership roles and much less likely to be promoted to managerial positions. If they are promoted into management, the opportunity to develop into director or executive leadership roles become fewer. Would you share some initial thoughts on navigating corporate America for Black women?

SR: Do most people know that Black women are the most educated in the US? We are the top educated in the US but don't make up that much of the population. When you get into corporate spaces, people are intimidated by Black women. We come off as the aggressors, the bold. I like to be brave, bold, and proactive in this space. As you continue navigating corporate America, know there is space for you. So many people who look like us often show up to these spaces like they're not supposed to be there because they don't see themselves represented in leadership. Ensure you are showing up in these spaces just as you are. People say that it's so cliche or that it's tough to do because they don't like my natural hair, they don't want my tone, they don't like the way I look as a whole. You have to realize that you still belong.

ND: I think to show up yourself and be brave, you have to have a good company fit, because many workplaces are toxic. When you show up as a unique individual, it can be a tricky thing. When you think about company culture, what should Black women look for in terms of company culture. Specifically Black women who have career aspirations, are career-driven and want to be in executive leadership?

SR: We're having a real conversation here. You have to realize that this is new. A lot of things happened right after George Floyd. Corporate initiatives focused on being an inclusive DEI. We had been hearing about that before but saw a spike right after everything happened. All of these corporations wanted to stand out. For me, when assessing a company, I want to see that not only do they have these social responsibility climates, but they're doing it. What are they doing? A tell tale sign is like looking at their leadership. Are they looking to promote people who look like you? How do they interact with you? When you go into an interview, if they are super excited or are super engaged or looking away from you most of the time during the interview. Things like that will tell you; if they don't, per se, look like you. If they're not a Black woman or if they are intimidated, oftentimes there's some social cues that you'll get.

That all plays into the culture. Ask the questions. Ask, “What is your culture like?” Are they saying that they strive to be an inclusive environment? If they allow you to do a panel interview and interview the other people you'll be working directly with or perhaps managing, you ask them, “What do you feel like the culture feels like?” In that space, in those moments, you want to hear that they care about their people. Suppose they say that they are people first, that their people are their greatest assets. In that case, if they continuously say that the people matter most, most of the time, you can probably find a good fit that will care about not only having a place for you, but also having a place for you to be a human. We do have lives outside of work.

ND: You mentioned George Floyd and companies wanting to jump on the bandwagon and show their support for things like Black Lives Matter or other movements. We saw an influx of organizations building out complete DEI programming, hiring for DEI specific roles. Currently, when we look at the market, those same companies opt to scale down those roles in that same programming, especially in the tech industry. What do you say to Black women and other historically-excluded individuals, technologists searching for new opportunities and worrying about how the scaling back of DEI initiatives will impact their opportunities?

SR: I tell them to look at the history. Look at what the company has done and how they look at these things. Look at their financial situation. Companies have to scale back, and they have to make cuts. You ask, "Tell me about your financial position. Tell me about how you genuinely view DEI. Is it important?" You'll get those answers through the interview. You have to ask the questions. You want to make sure that they value DEI at the core.

ND: When you think about the tech industry or even big companies, Black women don't make up a large percentage of executive leadership at these organizations. If these inclusion initiatives are being rolled back, if these roles are not there to advocate for me and to support me as someone who could be considered an other, what does that mean for me when I'm searching for opportunities?

SR: When I'm looking at this, and I'm thinking about people who are historically included, and that includes me, I want to make sure that I'm showing up as my best self when I show up to these companies. Bettering myself in the background, developing, learning, ensuring I know what I'm talking about and having my resume together. Have everything in line to show up for these positions and do the work and be confident in doing the work. It comes down to networking when looking for new opportunities and ensuring your core is strong. Stay true to your goals. Something sticks out to me so much that 65% of White males will apply for a job if they have one to two qualifications. Black women, we will not apply for the job if there is one thing on there that we cannot do. We say we are not qualified. Apply for the job. We count ourselves out half the time.

ND: I think what you're talking about is impostor syndrome. I think we all have it. We don't see ourselves in executive leadership. We don't see ourselves in director roles. When the opportunity comes, we automatically question whether or not we're good enough. I think that is an excellent place to pivot to salary negotiation. You're talking about showing up as yourself. When you get an offer, and it's time to negotiate pay, benefits and things like that, you must know how to stand up for yourself and advocate for yourself. A study was done on women in the workplace in 2019. It found that 49% of Black women feel that their race or ethnicity will make it harder for them to get a raise, a promotion, or a chance even to get ahead. This is compared to just 3% of White women and 11% of women overall. How do you think stereotypes can play a role in the negotiation process?

SR: They offer us the lower end of the pay band and expect us to return. Black women should know to negotiate their offers. Those stereotypes come because we're strong people in the workforce. You have to come in knowing your worth. Do your market research. Go to your free resources like Glassdoor or LinkedIn salaries. Make sure that you know your dollar value in corporate America. Remember that when you're looking up these salaries, you have to consider the size of the company and department. That plays into it as well as the other benefits. Know what you're making now, what your goals are, what you're trying to make, and what they are paying to a similar role or even what they're paying at that company. Know your market value, keeping in mind your education, your training and your experience. All of that goes into that number.

ND: What advice would you give to mid-level career women in the tech industry who are preparing or ready to go from mid-level to a director role or executive leadership?

SR: I think my most extensive advice is to document. I think we don't do a great job at documenting our successes. I have a calendar invite on my phone that goes off the last Friday of every month and tells me to write down what I accomplished for the month. You need to know what you've done and be able to speak to it. It is a significant and miss where people can't always talk about what they have done and how they have impacted the organization. Write it down as it happens. You don't have to wait till the end of the month. You have to keep a tally on your accomplishments. Continuously keep your resume updated. Make sure you are a leader you want to work under. Always get feedback from your direct reports, ensuring that you build those relationships and that you are a person people want to work for. A likable person gets you far in corporate America.

ND: Regarding advancement and expectations you can have for the company you work for, what expectations, if any, should career women, Black women, have of the organizations they're associated with?

SR: You can't have many expectations from your corporation. You can only expect them to pay you on time and follow the law. Ultimately, all other expectations are out the window. If they do those two things, you can't hold them to anything because everything else is in your court. You have to create your experience in the workplace.

ND: What about our network in our community? One of the things I read recently said that Black women are less likely to get the support and access they need from managers, direct leads, mentorship and things like that. How can we leverage our network or community to support career navigation or advancement? You said earlier we need a friend in people ops. We need a friend in HR. What other things should we consider as a part of our networking?

SR: You genuinely have to build this network around you. We have so much access at our fingertips with technology. You have to make those connections on LinkedIn. Don't be afraid to send a message. Go to networking events. Meet people in your field. Associate with like-minded individuals, join communities, join Women Who Code.

ND: We've talked about impostor syndrome, we've talked about stereotypes, we've talked about all kinds of things. We haven't discussed self-care, well-being, or stress in how those are compounded as Black women in the workplace. Can you say a little bit about burnout, how to navigate it if you're experiencing it as a woman in tech, a Black woman in corporate America?

SR: There's only one of you at home, and you will be replaced quickly at work. The people who are going to miss you most are at home. You have to take care of yourself. You are given vacation time. You are given time off, and you are given PTO, sick days, take them, use them, every single last of them. Do not save them. Use the time. You have to re-energize. You have to take a mental break. This work stuff can be a lot, regardless of what you do. Spend time with your family, spend time with your loved ones.

ND: I'm a single mom, full-time working mom, and one of my favorite things to do when I get off work after a tough day is to eat kettle corn and have a glass of wine. That's my self-care routine, and everybody needs a similar self-care routine. Do you have any last advice or tips for Black women, other women, non-binary people of color navigating corporate America, specifically in the tech industry?

SR: As you continue to navigate, seek out your role models. Seek out people doing what you're doing. Seek them out and reach out. Don't be afraid to do that. Continue to show up bold. Be yourself. We're changing the narrative of the workplace. Stay focused on your goals. Show up and set the way for these generations behind us.

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