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Unsurprisingly, women continue to face an evolving intersection of problems at work

In Bärí A. Williams’s book, “Diversity in the Workplace,” the author interviews leading women in their fields about shortcomings in workplace equity, and their individual experiences with adversity.

Unsurprisingly, women continue to face an evolving intersection of problems at work
[Photo: Christina @ wocintechchat.com/Unsplash]

Women are often subject to second-class citizenship as they work toward professional success. Even when they gain positions of power, women are regularly judged on everything from how “nice” they are to how willing they are to take on the emotional baggage of their colleagues. For many women, interactions with men in the workplace can be fraught with anxiety due to unequal pay, sexual harassment, and the struggle to champion themselves while remaining “likable.”

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Diversity in the Workplace: Eye-Opening Interviews to Jumpstart Conversations about Identity, Privilege, and Bias by Bärí A. Williams

There is no shortage of stories about men behaving badly in ­a variety of industries. Some high-profile examples are the sexual harassment scandals involving Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and film director Harvey Weinstein. Sexual harassment exposed by Ellen Pao and Susan Fowler in the tech industry helped feed the #MeToo movement. The “Me Too” phrase, which was coined by black female activist Tarana Burke in 2006, has become the rallying cry for women in the workplace to unabashedly share their stories of harassment and assault.

Women in the workplace face complex problems, and many are the result of intersectionality, whether it involves sexuality, familial status, age, race, or religion. Navigating multiple identities, juggling personal and professional life, and figuring out how to excel at work are just some of the challenges that women have been required to master.


Laura I. Gomez
The Tech Industry’s Haves and Have-Nots

Bärí A. Williams: What’s unique about your background? Tell me about yourself.

Laura I. Gomez: I’m the founder of Atipica, which is HR and candidate enterprise software. We sell B2B [business-to-business] software to source diverse candidates and match them to open roles in your system. I’m a Mexican woman in tech, and was previously undocumented, which is a unique place to be.

BAW: How has gender affected your journey? What impact did it have on your sense of self as you transitioned through school and into the workplace?

LIG: In [Silicon] Valley, a lot of people get to fail up, especially white males. I have never had that luxury at any point in life. I was raised in Silicon Valley, but we came here from Mexico. My mother has been a nanny and a house cleaner for over 25 years, including to some tech CEOs, so I’ve seen what tech can give you, and I also know what it’s like to not have that. None of the people my mom worked for ever once asked if her kids would be interested in the industry or offered an internship. But I got an internship with Hewlett-Packard. No one looked like me, and I hated it; it turned me off and made me want to get out of tech. But I’ve never felt like that was an option.

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I’ve been in tech since I was 17. I had my first internship at Hewlett-Packard and then went and studied in college. I didn’t really focus on computer science because I felt a lot of the impostor syndrome. After college, I joined a lot of early-stage tech companies all at various stages of growth. While working at them, I saw a need for more diversity.

I talk to women and they note that they feel the same pressure to be resilient and succeed. I know Morgan [Debaun, CEO of Blavity] has gotten a lot of money, and then you get other token people getting money, and they think the funding problem is fixed. The opportunity to fail—you see a lot of these founders who get pushed out, and they have an opportunity to fail. We don’t get that as women of color, and even more so, black women. There is no opportunity or privilege to fail. If you’re anyone that isn’t a white man in this industry and in the Valley, you have to push through. You don’t get a second shot. There’s a Latina who works in corporate, and we were having a discussion one morning, and she said, “You have to overcompensate for being a Latina. And you have to succeed, because if you fail, we all fail.”

It needs to be emphasized [that only some people] have the privilege of failure. I’m sleep-deprived, trying to provide for my family, and tend to self-care, but we aren’t afforded that luxury—the opportunity to be okay with saying, “Hey, I want to give up”—and that isn’t allowed either, as a Latina founder or any founder of color.

I do believe that it is very hard for people who grew up in the Bay Area to watch an industry that has displaced people or to see local communities being pushed out, especially as minorities. We also don’t have the privilege of ignoring the impact of people who grew up here and to see how they are affected by the rise of this industry and who it is for. I love the Bay Area, but I hate Silicon Valley—one, based on geography, and one is based on industry.

I may not be actively coding, but I’m more capable than other founders at looking at and using the data around hiring for the workforce that is reflective of demographics of the country, let alone the world. But a lot of VCs [venture capitalists] are white men, and if [being a white man] isn’t your lived experience, your skill and vision are discounted. How are you thinking about inclusion, in particular? How are you building these products, and who are you building them for, and with? Why can’t inclusion include the different types of intersectionality that encompass the lives of people of color and women, particularly as caregivers?

But white male founders are focused on other things, and I see that all the time. For instance, I went to [the reception for] Cloud 100, which is a Forbes-sponsored list noting the top 100 cloud-based tech companies. If you look at that list, the majority of the CEO recipients are men. There were only a handful of women that I saw at the reception. When I would come up to a group of men—let’s say there were five of them—two of them would walk away, and they’d only walk away when they saw my tag. It didn’t say CEO; it just had my name, but that was enough to dissuade them from engaging in discussion. People just discounted the ability that I may have something worthwhile to say or that I was worth knowing.

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I also look at how people seem to think that women founders should be consumer-based in the tech industry. And it’s hard to see a woman CEO dealing with enterprise business. When female founders are profiled, they are typically white women, and they do consumer-based products, like Wing, Rent the Runway, and Bumble. But being a Latina founder in enterprise makes it harder on every front: for fundraising, for peers to take you seriously, and to even build and sell the ­product.

I don’t feel like I can even rest because of the pressure to not fail for other black and Latina women—and the fact that we don’t want [other] people to have the last word. I don’t want a VC to have the last word on my viability as a Latina woman founder and my lived experience and what and how it matters. We don’t give people the privilege to have the last word in terms of what we’re building, specifically as women of color. It’s not about me anymore but about whether we allow VCs and companies to have the last word on my success and whatever that success may mean.


Morgan Debaun
Life as a CEO and Culture Creator

Bärí A. Williams: What’s unique about your background? Tell me about yourself.

Morgan Debaun: I’m the cofounder and CEO of Blavity, which is a lifestyle platform bringing people together through community, events, and education.

BAW: How has gender affected your journey? What impact did it have on your sense of self as you transitioned through school and into the workplace?

MD: Initially, before Blavity, I was a PM [product manager] at a large tech company, and I then went into business development at the company after college at Washington University in St. Louis, where I’m from. While I was a PM, I had a really fun team; they were very experienced, and they were able to self-manage. That defused challenges I may have had. My peer group was the harder part: being a representative of that product, among other PMs jockeying for resources. I was 23 years old working at a big company where people had 20-plus years’ experience, so I’m sure there were things I said without proper context. I realized I didn’t want to be in a tech company as the highest-ranking black woman at 26. I knew there was more to life. I didn’t want to be extraordinary just for existing. I kept it quiet when I figured out what I wanted to do. I set a disciplined schedule for myself to make sure I had time dedicated to my “project”—at the time it was a project, not a company. That was mostly nights and weekends. I was giving myself six months to work on it intensely, and during those six months, I was going to remove distractions—going out, spending money. I saved money so I could live in [San Francisco] for a year. I set clear goals and a clear timeline. I didn’t set goals as to where the community needed to be, but I knew I wanted to quit my day job to work on it full-time. So, I focused on what I needed to do to quit.

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Reconciling that with my day job, my perspective at work changed once I figured out I wanted to quit. People spend time at work thinking about what people think of them when they are focused on an upward trajectory. When I removed the desire to advance and just focused on getting work done, I actually wound up saving a lot of time.

BAW: How have your lived experiences and previous work experiences been influential in building your own company culture?

MD: Blavity is a majority-black company, but that’s also based on our mission. When it comes to other people applying, anyone can, and I feel like in the interview process, people prefilter. If you apply, it’s lit! If I give you a behavioral or case study and you do the work, you’ve opted in. We are unapologetic about who we are and who we serve.

So, if you are down with providing black joy and happiness by spreading information and curating content and experiences, then great! If you embrace the mission, it’s fine.

When it comes to hiring, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s interesting how much a mission-driven company can create space and desire for people to work at a media company that wouldn’t normally consider it. We do behavioral interviews, and people want to be here for fun but may not want to do the work. So, we make the interview process labor-intensive. There are case studies and spreadsheets, and you have to demonstrate that you can do the work.

We create an inclusive environment so you don’t have to be black to feel included here. Plus, Blavity is just a reminder that everyone has their own story, and we’re mostly people of color here, but we’re still all different. Some are Haitian, some went to an HBCU, some are mixed. The color is important, but the actual person is more important. Each person is many different things.

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As far as fostering an inclusive atmosphere, in a lot of ways it happens naturally, because we don’t think about it all day every day. Maybe I’m biased as the CEO, but I think we don’t spend a lot of time doing cultural competency workshops. It just happens through natural conversation. But that comes through having an environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves. We encourage them to be who they are here. Some want to do squat challenges or set up fitness boards in the office. Other people make plans for trying new restaurants. It feels comfortable and personal here. It’s a workplace; people should be comfortable here, but it’s still a workplace. There is a value that needs to be here, so that’s where sometimes it can get confusing. But as the CEO, I have to set the parameters. And I’m me, and that’s not changing, and if someone has a problem with it, that isn’t my problem.


Excerpt from Diversity in the Workplace: Eye-Opening Interviews to Jumpstart Conversations about Identity, Privilege, and Bias, by Bärí A. Williams, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2020 by Callisto Media. All rights reserved.

Bärí A. Williams is vice president of legal, policy, and business affairs at All Turtles. She previously served as head of business operations, North America for StubHub, and lead counsel for Facebook and created its Supplier Diversity program. Follow her on Twitter at @BariAWilliams.

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