Why I’ve promised myself that I’ll start speaking up at work

This essay was originally published on June 29th, 2017.

We’ve all done it: Sitting in a meeting with our coworkers and letting the whole thing go by without saying a word.

Sometimes you’re too tired/hungry/busy to take part. Sometimes the meeting should have been an email. Sometimes there is a distracting livestream of puppies that you can’t stop watching.

I was the master of remaining silent during meetings.

I started my career in tech as an intern and transitioned to full-time at the same company. My humble intern beginnings, lack of work experience, and young age all contributed to the feeling that I was not worthy of speaking up at work.

I now realize the above reasons don’t completely explain why I was hesitant to voice my ideas and opinions. I also realize I’m not alone.

It is a well known fact that tech is not a particularly women-friendly industry.

A 2016 survey, aptly named Elephant in the Valley, found that 60 percent of the surveyed professional women in Silicon Valley have received unwanted sexual advances, while 84 percent of these women had been told they were too aggressive in the workplace.

There are countless stories of sexism in tech, ranging from sexual harassment, to workplace discrimination, and everything in between. There have also been countless studies that have shown women are not shown the same level of respect as their male colleagues when they speak up, and they are often subject to backlash.

It’s safe to say women in tech are very familiar with speaking up, only to be shot down by male colleagues — or even worse, a male colleague talking over you only to repeat the idea you have just shared.

I remember the horrible feeling of sitting in a meeting while a male colleague mocked the way I shared my idea. He was literally just making fun of the way I sounded when I spoke. After he was finished making fun of my words, he moved onto another topic. The content of what I had said was never discussed.

Women who have used their voice in meetings have experienced negative repercussions, like being denied promotions or raises, being excluded or removed from work projects, and in some cases, women have lost their jobs for being vocal. It can often feel like a lose-lose situation for women.

The issues of sexism in tech have been well documented — and it’s easy to often feel like nothing is improving, like women will always have horror stories about the workplace.

But one thing you should always remember: It’s not you, it’s them.

Never let the negative aspects of the tech industry hold you back from your personal and career goals. You don’t have to be a passive player in the workplace. I had to learn that lesson, and I’m passing it on to anyone who will listen.

I spent three years of my career in tech attempting to hide from every possible opportunity to speak up. I would even go so far as to send a Slack message to my colleague so that they could share my idea instead — I actually did this. I thought that if someone else said what I was thinking, it would be taken seriously.

The few times I did attempt to voice my thoughts or opinions on my own, I really struggled.

The environment at my previous company was very competitive, and it made it challenging for someone whose personality didn’t exactly match the dominating company culture. For a long time I blamed myself for this — but I now realize that it’s not up to me to conform to the dominant personality. People emulating a single type of personality? That’s how you get Groupthink, and that’s where creativity and innovation go to die. Thankfully, the company where I previously worked is receptive to feedback, and is working towards a more inclusive culture.

When I started working at my next tech job, I made a decision. I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything stop me from speaking up at work.

Again, that didn’t mean I had to magically change my entire personality to fit in with the dominant tech culture. It also meant I didn’t have to inadvertently perpetuate the behaviors that continue to marginalize women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community in tech. I can voice my ideas, while still supporting the individuals also fighting to be heard in the tech world.

It’s as simple as mentioning an idea in a creative meeting, or offering constructive criticism when a colleague asks the team for input. I used to shy away from these situations at my previous job. Now when I participate, I know my colleagues respect my input – and that makes all the difference. I am empowered to voice my opinions during meetings and with coworkers, and I can’t imagine going back to the days of blending into the background of a meeting.

More and more women are speaking up, and companies are actually starting to listen. There are a lot of nuances tied to the status of women in the tech workplace — it’s important to recognize intersectionality and gender identity when thinking about working environments for women. Those issues could be explored in an entirely separate essay.

While there is no magical cure for sexism in the industry, one thing we can do is continue speaking up at work, pushing companies to recognize gender/racial biases in the workplace, and supporting others who are also speaking up.

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