• Leslie Crews

Black Women in Tech: A Survival Guide

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Cybersecurity wasn’t on my childhood list of career dreams, but it has been a source of excitement and a constant push to learn something new every day. Building security programs, finding malware, and conducting forensic investigations; I have a lot of fun on the job and I’ve accomplished a lot more than I imagined for myself, considering I never intended to work in technology. Impostor syndrome aside, I accepted a challenge to work in a field that I knew nothing about, and I’m proud knowing that my parents raised me to work hard and to always do my best.

I’ve been a mini entrepreneur since the sixth grade. Making earrings and bracelets, using the bead sets I’d receive every Christmas. I’d sell the jewelry to classmates to earn lunch money. This wasn’t something I did out of necessity, but it kept me from having to ask my parents for lunch money. I watched my mother raise a squad of kids and work long hours, and my father graduated from college, while working full time within my lifetime. The least I could do was sell a few pairs of handmade earrings to feed my cookie obsession.

My parent’s raised my siblings and I to believe that through education and hard work anything was possible. So when a manager at my first cybersecurity job declined my training request because he felt that the content was ‘too hard’ for me, the only woman and black person on the team, I knew I’d have many fights with fragile egos ahead of me. I quickly learned to ignore blatant misogyny, as I believe every woman in the tech eventually learns to do, and took every opportunity to learn something new. Ultimately, I fell in love with security and decided to get a master’s degree in IT information assurance. Never underestimate a black woman.

A​s black women we get used to people telling us what we can’t do. Then, we execute and make their heads spin. We go into every situation knowing that we have to work three times harder than our white male counterparts to maybe (possibly) advance, or be recognized for our work. There’s a clear distinction between recognizing that someone does great work and valuing that person as a member of the team. A black woman with a resume a mile long, wears a perfectly ”professional” hairstyle as to not be stereotyped, and has an impeccable work record, still may not be promoted over her white male counterpart.

I don’t need to reference any studies, this happens to me and other women of color every day. Time and time again black women receive the message of, “We’re happy that you deliver valuable work, but we don’t value it enough to confirm your efforts by promoting you”. For all the people believing that “it’s 2019, it can’t be bad like that anymore”, knowledge is the cure for ignorance. As for the rest of us, we know these disparities to be true.

We are expected to over deliver with a smile on our face, while battling emotions associated with being undervalued and overlooked, but watch someone in a suit and trendy haircut get hired for leadership roles in spite of them having no experience, and no education. Only for them to be promoted from a project manager to corporate executive in three years. True story. #ThisisAmerica.

How do black women work in historically male dominated fields and take care of their mental health? There isn’t enough time to fully answer this question. But here are five things I’ve learned over the 12 years of working in cybersecurity that may help to manage work stress and reduce the desire to flip a conference table the next time John starts posturing during the department meeting. Ugh, stop it. We know you’re posturing, and we really couldn’t care less.

5 Survival Tips for Black Women in Tech

1. Connect With Other Women

Let’s face it, there aren’t many women in the science and technology fields so when you see one, the goal should be to support her growth whenever you can. I hate meeting mean girls in tech. I get it, we learn to be tough because ‘tenderness is weakness’, but there’s no need to be nasty. Sadly I’ve worked with some egotistical women that let power ruin their reputations to a point where no one wants to work for them. These people perceive fear as power, and sure it may work for some people, but everyone else is either waiting for them to get fired or job searching. Do women have to be sunny and sweet to work well together? Absolutely not, but there has to be a mutual respect and a willingness to help other marginalized people advance.

If you are fortunate enough to have other women on your team, be sure to invest in their growth and encourage them take on new and challenging projects. Black women in technology are unicorns. When you meet a group of unicorns make an effort to build lasting connections. This not only helps amplify good ideas in a room of people who constantly talk over her, but it’s great moral support. There is nothing better than pursing your lips and raising an eyebrow during a meeting, and have someone across the room completely understand and sympathize with your annoyance. This is good for your mental health. If you are the only woman on the team, remember to take advantage of social media groups and local Meetup events to connect with other women in your field.

2. Therapy. Just Go.

Everyone needs to go to therapy. This is especially true for people of color. Venting your frustrations to an unbiased person that has been sworn to secrecy is a healthy way to cope with the stress of constantly having to prove your greatness in corporate America. If you don’t like the traditional seat on the therapist’s couch, there are virtual therapy options that allow you to talk, video chat, and text your therapist. The stigma against addressing mental health issues in the black community has to end. It’s doing nothing to prevent rising suicide numbers. Therapy has changed my life for the better. Get help and take your medicine folks.

3. Find Your Office Safe Space

Find a hiding place and don’t tell anyone where it is. Hiding from problems does not help in the long run, but hiding from a coworker that insists on touching your hair and calling you ‘girlfriend’, can be life saving. Take a scheduled moment to yourself. Whether this moment is filled with gospel music, a playlist of your favorite trap tracks, or pure silence, finding a space to recalibrate is essential to maintaining one’s sanity. Struggling to find that perfect spot?

  • Reserve a conference room for a meeting of one — This is guaranteed to be your best meeting of the day

  • Go outside. Breathe in the fresh air — Breathe in the good stuff. Breathe out the bull stuff.

  • Sit in your car — Listen to good music, check social media, talk to your person. — If your person is like mine, she’ll be ready to fight at first, then give you some encouraging words to help you keep the pay checks coming. #blackmomsarethugsonthelow

  • Journal your thoughts in your Notes app — For folks that can’t step away from their work this is a great option to release frustrations and say things that probably shouldn’t be said in front of Human Resources. Let those Twitter fingers run wild. Just, please don’t send it.

4. Seek Mentorship. Be A Mentor.

Investing in the success of others is vital. It’s how we change the world. Sure, you could build a massive empire and try to figure everything out on your own, but no one has ever accomplished anything without some form of help. A mentor is your dedicated help resource and personal cheerleader. They can give career guidance, tricks of the game (because its all a game, and we know this), and an opportunity to receive constructive criticism from someone who is invested in your success.

Being a mentor can be rewarding. After years of trial and error you’ve built a vault of information that could be valuable to someone’s growth. Pay it forward. Help promote STEM to fix the gender disparities.

5. Remember Who You Are

As a woman with a head full of thick coily natural hair, it took one year of working my 9-to-5 before I began wearing my natural hair texture to work. And you better believe it was a shock to the non-melanated folks in the room. For months, I lived in constant fear of stranger’s hands reaching towards my perfectly detangled, immaculately defined hair.

Fear damn near crippled me as my department vice president’s eyes lit up the first time he saw my hair. He looked at me as if he’d just seen the softest most squishy teddy bear. Thankfully, he contained the desire to touch my hair and simply complimented me instead. The fear of having to potentially [accidentally] smack the hand of the person who signs your check is anxiety evoking. Since then, the freedom of wearing my hair naturally has been liberating and a boost to my confidence. It took another three years before I felt comfortable enough to wear a head wrap to work… but only on Fridays.

Despite efforts to assimilate, people are going to try to put us in a box. But our history and culture as women and people of color is too rich to be condensed to fit in that box. Make the decision to remember who you are at all times. We can’t always be our authentic selves at work. Let’s face it, code switching is necessary, but don’t lose sight of who you are outside of the office. It’s easy to get lost in the stress of trying to be the perfect employee.

If a black woman employee has ‘too many’ family emergencies, has chronic medical needs, or asks to leave work early to pick up their children, she’s perceived as unfocused and lacking ambition. It’s absolutely maddening. Keep your head held high, work your hardest, and give your best. Remember this is all temporary. You could be the boss someday.

I hope this helps someone.

This story was originally published by Leslie Crews for The Startup on June 26, 2019

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