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How to overcome tech’s diversity barriers

How to overcome tech’s diversity barriers

Diversity remains a problem in IT. But If you’re a person of color and/or female, the situation is far from hopeless, particularly if you arm yourself with the latest information and advice from your peers.

Credit: Michael Rivera

Find out if managers prefer facetime or if they have ways to support flex time. Asking about remote work without going into detail about your specific circumstances (being a single parent, having a disability, etc.) is perfectly legitimate during the interview process. Remember, you’re vetting the company to ensure it meets your needs.

Ask how people communicate and what levels of collaboration exist. Look for descriptions of how people work — by consensus or through top-down decision making — and how meetings are run. Look for a leadership style that solicits opinions and brings in new ideas, not one that emphasizes a command-control style where all decisions are made and handed down by a cadre of trusted lieutenants.

“It is easier to get answers to these kinds of questions because they are specific to the day-to-day life in the company,” Blanche says.

Seek a culture that goes the extra step to get people involved rather than one that responds only to the loudest and most powerful voices. Not everyone thinks or acts the same. Brainstorming is important, but how is credit shared? Too often, quieter voices are overlooked when it’s time to attribute credit for a new idea, a pitfall experienced managers know to avoid.

“It’s also more about how the company answers the question, and less about the specific answer,” Blanche says. If they don’t have a policy but express a willingness to investigate and get a better answer, that’s a good sign.

Ask to talk to different people in various roles within the hierarchy to get a feel for the culture.  Ask about employee groups and affinity organizations that may exist and how those groups are run. These questions also matter when moving to a different team within the same organization, because different teams and leaders have different styles.

As recent revelations about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley show, people talk. There are open secrets, cryptic hints on who to avoid, and quiet offers of help. Being able to speak up against harassment is a form of privilege; for many, it can be career-ending. Finding the right channels to lodge a complaint is not always an option. But keeping your ears open and regularly talking with peers will let you know about people and companies that you may be better off avoiding.

“What the teams say matters more than what the CEO says,” Blanche says.

Networking matters

While the idea of the self-made American who earned the spot purely on merit is an inspiring image, the reality in tech is that who you know can help open doors. Going to a top-tier four-year college gives candidates immediate access to an alumni network that can help pull strings, make introductions, and give you ideas on who to talk to. Being able to tap into a network of contacts in the industry is a form of privilege that not everyone has.

Women of color are less likely to have close friends or family who have worked in technology. They tend to have smaller professional networks and encounter more difficulty landing their first jobs in the field of their choice, Blanche says. Joining a professional development organization such as Galvanize, Muse, or Code 420 (to name just a few) can help tap into those networks.

Those who lack a network — because they don’t have a strong alumni pool, are geographically isolated, or simply don’t know anyone in the industry — start out with a massive disadvantage. But modern technology and the Internet can help make some of those connections. Work that LinkedIn profile and look for people who can make introductions. Join LinkedIn groups relevant to your interests, career goals, and geographic location, and ask for help. Look for open networking events, often sponsored by companies themselves. Check out Meetup.com groups in your area.

Joining groups that meet in person may be a challenge for some candidates for a number of reasons. If so, consider online events. WhiteHat Security offers online networking webinars, for example. Look at job boards, think about products you use, and reach out on Twitter to brands you like. Look for thought leaders in your industry — there are plenty of information technology professionals pontificating on Twitter on any given day — and join a conversation if you think you have something to share. Or just ask questions.

“Don't underestimate the power of networking and putting yourself forward,” Blanche says.

Remember, relationships matter. It’s not just a matter of attending once and introducing yourself to as many people as you can. True, fostering relationships with people you’ve just met is no easy task, but it’s worth the effort. “Continue building to the point where you start getting invited to more high-level and exclusive type engagements,” Naidoo says.

Build mentoring relationships

Part of networking is looking for mentors. Many of the women I spoke with while working on this piece emphasized how their mentors have helped them in their careers. These mentors acted as advocates for them within the organization, speaking up on their behalf in meetings they weren’t invited to and increasing their visibility within the organization to open up more senior roles. The key isn’t looking for “someone who looks like you” in a senior role to be your mentor, but someone who “cares about helping you move ahead in your career,” says Alex Kassirer, a security analyst at Flashpoint.

Alex Kassirer, security analyst, Flashpoint Flashpoint

Alex Kassirer, security analyst, Flashpoint

It helps to have more than one mentor: one within your organization to advocate for you internally, and one outside to help you manage your overall career trajectory. You may wind up adding new mentors and retiring old relationships as you grow and develop on your career path. That doesn’t mean dumping a mentor and cutting all ties (don’t forget, who you know always matters), but rather changing the nature of the relationship to reflect changing needs.

Acknowledge biases exist

You can do everything right and still face barriers. Recent research has shown that unconscious bias still presents roadblocks. For example, researchers have found that a job candidate with an “ethnic” or female name will have a harder time landing an interview than a male candidate with a more “typical” name with an equal (or inferior) resume. Conferences and professional journals found that simply removing names from submissions improved the acceptance rate for underrepresented voices.

Flashpoint’s Kassirer says that at the beginning of her career, she published her research as “Alex” instead of using her given name “Alexandra” to avoid gender discrimination. Others describe using initials or even pseudonyms. The latter is not recommended in any area except information security, where hacker handles are part of the industry’s roots.

Statistics have shown that women and people of color are more likely to obtain conference speaking slots or publish research in peer-reviewed journals when their names and identifying information are removed from their applications. A recent study examining pull request acceptance rates on GitHub projects found that while nearly three-quarters of pull requests by female contributors were accepted, programmers who could easily be identified as women based on their names or profile pictures had lower pull request acceptance rates than male programmers. Female programmers with gender-neutral profiles had higher acceptance rates than any other group, including men with gender-neutral profiles. Not everyone can shorten their names like Kassirer did — but downplaying elements that can work against you does seem to work.

It's easy to say that deemphasizing your gender or ethnicity is a cop-out. But the truth is, bias was at the table long before you got there. Each person needs to make up her or his own mind — and weigh the effect clearly identifying gender or ethnicity may have on getting that first interview.

The burden is on you

I encountered a lot of pushback while working on this piece from people who resented that we were “still talking about diversity in 2017.” Some felt that diversity has held the spotlight for too long and was incurring chip-on-the-shoulder defensiveness. “I think it's important to not focus on that [diversity]," Kassirer says, "Because sometimes it's not even in the interviewer or some other colleague's mind."

That strikes me as idealistic and perhaps a bit naïve. Plenty of biased decisions, some unconscious and some not, occur before you get the chance to tout your skills and experience. Even diversity programs go awry; many that focus on women tend to lean toward white women by default. Women of color are less likely to have access to the kind of professional networks white women do and may have different cultural and socio-economic expectations to deal with. Other diversity classes languish as well.

In my past life as a network administrator, I didn’t have the luxury of ignoring that I was a dark-skinned woman among a team of white men. I was aware of it all the time and felt the pressure to work harder and try to fit in. When I got stressed, I deliberately slowed down how I speak to give myself time to think before saying something.

As a help desk technician, my accent led some people to assume I didn’t know English well and created the perception that I was not as technical or competent as my peers. Being a programmer was much easier, since my team had many Asians, but there was a definite sense of having to fight harder to get my share of challenging coding projects. I am not alone. Many women I spoke with talked about how they joined technical projects in hope of beefing up their skills — and found themselves assigned to training or writing documentation instead.

The biggest complaint about diversity efforts is the idea that hiring should be based on skills and qualifications alone. But that ignores the reality that the diversity gap isn’t a qualifications gap. The 2017 Women in Cybersecurity Report found that women in the field tend to have more advanced academic degrees than male applicants, with 51 percent of women holding a master’s degree or higher, compared to 45 percent of men. Women also tend to have more varied educational backgrounds, which means they tend to bring a more diverse set of skills to the security industry.

Even if you aren’t thinking about what makes you different, you need to realize that the process is stacked against you. Trying to ignore that fact won’t do you any favors. Everyone needs to beef up their skills and experience, but you’ll need to draw on more resources than that to overcome bias, much of it unconscious and unacknowledged.

Make the system work for you by positioning yourself effectively. Establish your own network, discover where the best opportunities lie, and learn who might help you gain access to them. Prepare yourself for setbacks and try not to take them personally. And remember: The right employer will value your capabilities at least as much as you value them yourself.

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