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The Unspoken Rules of How to Advance Your Career as a Woman in Tech

Estimated reading time ~ 7 min
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It is well known that women are significantly underrepresented in the technology sector. Despite companies’ efforts to strive for a more equal balance, there are now fewer women in these roles than there were five years ago. Women leaders are as likely as their male counterparts to want a promotion and aspire to senior-level roles, but they face stronger headwinds than men. In many companies, they experience microaggressions that undermine their authority and signal that it will be harder for them to advance.

So, what can we as women do to ensure our advancement in tech despite the odds stacked against us? Here are three unspoken rules that have tremendously helped me along my journey from my own lived experience as a woman of color in tech:

Negotiating doesn’t stop at the offer

To start, let’s discuss what your relationship with negotiating is. Does the thought of negotiating make you want to cringe, vomit, or run away? Does the fear of someone saying “no” to you stop you from even trying? Or, perhaps you don’t mind negotiating but you don’t think that you have the tools to do it properly? In order to get better at negotiating, you must start viewing negotiation as a tool. A tool that can be used to ask for what you want and deserve, bending norms to break open new paths, and shaping new ways of working. Negotiation is not about playing hardball. It’s about framing “asks” as opportunities for negotiation and getting creative with options.

It is not an unspoken rule that becoming a great negotiator will get you a higher salary when you are evaluating job offers. What was unspoken for me, is that there is so much more to negotiating than just your offer. I didn’t know you could negotiate a raise, your role responsibilities, a title change, signing bonuses, relocation (and not paying for it!), equipment upgrades, flexible working schedules (e.g. certain WFH days or 4-day work week), a promotion, ongoing education – really, anything on the table. I cannot emphasize how critical negotiating is for women and especially women of color. The data consistently shows we experience persistent economic inequality in part because we have the largest gaps in wages when compared with our male counterparts. We know negotiating leads to better outcomes and compound gains: women who ask for a raise are more than twice as likely to get one as women who don’t. Learning to negotiate effectively is one of the most important skills you can acquire in life and in improving your socioeconomic mobility.

I want to acknowledge that not everyone’s negotiations may be received in the same way. Harvard Business Review wrote an article called “Negotiating as a Woman of Color” that provides insightful tactics while highlighting how experiences such as “lean in” or “just say no,” don’t work for everyone. To find the negotiation method that works best for you, educate yourself, test the waters, and start small. Like learning any new skill, it takes practice. Start somewhere that is low stakes, like asking for a refill at a restaurant where they charge for refills. Get comfortable hearing NO and stop associating it as something to be fearful of. Similar to other aspects of life like online dating or apartment hunting, you start to realize rejection comes with the territory. Do not let fear of rejection stop you from trying! I remember walking into a donut shop once at 12pm as they were preparing to shut the doors and they told me they were closed. I asked, “Would you be open to selling me some donuts, if I bought a whole box?” I walked out with a box of donuts and a sense of empowerment. Women can have our donuts and eat them too.

Tip: Take a class (I spent ~$100 on this class from General Assembly that was life changing), invest in yourself and check out these helpful resources:

A wise woman once said “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.” - Oprah Winfrey

Ask for what you want

This was one of the lessons I learned the hard way. Early on in my career, I was 2.5 years into a role, and on the day of my performance evaluation meeting with my boss, I walked in with a pep in my step. This was it. He was going to tell me I was getting promoted for all the great work I had done and give me a huge pay increase. The conversation went something along these lines…

“Thanks for all the great work you have done, you are getting a small raise.” - Manager

“What? I’m not getting promoted?” - Me

“Promoted? I didn’t even know you wanted to get promoted. You’ve never brought this up to me” - Manager

(insert endless tears)

I exhibited the Tiara syndrome – I believed that if I worked hard enough, kept my head down, didn’t ask for much, that one day someone would place a tiara on my head, and I would live happily ever after and get promoted. I thought it was the manager’s responsibility to help me figure out what my career goals were and I assumed it was obvious everyone wanted a promotion. I also did not know that it was okay to ask for a promotion and thought I would look ungrateful. Turns out everyone else (and especially my male colleagues) were all asking.

The truth is no one cares about your career as much as you do. Why would you give someone else so much power in determining your career? After this experience, I vowed to never again assume my manager knew what I wanted, and to discuss my goals as early on as possible. At a minimum of six months prior to my next review, I would vocalize my interest in advancing my career to the next level, and be in charge of my own professional development. That was one of the most painful lessons I learned in my career.

Tip: If you are struggling with how to approach this conversation with your manager you could say something like this, “I want to work towards getting to [insert senior position] this year and I’d like to work with you on how to get there”…“I need your help to know if I’m on the right path.” See resources from the first section on negotiating to help with this. This is UNCOMFORTABLE but necessary.

Get a sponsor - the fastest, most powerful way to get ahead

What’s the difference between mentorship and sponsorship? “While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you. When it comes to this important distinction, the evidence is also clear: women tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored.

Sharing from my own personal experience, at my previous job I remember being called into a strange meeting one day. Once I got there, I looked around and saw a lot of very senior people at my company talking about our upcoming user conference. Turns out someone had put my name in the hat to be a keynote speaker in front of seven thousand people on the mainstage at the conference in Washington DC! I found out later that it was an executive who had seen me speak at a women in tech event who used their position of influence to advocate for me. We had only met a couple times and did not have a formal relationship but they had seen me in action. While it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, looking back, this growth opportunity propelled my career by years and is one of my proudest career moments that no one can take away from me. It went so well that they asked me to speak again the next year at an even bigger keynote in front of ten thousand people. Without that executive using their social and political capital to advocate for me, I never would have had that career opportunity.

Everyone does great work, that is the minimum entry requirement. But the unfortunate reality is, the workplace is not a meritocracy. Having a sponsor can help your work stand out, offer you stretch opportunities, help you get out of sticky situations, and give you access to influenceable people.

Nobody makes it alone. And it doesn't matter how smart you are or how hard you work, somebody will have to carry your paper into the room because every major decision about your career from your promotion, to your compensation, to your assignments are made in a room behind closed doors where you are not present.” - Carla Harris, Morgan Stanley executive

Tip: Want to figure out how to get a sponsor? First, ask yourself if you have established credibility at your company? Educate yourself on the sponsorship effect so you understand the playing field and its impact. Then, check out this Forbes article written by Bonnie Marcus who wrote the book, “The Politics of Promotion: How High-Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead.” Also, I would make an effort to have a relationship with your skip level (your manager’s manager).

There is no arguing that women and women of color have many obstacles in the workplace, but we also have the right to get what we have earned and deserve. In truth, these conversations and realizations are hard and uncomfortable. Seek guidance from those that you trust (i.e. mentors and sponsors), get feedback on your approach so you feel comfortable framing your “asks.” But most importantly, be courageous. YOU ARE WORTH IT and you are worth more than what the status quo is offering.

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