To hear about diversity and equality in tech is one thing. The words have gotten overused of late. To deal with those issues every day is a whole other thing.
Erica Baker is the Senior Engineer at Slack Technologies and an advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech, so when she speaks on these issues, we better pay attention.
I met Ms. Baker at the Wired Business Conference in NYC. To say that she’s an impressive woman in person is an understatement. She took the stage and had a very frank interview with Davey Alba, staff writer with WIRED. You can see that interview here. What you cannot see is how the room reacted. What you cannot see is how the truth of the reality of the condition of women in tech reverberated throughout the room, a room filled with over 1000 people, almost 50% women. The interview was a bit uncomfortable. Which, like Erica says, it’s actually a good thing. The infamous Google salary spreadsheet was brought up, equality vs. equity, but the biggest topic was the business impact that equality and diversity have on the business world.
As the conversation got on the way, the room got cold. Ice cold. People turned quiet and were watching the interview happen, and the entire audience became very uncomfortable. And you would have, too. The reality of women in tech is chilling. Women in tech make up around 25% of the workforce, according to NCWIT. The somber numbers come when you talk about diversity in tech, especially talking about the number of black women in tech. Facebook has a deplorable number of minority employees, their black and Hispanic employees, at 2% and 4% respectively. Slack is fighting the good fight, but it’s more because of the efforts of Erica Baker that they’re making a dent and growing their employee diversity.
“GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE”
– ERICA BAKER
In a room full of execs from the top tech companies in Silicon Valley and across the country, I’m surprised some didn’t walk out when faced with the reality of those numbers. Ms. Baker wasn’t there to simply talk about diversity and inclusion. She brought actual suggestions on how to combat this “white men only” paradigm. Tools like increasing empathy! No, really! Not a joke or soft skills tool. But an actual business tool. She talked about putting yourself in the shoes of the one black person, Hispanic person, or Asian person in the room in a room full of white men. Actually, think about that scenario, and then start an actual conversation about increasing diversity in tech.
The on-stage interview was uncomfortable. The points made, moving. At the end of that interview, I ran out of the conference room and waited for Ms. Baker to finish so that I can actually have a chance to speak with her. And she was even better in person. Her presence fills the room, any room she walks in. She is impressive, and you recognize power and self-assurance in her, without any traces of conceit. Here’s what we talked about.
The Business Magazine for Women (TBM4W): We are speaking with Erica Baker.
Erica Baker (E.B.): Hi…
TBM4W: You are Senior Engineer with Slack, and you’re fighting for diversity and inclusion within the company and the tech world in general. You’re trying to bring a lot more women, a lot more black women into tech. How are you actually doing that? And how tough is it? Can you breathe from the responsibility that you’re under?
E.B.: So, it’s not really that hard! People say it’s so hard. It’s not that hard. The problem is that a lot of companies haven’t demonstrated that they would be a good place for a black woman to work. A thing that I did recently is a personal thing, it sounds a little braggy, but there’s a Facebook group for women of color in tech in the Bay Area and there are about twenty-five hundred of us in that group. I said to the people in this group: you email me or email this address with the job you want! Go look at their jobs page. Find which one you want to do. Put your name in the subject line with the jobs you want in the body and then you attach your resume and I will refer you. And I have been referring women of color ever since. I phrase it to that group in a way that’s like, “I am here, I got in”, right?, and I’m not going to shut the door behind me! I’m going to hold the door open and let you all in too. So if you approach women of color in that way, and you say that we want you here, they will be more likely to come to you. Tech companies haven’t been doing a very great job of proving to women of color that they feel wanted and they’re valued, and so you have to. They have to show up. They can’t just do their same standard recruiting practices, like: “Oh we’re just gonna stand back and let them come to us”. […] You have to go to them.
“I DON’T WANT ALLIES. I WANT ACCOMPLICES”
– DURETTI HIRPA
TBM4W: Alright, so it’s obviously easier to bring somebody in, once you’re in, once you’re on the inside.
E.B.: So much easier.
TBM4W: When you’re not inside, when you don’t have an insider, when you don’t even have a woman on the inside, in a company where there are just men, how do you breach that, how do you get there, how do you get them to see the other side of tech?
E.B.: Alright, that one is tricky because tech is so network driven that you have to find some way to get in their network and I’m not sure what that is. I don’t want to advocate any sort of bad behaviors.
TBM4W: [laugh] No.
E.B.: No. Maybe if it’s all guys, you don’t want to go work there because they don’t know how to hire a woman. But if you really do, then find people in your network and I don’t just mean your friends and family. LinkedIn has this thing where it shows you a friend of a friend and anybody I look at on LinkedIn, I’m only two steps away. So taking LinkedIn out of the equation and doing that with your own network, you’re probably only two steps away from someone who is in that company. If you really really really want to go work there, even though it’s just dudes, figure out those two steps. [laugh]
TBM4W: Great points. I think a lot of companies that are men-only would benefit from having a woman in their midst.
E.B.: Oh, yeah. Totally. But it’s so hard to be the first one, right? It is so hard to be that first woman in the environment and they are all like “oh, we can’t make our jokes in front of her”, and “oh, we have to go be different in front of her” or, worst yet, they act like complete assholes, so it’s really hard to be that one woman. You have to have a lot of strength, you’ve got to have your armor way up. But just to be that first one. If you’re not built for that, then don’t do it.
TBM4W: How did you get into tech?
E.B.: I will tell you my origin story. I was a little kid, 7 years old, playing with my mom’s computer and she did combat plans for the Air Force, so she would sit me in front of her computer while she was doing her work so I would click around in QBasic. Later on, as I was getting older, I got more interested in computers, I was playing Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego, and all those little games on the Apple IIe. And then when I was 10, my school in Alaska sent me to this [computer camp] thing. I don’t know how they chose me. I think my mom might have told them that I was into computers or something. So I went to this thing that was in the city, teaching kids how to use HyperCard. I don’t want to call it the predecessor to the web but it kinda was, because it did the whole hyperlinking thing but instead of online, you would build things that are hyperlinked to a document. So they sent me to that and that got me hooked, and I was like, WOW! Up until that point I was literally: “I’m going to be a lawyer”.
E.B.: “I’m going to be a lawyer” but at that point I was: Maybe, maybe not a lawyer! “Maybe I want to do computer stuff”. Yeah, I was pretty good at debating especially with my mom, she did not like that.
TBM4W: How do we get more black women in tech? Can we reach them at the high school level? Can we go to younger than that? How do we engage that audience?
E.B.: I feel like there are a lot of black women in tech. They are just not in the Valley [Silicon Valley]. If you go look at the companies like the Coca-Cola and Home Depot or the big ones that are in the South, and places where lots of black people live… When I was in Atlanta, when I was at Home Depot’s headquarters, my boss was a black woman and it’s the only time in my entire career that I have had a black woman boss in the tech world. If you go to the places where they [black women] are, you will find them! But tech companies are so excessively white, [they can only think]: “We are going to go build in Portland”! Yes, so you’re just going to go build in the least diverse place that you are going to find. You’re going to go put your company, your new office in the least diverse place that you could possibly find! So I don’t think that there aren’t black women in tech! I just don’t think that they are in the [Silicon] Valley because the Valley has ‘issues’ that they need to address.
TBM4W: They’re working on it. [laugh]
E.B.: Hopefully! That crowd in there was very cold. I got lots of stank faces, so I was like ‘Okay I’m sorry’ – ‘Not really sorry’. [laugh]
TBM4W: [laugh] So the last question was, girls 10-12 years old… How do we get them interested in all things tech?
E.B.: I think they are interested, like gaming! They are curious. I feel like one of the problems is that people like to stereotype really early. I have been doing my best. I have three nieces from my sister and I have been doing my best to shove science and tech stuff in their faces since they were little. The oldest ones are twin girls, Riley, is not into it. She’s very: ”I’m gonna go play with flowers and I like to bake”. There is nothing wrong with that. But Brooklyn, her sister, picked it up and Brooklyn’s like “I’m going to do math, I’m going to do science, I’m going to learn these things”. I feel like if nobody had put that in front of her, she would not have known about it. So I feel like it’s important for parents to show up and just present it as an option at the outset. Game-Developer Barbie just came out (June). Kimberly Bryant founder of Black Girls Code is one of the advisers on that, which is awesome. So giving that as an option, like, you can be a game developer in a Barbie doll form. That’s gonna be huge. They didn’t think about that before.
Final thoughts: This was a fun interview, and I actually got a hug at the end. Yes, Erica Baker asked if she could give me a hug. You should have seen my smile. I love her, and I am pushing her message as far as I can, and so should you.
This being said, I want to be Erica Baker’s accomplice. Some women in business need accomplices. Most women in tech need accomplices. I aim to be every woman’s accomplice. I want to help and make a difference in every woman’s life. Reach out to me and to the magazine and we will actually do something together to push forward equality, diversity and inclusion.
This article first appeared in Issue 1 of The Business Magazine for Women, November 2016. You can get your copy here.
Text: Monica Antohi, TBM4W
Images: Monica Antohi, TBM4W