International Women’s Day #BreakTheBias by Rabia Williams

My journey into the male heavy industry of Information and Technology as a programmer started more than a decade ago. Throughout these years I have worked with many companies (including Engage Squared) and am currently working as a Cloud Advocate at Microsoft. Unfortunately, in all these years I have faced my fair share of many ‘-isms’ including sexism. It’s everywhere!

I could get carried away telling you about my stories, but to keep this article in line with this year’s International Women’s Day theme #BreakTheBias, I will stick to discussing workplace sexism, especially in the IT industry. I will share tips on how you can navigate it, how you and your colleagues can unlearn the biases and how you can help create a world free from sexism (one can only dream).

Our voices

As women we are always judged before we even open our mouths. Our ideas are often taken lightly and passed off when the same idea reworded by a male, is applauded. This comes from experience, and I can already see some of you nodding.

How I’d deal with this:

  • Prepare at least a day ahead before meetings, presentations etc.
  • Listen more but never leave a meeting without voicing an opinion or an idea
  • Ask for clarification on why your idea did not make sense. Document it and if possible, send an email as minutes of that meeting or as notes
  • Speak less and carefully curate your sentences
  • Always measure your feedback and ask yourself if it is valuable to the discussion

Our appearance

Judgment aligned to the appearance of women has been around for years. A memorable incident I remember reading about was former PepsiCo CEO (and incredible business woman), Indra Nooyi, being denied business meetings for wearing the saree – a traditional Indian wear. Although this was many moons ago, we have not changed a bit from such regressive thinking, even in 2022.

Many folks in IT that I know had to dress down or wear less make up to be taken seriously, including myself. Which begs the question: are we holding back celebrating who we are because we don’t look like someone else’s idea of a techy?

How I’d deal with this:

  • Be yourself!
  • Make your work speak for you
  • For the other side, stop associating external looks to a person’s intelligence. You look laughable in this day and age if you are this regressive. And no, nobody is asking for attention

Speak up

Women will often find themselves in situations where they face covert sexism. These are often called microaggressions.

Complimenting on being good at your job which they did not expect you’d deliver, spoken over and often explaining more than needed on a topic you are an expert on, asking questions to another male member on topics you are presenting or leading etc are all good examples of such behaviour in workspace.

Remember to always identify such microaggressions and speak up politely.

How I’d deal with this:

  • Learn to identify these microaggressions targeted at you or your colleagues
  • Give people the benefit of doubt by removing your self from the picture and look at the situation form all context possible
  • If you identify a comment as a microaggression, ask them politely to explain what they meant or to repeat it. This often catches them off-guard if it was intentional
  • Support and defend if needed, the person who was targeted not the aggressor
  • Ask for help with your manager or colleague to deal with such situations so you can move on
  • Don’t take it personally. Fight the issue not the person

Final thoughts

Engage Squared was my previous employer before I joined Microsoft and will always be one of my favourite workplaces, where I was valued and respected for my work. I was never reminded of my gender or ethnicity, which is why writing this blog is so special and allows me to do my part to break the bias.

I am grateful to be now part of an incredible company like Microsoft with a diverse global team. My colleagues are super empathetic, supportive, and extremely talented. Isn’t it a shame that those qualities can sometimes surprise you and aren’t guaranteed in some workplaces?

I have learnt more in these past few years than I have in a decade around how to be sensitive to other human beings, regardless of their differences. But I also had to unlearn a lot. I hope this article helps you in some way and I wish for a better world where everyone is safe and celebrated no matter their differences. Happy International Women’s Day!

Resources

Here are some women specific initiatives if you are keen to join:

#IWD2022 #BreakTheBias

About the author

Rabia Williams has been a programmer for almost 15 years in Microsoft Technologies and was previously awarded Microsoft MVP in Office development category. Rabia is currently a Cloud Advocate at Microsoft focused on Microsoft Teams app development platform and Microsoft Graph, and is also a contributing member of the Microsoft 365 Patterns and Practices team, and maintainer of CLI for Microsoft365.

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