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My action steps to be bold and brave in tech as a woman

Sylwia Vargas
I teach React, Redux, JavaScript, Ruby, Rails at Flatiron School | I care about web accessible and inclusive tech | she/her
Updated on ・4 min read

On this Women’s Day, I thought I’d write a quick checklist of how to “own it” in tech. It’s really a reminder for me of some of the learnings I gathered since I joined tech a year ago. It’s been 12 months and I had two moments close-to-quitting, both featuring braggadocious men whose behavior was sexist.

Here is what I wish every new woman or non-binary coder knew:

Recognize sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia when they happen.

When you constantly feel like an impostor, it may seem like you are in the wrong and not the people or rules around you. However, I’ll give out a spoiler: majority of tech was built by white dudes who did not care about designing with women or non-binary folks in mind. Chances are that yes, that joke was transphobic, yes, that policy is racist, and yes, that behavior was sexist.

Action steps:

  • Read blogs, tweets or talk to other folks about how specific kinds of discrimination manifest.
  • Read this guide to recognizing white supremacist practices(at least pages 60-62).
  • Name the discrimination when it happens — out loud or just in your head.
  • Focus on impact, not on intent. It doesn’t matter that someone meant it as a joke — it was racist and its impact was horrible.
  • Believe folks when they say they’ve experienced discrimination — your internalized sexism/racism/homophobia/transphobia may kick in, in which case recognize your inflamed reaction.

Take every opportunity to learn how to stand up for yourself and others.

People preoccupied with just getting by and making it to the next day at a stressful environmental oftentimes resign from speaking out.
Except for a few nice pockets of fluffiness (such as the Dev community), tech may be a very competitive and discriminatory place. Take every opportunity that comes your way to learn to speak out.

Action Steps:

  • Learn to give feedback and generously give it to everyone — try to give feedback on both the good and the bad behaviors (let’s celebrate the good!). I use CASK feedback framework and it works magic.
  • If you see someone being a jerk to other folks, speak out! The burden of recognizing and explaining discrimination should not be on the victim! And also, if you have a jerk in your environment, it’s only moments until it happens to you, anyway.
  • When women and non-binary folks speak in the meeting, be the person who’ll remind interrupters to not do that.
  • Elevate points brought up by women and non-binary folks in a meeting — it’s so often that men claim them later as theirs! In fact, that’s a trick that women in the White House do.

Learn to brag about your achievements.

Just think about it: how are your colleagues and boss supposed to know and remember about all your professional achievements? Sadly, in such a competitive field as tech you have to own your awesomeness. In order to be promoted, you need to make your boss know that you know that your work is worth more. In other words, in order to be promoted, you need to brag.

Action steps:

  • Keep a sheet of all achievements big and small and tell your boss about them every month or quarter — and for sure around the time of performance review.
  • See how other people sneak in little mentions of their achievements and do that as well.
  • Don’t downplay your achievements — don’t say it was luck (it was hard work and you know it!!!) or that it easy that awesome. Have a confidence of a middle-age white man.
  • Elevate achievements of other women and non-binary folks. Brag for them.

Don’t overapologize.

Do you know that women apologize quite a few times more than men? Think about it — a woman made a spelling error while pair-programming? She apologizes. A woman wants to ask a question during a Q&A and she apologizes before she starts.

Overapologizing is not a sign of good manners — no one cares about a comma you forgot to write in a letter. However, constant apologies can severely impact your self-esteem, perceived performance and sense of belonging.

Action steps:

  • Notice how often you apologize and what for.
  • Perhaps say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”? “Thank you for waiting” is better than “I’m sorry for being 5 minutes late”.
  • Tell other folks not to apologize when they do.

Maintain work-life balance.

Hiring is expensive, which is why (from a cynical perspective) your boss should want you to be fine. You can’t be sustainably fine if you work 12h, have no social life, no time to eat good food and no time for therapy (if you need one). As a woman, I tended to feel like I have to sacrifice all for the well-being of my students and I could not bring myself to ask for help. Fortunately, I reflected on what lead me to feeling burnt out and took steps towards my own well-being.
Action steps:

  • Do not stay late if you really don’t have to.
  • If you need therapy or exercise but don’t have time for it because of your hours, ask your boss if you can have a longer lunch or leave early once a week.
  • Do not dignify late emails or slack messages with a response.
  • Do not sacrifice your social life for a job.
  • Find a way to celebrate your achievements and failures alike on your own.

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There are many other points I’d add but these were the life-saving ones.

Discussion (7)

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bigfishh profile image
Annie Zheng

Thank you for this post Sylwia! I loved reading through the action steps especially these two: "Have a confidence of a middle-age white man" and "Elevate achievements of other women and non-binary folks. Brag for them."

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Amy Henning

This is great advice, and I love that you included action steps. I strive for this every day: "Have a confidence of a middle-age white man." :D Thank you for sharing!

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sylwiavargas profile image
Sylwia Vargas Author

Thank you! 😊 you know, I sometimes even say that out loud in company of the said men and watch some fragility kick in 😂 oh well, everyone needs a bit of confrontation with their privileges from time to time!

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katnel20 profile image
Katie Nelson

Thanks for the great advice Sylwia!

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sylwiavargas profile image
Sylwia Vargas Author

😊🥰 is there anything you’d add?

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katnel20 profile image
Katie Nelson

Just to stand up for yourself and don’t let others bother you. And don’t show how upset you are immediately in front of others. Take time to collect your thoughts before firing back.

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Michelle Gondran

Wonderful work, Sylwia! This is so well-written. As I begin my journey into tech, I will be revisiting this frequently! It's so easy to feel intimidated, but I have no doubt the action steps will help me to feel empowered! Side note-- I am so happy that you've linked the article about CASK feedback--this will be very helpful!