“You can be anything you want,” is a familiar phrase children hear from their parents, and my dad regularly said it to me. Of course, as a teenager, I had to try to prove him wrong. “I can’t be anything, Dad. I’m never going to be an Olympic figure skater!” Still, I never thought twice about whether I could be a software engineer. My father was a computer programmer and occasionally brought me to work with him. As somewhat of an introvert, I loved that he worked at a computer all day.
When it came time to pick a major in college, programming felt like the natural choice. It wasn’t easy though. At Santa Clara University, I was one of only a handful of women in my major, and computer programming didn’t come naturally to me. But I’m stubborn, so I kept at it.
Now in the professional arena, a variety of positions have allowed me to find new strengths and develop new skills — like how to work with a diverse team. The different backgrounds of team members provide me with new perspectives every day, making the workplace more fun. Diversity also better reflects your customer base. When you’re designing a product, you need to make sure you’re hitting the needs of your whole population of users, and having a diverse team increases the level of insights you can bring to the product. It will give a better idea of how different populations respond to what you are building and improve your communication with customers — both current and potential.
Find Your Way
Being a woman in a male-dominated field can be lonely. It can be difficult to find people with whom you share common ground, which is often the path to closer working relationships. This can become more acute once you have children; your priorities change, and so does your work social life. I’ve been lucky. I made good friends — both male and female — early in my career and that has made learning, forming friendships, and enjoying my work a lot easier.
Having a mentor is probably the single most important thing you can do to help find your way in an organization. Your mentor doesn’t have to be another woman or a supervisor — just someone you feel comfortable with. Mentors not only listen and offer advice, they also encourage you to take steps in your career that you might feel unsure of. One of my early mentors planted a seed for moving toward my current position by simply asking if I had thought about a broader managerial role. He didn’t have a job to offer me at the time, but it did help me to expand my own idea of my place in the organization.
Also, never be afraid to communicate your ideas or to ask for help if you need it. When you speak up you’ll often find others who share your concerns — or find great value in your ideas.
Empower the Next Generation
As a woman, I feel an obligation to put myself out there just to give women in the field more visibility. Although it can be difficult to find the time, I do feel it is important to stay active in the community, taking part in job fairs or career days, as well. When young women are considering their career choices, it helps to see other women active in technical fields — they can focus on the work because the trail has already been blazed.
One of Adobe’s partners is Girls Who Code, a great organization for high school students. Internships are also valuable — for both the interns and the company, which can benefit hugely from interns’ contributions. Pushing further down the generations, as a parent it’s important to recognize biases in how you approach your sons versus your daughters. Girls like Legos and Star Wars, too!
Grow a Culture of Inclusion
Managers can support inclusion in their teams by following a few simple guidelines:
Reflect the diversity you seek. When bringing potential team members in for an interview, make sure that your interview panel represents the diversity you’re aiming for within your team. More diverse teams tend to create more rewarding and successful environments. They’ll better represent your customer base, too.
Check unconscious biases. It’s easy to fall into familiar patterns. Be aware of who you are assigning different tasks to so that you’re not giving better assignments to the same people without even realizing it.
Encourage team members to share their opinions. People have different communication styles. If you find that certain people in your meetings are usually silent, ask their opinion. Remember, still waters often run deep.
Celebrate your team’s differences. Why not try something different for your next team lunch? Order Lebanese, Peruvian, Ethiopian, or Filipino. Small actions like this will let your team know that different cultures are appreciated.
Have empathy — it’s key! Recognize that team members might work different schedules due to religious obligations, because they are caring for elderly parents or children, or other needs. Respect these differences; you’ll likely find that your team performs better.
Managers should be honest about their own struggles, too, so others know they aren’t alone. For example, I never hide that I’m a mother and sometimes need to stay home with sick kids or leave work early. People often hide their family obligations because they’re afraid others might question their commitment to their jobs. If we all can be more open about our own struggles, we can build a more accepting and flexible work environment.