Erica Baker of Slack: I Want To See More Women Of Colour On Boards

Erica Baker of Slack: I Want To See More Women Of Colour On Boards

Leadership | Posted by - October 4, 2016 at 12:30 am

Photo courtesy of Shopify

Despite a strong global movement to create more diverse workplaces, women in technology continue to face gender and racial discrimination. The topic of how to create more inclusive workplaces was front and centre at Beyond the Code, a one-day conference presented by Shopify in downtown Toronto and dedicated to sharing experiences from underrepresented groups in technology including women of colour, girls learning to code, and indigenous communities.

Former Google engineer and outspoken advocate for women in technology Erica Baker, Build and Release Engineer at Slack Technologies, visited from San Francisco and spoke about solutions to increase diversity in corporate culture. Following her presentation, YouInc sat down with Baker to learn about the realities for women working in technology and what Baker believes needs to change in workplaces:

How did you become an advocate for diversity in tech?


In 2014, I was going through one of the most hellacious experiences of my life. I wasn't sure what was going on at work; I wasn't being supported, mentored, or sponsored, even though it had been promised for me in that role. At the same time, my boyfriend and I broke up. I sort of fell down, mentally, and I was like, “I can't handle all of this right now," so I started going to a therapist.


Part of my therapy was to work through all the stuff that I'd been holding inside for many years. I wrote about my experiences at Google, and in the tech industry, and that got a lot of attention. I felt so alone in those experiences. But once I wrote, and I got a lot of feedback from people, I realized it wasn't me. I was like, “Wow, somebody needs to keep talking about this,” so I kept doing it.

Would you attribute the therapy as what motivated you to keep talking, and keep going?


What motivated me to keep talking and keep going was the fact that my voice, and the voice of so many other women of colour in tech wasn't being heard. Therapy made it possible for me to keep going; being vulnerable, and cutting yourself open to display to the world is not an easy process. Therapy was there for me to work through the resultant emotions like fear.

Why do you think some women are more willing to speak about their feelings in the workplace than other women?


I think it's safety. It's a risk to speak up. Right now, I am able to take that risk, because I feel some measure of safety at Slack. I feel protected. When I started at Slack, Stewart told me, "Feel free to say what you want. I may not agree with it, but I support you saying it."


There are a lot of people who don't have that support. I think if everybody felt safe enough, they would tell their story. For a lot people, doing that is putting their job on the line. They're grown ups who have to take care of themselves, and sometimes families, and it's not an easy thing for a lot of people.

Why do you think some men are more willing to champion women in the workplace or women of colour?


I think because of the women of the workplace. I think men are willing to chip in on that, because they are able to feel empathy for people they know. For the men who get married or have daughters, it's one I hear often, "Oh my gosh, I wouldn't want my daughter to work in this environment," or, "My wife says she wants to work in tech, and I wouldn't want her to work in this industry," and that's when they start wanting to change.


I think it's also a little bit problematic because men aren’t frequently marrying women of colour, or people of colour; they're also not having kids of colour, so they aren't able to trigger that empathetic response. It would be helpful if a lot of people, not just men, went beyond feeling empathy for people they know and start feeling empathy for people they don't know.

You’ve talked a lot about getting women inthe room. If you’re a woman that doesn’t have support at work, what’s your advice for championing yourself?


I don’t have any, honestly, at this point.


In Scandal, there's a scene where Kerry Washington is talking to her dad on TV. Her dad says, "What do you have to be?" She says, "Twice as good," and he's like, "That's right. You've got to be twice as good to get half as much."


Women of colour, especially, are out there busting their asses, working extremely hard, and they still can't get in the room. The first black tech CEO that I know of, Stacy, had been working her behind off when I knew her at Google. Finally, she was able to become the CEO of TaskRabbit, but honestly, she should have been a CEO of some tech company a long time ago.


It's really hard to get into those spaces, because you have to overcome people's biases, and their stereotypes, and the default to promote people who look like them. Most of us tap out before we even get to that point. It's like, “I'm tired of running this race. I'm tired of having to fight twice or three times as hard to get to where someone who is half as qualified as me has gotten.”

But, how do you encourage someone to speak up who is not used to speaking up?


You have to tap whatever reserve of courage you have and be willing to say, "Okay, I know this is scary for me, but doing this will be helpful for someone else or even for myself.” Because as long as these sorts of things go unchecked in meetings and in companies, we're not going to see progress; people will think it's okay to continue saying those things.

What's your goal in the next year for women of colour in tech?


I have a goal, but I don't know if it's reachable. I would love to see more women of colour in executive leadership, on board seats, in venture capital and as venture capitalists. That is my number one thing. When Twitter put Debra Lee on their board, I was like, “Yes, one, let's keep going.”


There are positions of power in tech. Right now, the solution to making workplaces more diverse is to put people of colour, women of colour, in lower levels. If we can get them into the higher levels, where they can make change, and affect change in a real way, then we'll start seeing more movement. The needle will move faster, because the people who can make decisions are people who the decisions effect.



What does diversity in technology look like to you? Share your ideas in the comments below. 



If you know a woman that has an experience to share about diversity in technology, please tweet Kristen on Twitter @kmarano.


Tags: advice, diversity, entrepreneurs, leadership advice, shopify, slack, tech, tech entrepreneur, technology, women

Kristen Marano

Kristen Marano covers women and their work for publications around the world. She has interviewed some of the most influential business leaders in Canada and the most passionate change makers in towns and cities as isolated as Perth, Western Australia. Most recently she interviewed Canadian businesswoman Zita Cobb about reinvigorating the economy in Newfoundland through the arts. Kristen's work encourages women to share honest and open perspectives about the emotional challenges of their journeys.

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