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The Truth About Being a Black Woman in Tech

The Truth About Being a Black Woman in Tech

For the past five years, the diversity problem in Silicon Valley has been the hot button issue. 

One year after Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others started issuing "diversity reports," the numbers are still staggeringly low. Meanwhile, Amazon and Dropbox have failed to release 2015 workforce demographics all together.

Michael Learmonth wrote in the International Business Times that the problem is rooted in a broken pipeline whereby quality candidates — like the 5,500 black students who earn engineering and computer science degrees in the U.S. each year — are simply not heading to Silicon Valley. Why? Learmonth contends that tech companies aren’t poaching from the right places, relying too heavily on the Stanfords and Berkeleys of the world. This is despite the fact that 28 percent of all engineering degrees awarded to African-Americans are earned at historically black colleges and universities, according to the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

However, a pipeline isn't the only thing that's broken.

According to Bari A. Williams, Counsel, Global Infrastructure & Operations at Facebook the diversity wars are only being fought one engineering battle at a time, instead of looking at all of the various department of a tech company — such as marketing, community management, external suppliers, partnerships, operations, and even the legal department. Yes, for Williams — who holds a BA, MA, MBA and a JD — the conversation is much bigger.

In a candid interview, Levo spoke with Williams about her career path as woman of color in tech, along with the diversity hits (and misses) in Silicon Valley.

Levo: What does the word “diversity’ mean to you?

Bari A. Williams: The word "diversity," in the hiring context, to me, means celebrated differences. They key word there is "celebrated."  If we don't celebrate the differences, they can be viewed as challenges to navigate and not valuable experiences to pull from.

Rarely have I ever heard about diversity being celebrated outside of Hollywood. What's the hold up in tech?

BW: One problem is that the focus has just been on driving up employee numbers and increasing percentages. You have to be careful not to let inclusion fall by the wayside. That’s why this stuff is called “diversity and inclusion.” Folks neglect the last piece entirely while they think the problem is solved if there are five more black or Latino folks on campus. Another issue I see is that we have the bulk of diverse employees as entry-level and lower-level employees. This deficit can’t be because there isn’t valuable and analogous experience at managerial, director, VP, and C-suite levels. But for some reason, it just isn’t happening.  Perhaps we need to reframe the type of experience that’s valued, and how we view it.

Knowing this, what was it about Facebook that attracted you to the company?

BW: As a huge proponent and champion of the product, I loved and respected the mission, and thought it was totally worthwhile. Making the world more open and connected is a noble goal, and it’s something that I try to embrace and do personally. After years of using the service, I finally saw an opportunity to leverage my skills, my passion, my interests, and join as an employee. The icing on the cake was the initiative, which seeks to connect the unconnected and provide free basic services and internet access to those without. I am completely fulfilled by my work serving the mission, especially since a lot of those who benefit look like me. It’s a huge source of motivation and fulfillment.

As someone inside the bubble, what is at the core of the problem?

BW: Inclusion is a key piece. Once you get these folks inside a company, then what? What are you doing to retain them? If a lot of Silicon Valley and success is built on relationships, inclusion is so clutch, because that’s how you get in line for key projects. Are those new diverse employees receiving the same exposure and opportunity for stretch projects, which will put them in line for promotion? If they aren’t receiving promotional opportunities and projects with high visibility and exposure, then you won’t retain them. And who will they be replaced by? Probably another under-leveled minority with starry eyes who's hopeful about their promotional potential, but unless the system is fixed, that person will run into the same problem. It’s not enough to have them here; inclusion and opportunity once inside are huge.

Much of the focus when it comes to diversity hiring and retention looks at the engineering roles and CS departments, but those are a just a portion of the funnel.

BW: General and administrative functions are so overlooked as areas for hiring and leadership. We when look at law, marketing, community engagement, public relations, finance, strategy and partnerships, etc., those don’t require STEM degrees, and there are tons of liberal arts degree holders and those with JDs, MBAs and BAs that could fill those roles. I think if we look for talent through that prism, there is more opportunity while we continue to build the STEM pipeline of talent. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

What is Facebook doing right with regard to diversity and attracting new talent?

BW: In the Legal department, we’ve been proactive and hosted many more events targeted to bring attorneys of color to campus for panels and opportunities to meet us and our recruiters. That includes joining and participating in the right organizations, attending the right conferences, and partnering with the right organizations for events. Last fall, we hosted a "Be Bold Move Fast" college tour, which took us out of Silicon Valley and into a lot of HBCUs. Beginning in DC, we visited George Washington University, Georgetown, and Howard before moving on to Atlanta, North Carolina, and Southern California. At each school we did a presentation about careers at Facebook, hosted a panel with FB employees, and hosted mixers with chapters of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.

Sounds like your work to make diversity a priority at Facebook is a second full-time job.

BW: I firmly believe in doing what you can, with what you have, from where you are. To that end, I know the Legal department best. For one, I refer folks! I have referred three people in Legal that were subsequently hired. I also make sure to talk with candidates before their interviews, to give them any insight into the company that I might have that may be beneficial. I’ve also worked with my Deputy General Counsel, Allison Mull, in efforts to join and actively participate in key diversity groups for Legal, including Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) and the California Minority Counsel  Program (CMCP). It’s also about demonstrating and showing that Facebook not only has diverse talent, and wants more, but is putting said talent in great career building opportunities inside and outside the company.

Give us an average "day in the life" of Bari Williams.

BW: It’s a full day! I get up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and open my computer and respond to emails, shower, get dressed and head to work on the 6:40 a.m. shuttle. The shuttle is equipped with WiFi, so I do work on the shuttle, which is great. I turn on some music and do work for the 55-minute drive to campus. The workday is full of meetings and drafting contracts until I head home on the 4:15 p.m. shuttle. From there, I pick up my 6-month-old daughter, head home, and start the evening routine—cook dinner, baths, feed the baby, put her to bed, and then do the same for my 5-year-old son. Around 8:30 p.m., when they are both asleep, I’ll log back on and do some more work until about 10 p.m. At some point I’ll eat and spend time with my husband. I’m also active in my community, so there may be a conference call or night meeting with one of the organizations I’m involved with any given day. I usually fall asleep around 10:30 p.m., and then I wake up at 5:30 a.m. and do it all over again. I have a very hands-on husband and mom, and a great babysitter, in addition to friends who help. It takes a village to make my whole life work.

What’s the biggest mistake you've made in your career and how did you recover?

BW: I needed to be more personable. It was one thing to be professional, but to keep my head down and focus on my work and completely separate myself personally was seen as a liability. I realized two things from that experience. One, it encourages the perception that you’re unapproachable and not friendly. Two, being heads down on my work and not taking opportunities to talk about what I was doing wouldn’t yield results. Those two learnings made me realize that I need to work on integrating more of my personal life into the mix, and a bit more information about my work and ambitions into the discussions. I need to talk about what moves me, what I'm interested in, and humanize myself, which will lead to better perception of my work and could lead to "sponsorship." The more isolated one is, even if your work is great, the less likely you are to be "sponsored," and thus promoted.

That's a hard truth that many just refuse to deal with on top of the grueling hours and fast-paced, "deliver excellence" world of tech.

BW: I'm a double minority in the workplace, and I have to sometimes do more for less. When people think of "black executives," they think of black men. When they think of "female/women executives," they think of white women. Therefore, someone like me isn’t seen as typical of the leadership categories of "black" or "woman." It's almost erasure. So, I have to make sure I’m not just technically proficient with my work, but that I’m someone people really like to work with, and I need to be able to talk about my work and highlight what I‘m doing. It helps to bring my whole self to work, which I can easily do at Facebook. The environment allows for that.

To that point, being your whole self allows for me to learn from others at work, too, because they share. There’s been tremendous value in finding and fostering relationships with people who aren’t exactly like me, and it presents a learning opportunity. My biggest inspirations at work aren't Black women, but two women in legal, Anna Chen and Allison Mull, who are fantastic attorneys leading teams and they have families and outside interests. I've learned personally and professionally just from watching them.

What’s the best advice you've ever received that you’d pass on to others trying to achieve your same success?

BW: "You are your own best advocate, and no one will care as much about you as you do. No one will fight for you like you will." A mentor, Ed Goines, said this to me when I asked for advice regarding an assignment and when discussing promotions. He reminded me that I know my work better than anyone else, I know what I’m capable of more than anyone else, and that I care about my growth and progression more than anyone else. All of those together means that I'm my own best advocate, and that I shouldn’t be afraid of talking about my accomplishments and knowing my worth. If I discount and devalue myself, so will others.  Knowing your worth teaches people how to treat you.

More From Levo:
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Photo Credit: Sydney Roberts/Getty Images