Often, working in technology is like I have stumbled into a boarding school for white boys with the odd tyrannical headmaster. But it wasn’t always the case.
When I left Nigeria in my early twenties to pursue a dream of becoming a holistic designer, all I wanted to do was apply my skills for the benefit of mankind. I didn’t think there would be other things to consider other than doing my work well. So when I finished design school and began working, I believed the employment system was at least 80 per cent meritocratic. So I threw myself into it.
Before long, I discovered systematic racism and sexism among the realities of working in the UK – and my struggle with anxiety disorders. It started off with simple statements. My boss admitting that a man had applied for my role, demanding double my salary. The audacity, I thought. Another boss telling me, in very clear terms, that he couldn’t give me more responsibility when I asked for it because it was not expected of me.
A common feedback was that my work was great but I needed to be more social, which meant I had to show up at the pub at least twice a week – every week. I soon learnt that a cultural fit generally meant a pub fit.
In reality, I was a minority in a minority: a woman, black, Nigerian, expat. “Your accent might make people think you are backward”, a white colleague told me recently. Some job opportunities didn’t progress because they realised I would need to be sponsored.
Still I’ve managed to find work, but I am usually the only black person or black woman in the entire tech department. What I didn’t know was I would have to work four to six times harder than a white man with the same qualifications and experience.
I find that it’s now easy for me to recognise sexism, because I’ve always been a woman, but I haven’t always been seen as ‘black’ as I grew up in Nigeria. It’s been hard to admit that being black is indeed a factor in the way that I’m perceived in this country.
In one role I experienced my first clear cut racist experience when a colleague stated that Africans were evil in some way. I told him to be careful of his statements, which he tried to justify with even more sad statements. It certainly didn’t make me popular, but I stood up for what was right.
Looking back, I can see how much of a distraction racism, sexism and most -isms are. I talked to some other black women in tech, and their stories made me feel like I wasn’t alone, but it also made me want to help others in a similar situation.
Here are some of the pointers which helped me navigate the workplace, which other women in tech may find useful.
You need to believe in something greater than yourself. You cannot place your core identity into something that changes, like a job or career. It will kill you. Your core identity is where you will draw strength from in times of hardship and must be in something that is unchangeable and unshakable. For me that’s my trust in God and that I am loved, no matter what.
Do the work
Keep your head down. Hone your skills and do your work. Please use Serena Williams as a guide. Don’t get distracted. The technology industry changes very fast. Keep your skills up to date and just keep moving.
Find a mentor
Seek mentorship from someone in the industry who can help guide and nurture you.
This could be your family, community or technology groups that focus on people of colour. This goes a long way to helping you withstand so many challenges.
Learn to speak up
Don’t keep quiet. Fight for justice anyway you can. It could be simply telling your male colleague that he shouldn’t interrupt, or repeat what you just said like it was his idea.
It is important that we don’t set limits for ourselves, because only then can we rise and start to affect change from positions of influence.
Photo credit: Keenetrial.com
About the author
Antonia is a user experience consultant with a design and engineering background. Originally from Nigeria, she now lives and works in London. She has worked on design projects for Pluralsight, US Bank, Salterbaxter, BBC, Audi, Gamesys, Mars inc., Ladbrokes, Percy Hedley Foundation among others, and seeks to share knowledge by mentoring individuals and startups. Antonia enjoys blogging and currently manages more than five active blogs with topics ranging from fashion to politics. She also enjoys illustrating, travelling, volunteering, video-gaming, debates, music and books. Antonia is passionate about how people can develop themselves positively and is exploring the intersections of personality, race, gender and the workplace (tech, teams, the environment). Antonia is also a contributing blogger for Digital Women UK and will be interviewing female-led startups, reporting on tech trends, breaking down UX for the uninitiated, and will contribute to our Geek Corner slot.