How Negotiation Skills Helped Me Deal with Sexism in the Tech Industry

 Who benefits when you keep yourself small? 

I posed this question to the audience of women and non-binary technologists at Write Speak Code conference. 

Answers bubbled up from the crowd: 

Not you. 

Not your friends and family. 

Not other people who look like you.  

Definitely not your pet cat. 

But let's face it. Bias is real, and so is the pressure to keep you and your paycheck small. 

Of numerous and seemingly endless stories emerging about inequality, bias and sexism in the tech industry, Ellen Pao's story is one that deeply resonates with me.

Ellen Pao is a former VC at one of the top firms in Silicon Valley. In 2012, she sued her employer for gender discrimination. Instead of staying quiet, she spoke up. Instead of staying small, she took up the fight. She didn't win, but she retained the right to tell her story. 

Here's her experience of how entrenched sexism benefitted her employer:  

“...the answer crystallized in my mind: If you had the opportunity to have workers who were overeducated, underpaid, and highly experienced, whom you could dump all the menial tasks you didn’t want to do on, whom you could get to clean up all the problems, and whom you could create a second class out of, wouldn’t you want them to stay?

All too real. All too familiar.

Not speaking your truth is a toxic experience. 

Here's my truth - after spending five years in operations roles with tech startups, I left tech, because I couldn't bear the pressure to fold myself into a pretzel to please an all-male management team and to pretend like sexism doesn't exist. Like 41% of women in tech who leave within 10 years of working in the field, I couldn't see myself advancing and thriving if I stayed. 

My story is, of course, unique to me and one of privilege, as I am an able-bodied, naturalized U.S. citizen who speaks English. And I don't have the answers to fixing the tech industry's sexism problem. My choice was to leave, but it doesn't have to be yours. You don't have to do anything that I've done in my career to cope, to grow and to change. I've benefitted from the experience of others, and my intention is to share what I've experienced to be of value. 

So here are few things that helped me: 

  1. Learning to negotiate with the voice in my head. I call it the itty bitty shitty committee. Coaches call it saboteur. It's the voice that has internalized every negative, sexist and racist thing ever said about me. It's the voice that tells me, over and over again, to stay small and safe. It tells fake news that diminishes my value and power. I reckon with it so it doesn't hold me back from showing up, going big and speaking out. 
  2. Getting really honest about what makes me me. What am I good at? What do I value? Where do I belong? I resisted these questions for many years, because I wanted to mold myself into something I'm not, a left-brained tech startup manager with a promising career in crunching data for high six-figures. When I could no longer sustain the faking, I accepted that my real passion was in writing, speaking and coaching. That I value my creativity and autonomy over fancy titles that my mother would approve of. Once I found my tribe of creative freelancers, writers and coaches, I found my community. It was like finding home. 
  3. Negotiating for a significant pay raise. Money is a tool that can be used for good. A year before I left my tech job, I asked and received a $20K pay increase that I eventually saved to fund the transition into working as a full-time negotiation trainer and coach with She Negotiates. Now it's my job to help ambitious people like you become bolder, braver and better paid, and I love it. 

Let's go big or go home. 

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