Dinah Shi has been gaining experience in tech while still a student at the University of Waterloo. She’s learning the challenges women face and doing something about it, starting up the Waterloo chapter of Women Who Code. Here’s her Q&A in advance of her talk at Change The Ratio Waterloo Region March 10th.
Can you remember a time when you experienced bias, as a child and/or an adult? What happened and how did you handle it? Is there something you would do differently today?
A comment that I used to hear a lot was, “You got that because you’re a girl.” There are variations of this message: “You got into that prestigious program because you’re a girl.” “You got that scholarship because you’re a girl.” “You landed that interview because you’re a girl.” I hated hearing that but I never knew how to respond. I didn’t know much about screening processes and hiring practices so a part of me was afraid there was truth to those comments and that I didn’t deserve these accolades.
I learned to ignore those comments by owning up to my successes. I know how hard I work and how much I deserve the opportunities I have; I don’t need to justify that to people who are trying to deflect their own insecurities by degrading my accomplishments.
Truth be told, I’m still not really sure how to respond to these comments. They are often muttered in casual social settings where I don’t want to be argumentative. Sometimes I let it go. Sometimes I try to explain why the comment is hurtful no matter how harmless it may seem. The most important thing I’ve learned to do is surround myself with people who support me and don’t put others down in order to make themselves feel better.
How do you wish to influence and change work culture in Waterloo Region?
Waterloo is known for producing great technical talent and entrepreneurs but I think the conversation on diversity is lacking. I started the KW Diversity Report because I want companies in Waterloo Region to come together and make a commitment to diversity and inclusion. The report aims to show the business value of diverse teams, bring transparency to the current state of diversity in local companies, and encourage people to actively think about inclusion as they craft their company culture. Tech companies in Waterloo Region are collectively thinking about how to make it an attractive place for talent; I want to make it clear that this invitation is open to talent from all walks of life.
There have been a few articles in the media about women leaving technology jobs, because of the environment. What has been your experience, especially having worked in Silicon Valley?
I don’t think any woman working in technology can avoid the environment issue. It extends beyond the office: not feeling like you belong because tech events are catered towards young men, knowing that people make assumptions about you based on how you look, having less access to networks because you don’t follow the same sports or like the same beer as everyone else. People don’t give enough credit to how these little things build up over time. And the experience is not unique to women – the triggers may be different but it’s felt by everyone outside of the majority.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in some amazing teams. At Yelp, I got to be a part of the employee resource group for women in engineering. Not only did I meet a ton of role models, I was also exposed to a network of women in engineering groups at other companies including Square and Airbnb. We had joint events, attended talks together, and shared knowledge on ways to support women in our respective teams. I know this experience is not shared by all women in Silicon Valley but I do want to praise these companies for recognizing diversity as a priority and investing in it.
Is there someone you remember who either stood up for you, or made a difference in you being perceived as an equal, or who made you comfortable about speaking up? How did they do that?
I don’t wear tech shirts and hoodies every day; that’s just not who I am. I like skirts and dresses and shoes that aren’t sneakers. I remember a few coworkers once commenting that I didn’t fit in due to my attire. I don’t think they meant any harm but I felt like I had to change the way I dressed to belong. A woman outside of the engineering organization overheard and told me that she loved that I brought some stylish flair into the office. She told me to wear whatever made me feel good and see standing out as an asset. That helped me gain the confidence to not only dress how I wanted but also embrace all the little things that make me unique.
Why did you start the Waterloo chapter of Women Who Code? Was there a specific moment that caused you to say, I’m doing this?
Women Who Code Waterloo was founded when one of the advisors of Women Who Code, Stephanie Shupe, gave a talk at the University of Waterloo about staying connected with other women in industry. She shared some of the events that Women Who Code San Francisco hosts and how they help support women in technical roles, women considering a career change into tech, and women looking to connect with other technical women. Their mission and impact really resonated with me. Afterwards, myself and 5 other women decided that we wanted to recreate the same kind of network here in Waterloo. Connecting and empowering women in technology is still our mission today.
Are there unconscious biases that you’ve noticed in yourself? How do you catch yourself and unlearn them?
I am pretty young and sometimes I can see people sizing me up and dismissing me as inexperienced due to my age. So it’s kind of ironic that I catch myself underestimating young people. As soon as I am aware of this, I remind myself of how awful it feels when it happens to me and how impossible it is to gauge a person’s experience without knowing their story.
How have you addressed the issue of gender and ethnic bias with your peers? How do you start that conversation?
I am really lucky in that I know some really intelligent, driven young women who work in tech. We know that we tend to be outnumbered in class and in the office so we really lean on each other for support. We’re very candid with each other and cut to the chase when we discuss bias. A friend of mine recently sent me a Facebook message saying she felt like she wasn’t heard at work and her manager wasn’t taking her seriously enough. Another told me that she was feeling really pessimistic about the industry after reading some articles about women who were unfairly treated at work. Sometimes I just listen and sometimes we try to come up with actionable steps to address the issue.