Power in Design & Tech: Part 1
By Angela Adams
June 15, 2021

Major cities around the nation are re-opening post COVID, with San Francisco re-opening today. As staff return to the office, many will return with fresh eyes – they will be paying attention to how leaders engage matters like racial justice and health care disparity, how coworkers and clients invest in relationships, how they themselves can contribute in new ways and advance their careers. 

Industry leaders are paying attention, too. The bold topic for this year’s San Francisco Design Week was power. While power might seem like an odd topic for a design conference, power is inherent in design. Likewise, power is inherent in any engagement where perspectives are shared, new concepts are presented, and decisions are made. Conversations about power in organizations are among some of the most important there are. 

Inspired by San Francisco Design Week, Angela Adams met with San Francisco-area product development experts to gain their insights on power and diversity in design and tech. In this two part series, we share their perspectives. 

Sara Chieco | Director of Technology, Social Impact | Presence 

Q: Sara, you’ve spent your whole career in the tech space. In your opinion, have teams become more diverse? 

A: Yes and no. Women and people of color are underrepresented in the design and tech space based on a variety of factors, including lack of opportunities, reduced access to STEM education, and lack of diverse leadership. People generally don’t want to work somewhere when no one on the leadership team looks like them. It’s not enough to hire a more diverse team, it’s imperative to retain that team, and I think that’s where tech is still falling dramatically short.

While there may be a more diverse stream of people entering the tech “ecosystem” – design, marketing, sales, project leadership – when it comes to technical roles, such as product designers, software engineers, or technical architects, there are very few women and very few people of color. Technical roles, for the most part, continue to be filled by White males. When I worked in a startup and was the only woman in a seven person company, I was repeatedly singled out by visitors to get them coffee. The assumption was that I was the office manager/receptionist, not a software engineer, when our office manager was a White male. I don’t even know how to make coffee!

Q: Why do you think this is? 

A: Our culture has deeply ingrained expectations based on someone’s gender. Girls are indoctrinated to believe women get things done and make the sacrifices, and men make decisions. This affects the type of opportunities we see for ourselves, and ultimately, the kind of jobs we do. 

I think early education is a key component. Presence works with wonderful clients including the Linked Learning Alliance and Project Syncere, two groups who are providing educational opportunities for middle and high schoolers, however it’s often too late to affect change at that point. By middle school, the unspoken messages are already instilled. 

We are socialized in different ways and this impacts us across our educational and professional careers. I’m very concerned about the setback from COVID where young children have watched for over a year as their mothers primarily pick up the home schooling and education roles even when they had been working a full-time job previously. In many cases this meant leaving their jobs or reducing their hours and being the ones to sacrifice for their families.

Q: What do you think it will take to see women and people of color better represented in senior roles or more technical positions? 

A: To truly make workplaces inclusive we need to not just invite people to be in the room, but to fully participate. There’s so much work to be done in not only letting someone’s voice be heard, but in creating an environment where they want to be heard. 

We need to promote individuals and give them real opportunities for career growth, not just hand out vanity promotions to check the box that we are promoting women and people of color. 

Speaking from experience, women in technical roles don’t want to work on a team where they will be patronized or ignored. Communication is key in technical roles and many women communicate much differently than men. Women tend to utilize a style of communication that has roots in emotional intelligence and vulnerability which has long been shunned in the workplace. It can make men feel uncomfortable. If I had a nickel for each time I heard something about women being too emotional… However, women feel more comfortable connecting on this level and will seek an environment where they can feel comfortable communicating in these less traditional ways. That’s why it is imperative to have diverse voices on leadership teams so they feel represented and supported.  

Software engineering can be a very solitary path. We need women to model how to excel in technical roles. And we need women to lead in different ways, so others feel comfortable expressing themselves and taking technical positions. We need women and people of color in leadership in order to create leadership styles and working environments that are more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We’ve made progress; however, it’s been a glacial effort. There’s still much work to be done. 

Sariah Sizemore | Founder | Art of Quality

Q: Have you observed an imbalance of power in the design and tech space? 

A: Yes. I have always been one of the only women on engineering teams. From my early days in tech support, where all of the teams were primarily male, to the QA work I’m doing now, I am often the only woman on a technical team. 

Earlier in my career, I felt I had to work extra hard to prove my technical acumen. The power balance was usually more in favor of the men on the team. They had more power in the sense of access to promotions and it being easier for them to move through the ranks. It was almost as if there was a ground level assumption that all men were more skilled technically and more suited for management level leadership. The effort I was making to feel seen, heard, and considered while wanting to grow my career as a leader was exhausting. This was part of the reason I took a step away from tech in 2012. I needed to reconnect with myself and discover my personal power outside of the realm of my work.

Q: What did you do after you stepped away?

A: I began a coaching practice. Through my coaching practice, I learned lots of new skills like nonviolent communication and realized that I could navigate power imbalances in a healthy way instead of feeling defeated and less-than. When I considered coming back to tech, I knew the environment would still be male dominated and I’d face similar challenges as before. However, after doing my personal work to find my sense of power and try on new perspectives, I would return with my sense of power more intact and less fragile.

That has been my experience since I’ve returned to tech. Instead of allowing my perceptions of myself to be formed by the people in power around me, I choose what I take on, how I communicate, and how I engage with my environment. It’s not always perfect, but this change in myself helps me stay grounded and maintain a sense of power as I navigate the tech industry as a woman.

The tech space can feel a bit like a busy subway station. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of chaos, maybe you don’t know what train to get on. I feel like when I use my skills to take a breath, pause, feel my whole self, and navigate from there, I don’t get swept up in the chaos or out-of-balance power dynamics. 

Q: What do you mean by chaos?

A: The communication patterns favored in tech are often single focused, compartmentalized, and foster more task-oriented accomplishments. This can be viewed in some philosophies as more “masculine” communication, although men, women, and non-binary folks all use this style of communication in one way or another.  I’m most comfortable communicating in a more holistic way, taking into consideration many details and bringing a collaborative spirit. I also see the importance of that laser focus on a task and problem solving approach. Both are welcome and necessary. I think a great way to create more balance and cut through the chaos is to make room for different styles of communication and approaches and play with bringing what’s most effective in any given situation. 

I can get swept up in what’s happening around me. Or I can step back and make a choice about how I want to approach any given conversation or challenge. That’s what I love to do. I think that people who are really skilled at that approach can create an appropriate power balance just in terms of how they are showing up and communicating. 

Q: Can you say more about how they can create an appropriate power balance? 

A: Recently, a situation came up on the mostly-male team I’m working on. I’m the only female on the technical team. The project lead and I were not in alignment. I addressed it with him. I said something like “Hey, our communication doesn’t seem to be working. We’re missing the mark. What can we do differently?” From there, we were able to openly talk about our differences in communicating and share some ideas with one another. It really opened the lines of communication and improved my experience on the project.

We can create appropriate power balances by becoming allies in the tech work space. Come alongside those who are not in the dominant culture and learn to observe the situation from their perspective. Then be intentional about doing things differently, not just getting swept away by the status quo.

Many thanks to Sara and Sariah for sharing their insights! In part two of this series, we’ll hear from Jason Monberg of Presence and Curt Collinsworth of Passage, two founders in the tech and design space. Between now and then, we’d love to hear how you’ve experienced power in the design and tech space. Find us on Twitter or LinkedIn and let’s talk!