I am an African American woman with a professional background in UX and Information Technology. While I learned an incredible amount from my peers, at times it was a minefield, full of hazards below the surface. I was often the only woman, and more often the only black person, in most team meetings. Mostly out of ignorance, and sometimes out of malice, insensitive comments were made that alienated me and left me feeling stuck. Out of fear of being judged as an “Angry Black Woman,” I tried my best to not respond to these comments with passion. I picked my battles, brushed off minor infractions, and calmly stood my ground against ignorant comments that warranted a response.
In her article “Diversity & Inclusion in Design: Why Do They Matter?,” Antionette Carroll notes that diversity and inclusion leads to more creativity, innovation, and problem solving. In an article at UX Collective, Pluralsight VP Mariah Hay states that, “Teams with women simply perform better… I’m no expert on this topic but there is lots of thought leadership out there on why this happens; from team psychology to empathic decision making, gender diversity is a true competitive advantage. I’ve personally experienced the difference and would encourage organizations to carefully curate their teams for diversity.” Farah Bernier, HR for Google Chrome Engineering, noted during the 2018 UXPA Boston panel on Design and Diversity that “every person working on the product contributes to its success, including women and people of color.”
Meanwhile, a 2018 report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company says that while companies have reported interest in committing to gender diversity, that interest has been slow to translate to actual progress metrics. Only 5.1% of design professionals are African American, according to a 2017 AIGA report. A 2016 report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology found that only 3% of people in technical roles are black women. In leadership at tech companies, racial disparities are far worse than gender disparities, according to a 2015 report from the Pan-Asian Ascend Foundation. That report states, “In general, although minority women faced both racial and gender gaps … race, not gender, was increasingly the more important factor in limiting minority women in the pipeline.”
In my research on this topic, it was striking that I could find no published reports on the intersection of race and gender of design professionals that specialize in UX. There was also no data on the intersection of race and gender in UX leadership.
Microaggressions in UX and Tech
In a panel I led on Design and Diversity at the 2018 UXPA Boston Conference, I was floored by how many people participated in the Q&A session. They came from a variety of backgrounds. They were black, brown, white; transgender, straight, gay; parents and child-free. All had experienced microaggressions in UX and IT. They found healing in listening to others and sharing their own stories.
Microaggressions exist in every nook and cranny in our society. They also find their ways into UX workplaces despite the best intention of many empathy-focused UX groups. Microaggressions are defined by Merriam-Webster as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” While we as UX practitioners pride ourselves on human-centered design, we can also assist in perpetuating stereotypes and microaggressions against women and people of color. When we make insensitive statements based on culture and class, ignore the comments of non-white colleagues, and interrupt non-white people and women of all races when they speak, we lose the benefits that diversity brings to our organizations.
In today’s society, most people know that it is socially unacceptable to be blatantly racist or sexist. However, microaggressions still run rampant, consciously and unconsciously causing harm. I once had a UX colleague, whom I respected for her critical analysis and wit, say that if someone did not intend to offend, then a sexist or racist comment did not matter. I disagree. It matters, and if you care about the feelings of someone else, you try to understand why they may be offended and try not to say it again. Microaggressions are like an infectious disease that spreads. The stings seem small at first. But they pile up, creating angst and despair, and spreading all over the body. If I spoke out about the issues I experienced, then I was a target. I was cast as a troublemaker or had my experience invalidated. Kira Page visualized this cycle in her 2018 article “The ‘Problem’ Woman of Colour in the Workplace” for The Centre for Community Organizations.
The drama would often begin when I started a new job at a company, and I would be asked if I worked in the mail room, or as a secretary, or in cleaning—never my hired role in UX. I was bombarded with questions on how I took care of my hair, and if it was real. For a naturally introverted person, it was a certain type of torture. If I dared to respond in anger, I would receive the dreaded stigma of the “angry black woman” that could affect my professional reputation, performance evaluation, and income. On site visits, high-profile clients seemed to acknowledge my presence last, if at all.
I experienced unanswered emails, disregarded meeting invitations, and condescending language that questioned my intellect. At times, I was met with yelling when I asked questions. I endured people trying to touch my hair in large meetings as a joke. The icing on top was my company holding mandatory meetings on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, preventing me from attending ceremonies to honor the great man and the civil rights movement that changed my life and the history of our country. Accomplished people in tech, often white and often men, were acknowledged, while there was a lack of representation and acknowledgement of women and people of color.
The terms “master” and “slave” were used in database meetings with no regard to how it might make me feel, as an African American woman whose ancestors toiled the earth with blood, sweat, and tears in enslavement. Even the terms “whitelist” and “blacklist” echo the experience of navigating this world as a black person. It was a series of microaggressions day after day. I did not have the option to turn off the switch on casual racism and sexism. I could not breathe. At times I was told in so many words that I was not being professional; at other times I was told I was uptight and being too professional. For me, I was constantly code switching and crossing lines between a predominately white, upper middle-class culture, as represented by the majority of my coworkers, and the working class African American culture that I grew up in, in North St. Louis, Missouri. In the book Shifting, code switching is described as pressure to change the style of speech, mannerisms, and content of speech in order to more easily navigate the dominant, white culture.
There will always be someone who doubts your abilities and skills based on race and gender, but you hold your head high, set boundaries on how you will be treated, and focus on the success of your projects.
There are times when I am able to change perceptions by building relationships with coworkers from different backgrounds. Some days are full of hope, working on innovative products with smart colleagues. Groundbreaking innovations and interpersonal partnerships are built simultaneously in the tech industry.
When being the only black woman on my product team was too heavy, I found solace in professional networking organizations, where black women and men working in tech positions at some of the largest companies in the world gathered. They understood what it was like dealing with microaggressions in a demanding work environment. They were mentors who shared strategies for success in navigating relationships across cultures in the workplace. Employee resource groups (ERGs) or affinity groups can also be a safe space for building community. Employers who support on-site ERGs see increased retainment and satisfaction from employees. These groups usually form organically based on the needs of the employees and are meant to be inclusive spaces, although topics may be specific to a certain demographic. Supporters of diversity and gender inclusion are also welcome to attend the events hosted by ERGs.
Imagining and Creating a Better Future
Imagine having opportunities to grow, share knowledge, and learn from others in a supportive environment. Your unique role and talents are valued. Your racial background and gender are seen as part of the norm, an asset even. People take the time to get to know you, instead of making flash judgments and relying on stereotypes. Your ideas are heard and considered. When you make a mistake, you are treated with compassion and guidance. Leadership teams include women and men of various, multicultural backgrounds. You are not seen as a token, an exception, an anomaly. You are expected to do well in your position and never are mistaken for the janitor or secretary.
Generating new ideas and advancements in UX calls on embracing diverse voices and retaining them through strategic inclusion practices. Consider implementing some of the following options:
Strategies for Individual Contributors
- Take a stand against microaggressions as you see them happening around you. For tips on how to be an ally, read this Everyday Feminism article and the open source Guide to Allyship.
- Go to networking events where you can meet more diverse candidates. Employee referrals are highly valuable to recruiters. Expand your network and meet more diverse people at events that cater to women and people of color. Suggested organizations include the following:
- Create a book club to increase cultural competency at your workplace. Read books about the experiences of women and people of color.
- Participate in service work in underrepresented communities. Volunteer to teach youth about UX, especially in underrepresented black and brown neighborhoods. Too often, these students do not have the same access to UX and tech role models as their white and Asian counterparts.
- Encourage leadership and mentorship programs for women and people of color.
Strategies for Hiring Managers
- Engage in holistic resume reviews. Remember that when reviewing resumes, people of color and women may not receive the same opportunities as white men. Prioritizing previous work experience above ability and potential will push out many talented people of color before they have the chance to show you the impact they can have.
- Collect and record feedback on diversity and inclusion practices during exit interviews.
Additional Strategies for People Managers and Organizational Leaders
- Support the creation and efforts of affinity groups both in your organization and externally. Consider sponsoring space for events or providing catering to show support. Speaking at affinity groups can also signal a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
- Celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments of black women and other marginalized groups in the industry.
- Look to higher education and the counseling professions as resources in creating inclusive spaces. Encourage accountability, transparency, and dialogue around diversity during conflict mediation.
- Create voluntary diversity training programs with trained experts.
- Support staff attendance at diversity conferences, like the Design + Diversity Conference in St. Louis, sponsored by AIGA. Encourage staff to share what they learn with their teams.
- Encourage flexible work arrangements, which can help parents stay in the workforce while raising children.
- Evaluate employees on their ability to work effectively with diverse groups as part of the performance review process.
My hope is for the UX workplace to continuously strive to change the culture and embrace people of differing backgrounds in daily interactions. We are more similar than different, after all. And in those differences are opportunities for understanding, growth, and enrichment.