Welcome to She Leads, a series digging into the good, the bad, and the ugly of being a woman in business. In each piece, we’ll chat with a different founder about her experiences, the issues women face in business, and how they’re powering through in the face of adversity.
When Allison Esposito Medina gathered 20 women working in tech to chat about their experiences in the industry, she had no idea the group would quickly grow to 100, then 1,000, then in just three years 50,000. Revelations from that first meeting make clear why it did.
“I started to realize that the same things I was experiencing were happening to all of them, too,” she told From Day One. “And that was really validating and really useful, so we naturally just kept growing out of that meet up.”
It turned out they’d all experienced workplace sexism, harassment, gendered microaggressions, and the like. They’d all wondered, “Am I making this up?” And working in a male-dominated industry, they’d all been without a place to turn for support, guidance, and camaraderie.
Esposito Medina eventually stopped working for tech companies to start her own — one dedicated to supporting women (trans and non-binary included) in the industry and making the infamously male-dominated field not just more diverse, but more inclusive as well. In 2016, she officially launched Tech Ladies, which operates both as a global community for women in tech and a job board matching some of the world’s biggest tech companies to diverse hires. Members have landed jobs at Samsung, PayPal, Slack, Square, Adobe, Trello, and Etsy, among others. They have access to Tech Ladies resources and events, like webinars and workshops co-hosted with companies like BuzzFeed. And on the daily, Tech Ladies provides women a community platform for discussing issues, asking for advice, celebrating achievements, and navigating their careers for success.
We chatted with Esposito Medina to learn more about Tech Ladies, community building, and how companies can be more inclusive:
What experiences did you find were common among those first women you met up with that inspired you to grow this community?
Everything from the big issues you hear about (like being paid less than men) to workplace microaggressions—everyone was struggling with the same things. It became clear that gathering everybody together is one way of solving these issues. Being able to read about what other people are going through and having that sense of camaraderie is a huge step.
What’s an example of how Tech Ladies members swap information and support?
One thing we do is our anonymous #HELPASISTEROUT hashtag, which invites people to email us so we can anonymize their question and share it with the group. That’s been really great because if you’re having issues with your boss, for example, you’d never want to put it out publicly.
The comments on those threads contain so much wisdom and help from everybody that it’s been really surprising to me to see how willing strangers are to give their time and expertise. It really gives you faith in humanity. People write us back saying, ‘Reading the responses gave me the strength and skills I needed to ask for more money at work and I got it.’ Or in a really toxic situation, ‘I realized it wasn’t just me. It was toxic, and I left and I found a new job.’ It’s actually having an impact on people’s lives.
And why do women need a community like this?
What we hear so often is ‘I’m the only woman,’ ‘I’m the only person of color,’ or ‘I’m the only non-binary person,” either on a team or at an entire company. It’s just really nice to have a place where you’re not the only one. A place where you can bounce questions and ideas off people who come across the same issues you do. Just having that kind of connection is really powerful. It’s been really cool to see it grow because the more people who join, the more voices and perspectives we have.
Some people say that women-only groups and environments are counterproductive to inclusion. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that’s one of those things where I hope it will be true someday. And it will be true when things are more equal. But the reason I don’t think it’s true now is because the reality is that we see so many people who don’t have any camaraderie because they’re the only woman at work — especially at tech companies and in engineering roles.
I think you also need a network with men in it, too. But I feel it’s easier for that to happen naturally, because most of the people you’re going to work with and forge relationships with—your bosses, mentors, and mentees—are probably going to be men in this industry anyways. I have tons of men in my circle who help me with so much. But I also think it’s nice to have a space for women and non-binary people because it can feel a little bit safer, especially around in-person events and networking. Or if you’re going to be vulnerable in an online community and post, you might feel more comfortable doing that with people who understand where you’re coming from. That’s why I think it’s still really valuable.
What steps can companies take to create work environments that are not just more diverse, but also more inclusive?
That’s such a good question because you can hire in a very diverse way, fill up a room, and just expect it to take care of itself, but it will not. You have to make sure that people are protected and that their contributions are taken seriously. You need to look at whether you’re structuring meetings so that everybody’s voice is heard. You need to truly take action to make pay and raises fair. You need to be transparent about your growth, so people don’t feel like they’re the outliers and the only one for too long. Do you have a great maternity and paternity policy? Do you have policies that help people who are trans? Even if you’ve never had a trans person on your team, start thinking about it. If you don’t have a pregnant person on your team yet, what happens when you do? It’s very easy for companies to just wait until these issues pop up and then try to figure them out, but that’s where a lot of people get into trouble. Figure it out as early as you can.
The one thing we tell companies that seems so common sense to us, but always seems to blow their minds, is to just sit down and have one meeting to talk about ways to be inclusive. I’m not talking about having one meeting and never implementing any of it, but there are so many simple things. Make the bathroom for all genders. Hire an HR person, even freelance if you’re not making much money yet. There are online tools for anonymous feedback. Every company can do that for free. Just set yourself up to be receptive to change in small ways, build up a culture of inclusion, and stay committed to it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sage Lazzaro is a NYC-based journalist covering diversity, inclusion, and social justice across tech, business, and politics. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, VICE, Medium, The New York Observer, and more. Follow her on Twitter here.