Stand up if you feel like it’s harder to advance your career because of who you are.
The question was based on conversations I’d had with women on our Design team, so I expected only a subset of the audience would relate to this statement (and an even smaller fraction would have the courage to stand). To my surprise, at least half the room rose. And it wasn’t just women.
I continued: Stand up if you’ve ever felt like your peers are given more opportunities than you … if you’ve left a meeting with a lowered sense of self worth … if you’ve avoided talking about your accomplishments out of fear of being judged … if you’ve felt like leaders don’t represent you.
People continued to rise, again and again, each time with more momentum. There was power in standing up for how we feel and relief when we realized we’re less alone than we thought. I was struck by how safe we all felt sharing vulnerable feelings and welcoming hard conversations.
We went on to talk about what we could do about these feelings, which led to change and strengthened our community. And I’ll get to that.
But first, what did it take for us to get to this point?
About two years ago, I joined Dropbox, fresh out of a college design program with two-thirds women. I was used to seeing women leading projects, asking hard questions, and being supported by peers. Sure, I’d read stories about challenges women can face as an underrepresented group in the tech industry. But to me they were just that—stories in the news—until one day I looked up from my desk and realized I was the only woman in sight.
That day, I started paying attention to gender dynamics at work. In meetings, I noticed men talking more confidently and more often than women and non-binary coworkers. I saw women getting interrupted and then apologizing. The patterns I’d read about were playing out before my eyes, and suddenly I couldn’t stop noticing.
This made me wonder, who else was noticing? I brought my observations to my manager and then to our HR partner, who encouraged me to talk to other women on the team about their experiences at Dropbox and in their careers. This curiosity ultimately grew into an initiative to help women in design share their stories openly and improve their experiences at work, in tech, and in the world.
I invited my teammate Sheta Chatterjee to join me, and over a couple months in late 2017, we talked with women across Product Design, Brand, UX Writing, and Design Research. While many women told us about the kind and well-intentioned community at Dropbox, we also heard many stories like these:
A woman walked out of one of our company-wide meetings called “All Hands” around that time because she felt alienated by the presenters, who were all men.
Multiple women said it was hard to get a word in during meetings because the men in the room were clamoring to talk.
A woman said she felt the need to “police her tone” when giving feedback in person or in writing because she was afraid she’d be seen as too aggressive.
Hearing this chorus of women talking about workplace challenges was overwhelming. As a woman beginning my career, I felt disillusioned and worried about my own future. However, in listening to the many voices, I also realized how much our stories overlap. If we talked about our experiences more openly, I believed we’d feel less alone, and even more—we could push for change.
Sheta and I wanted to share these powerful stories with the Design team, but first we needed to dig deeper. We hosted a couple of workshops and invited all the women in Design. Our goals were to gather more context about what we’d heard, pick out the challenges we felt most strongly about as a group, and brainstorm solutions. Here are the top challenges and recommendations we ultimately presented to the Design team:
- Women didn’t feel represented by leadership, so we recommended our team increase the visibility of women leaders, give more recognition to women for their accomplishments, and expand opportunities for women to develop leadership skills.
- Women weren’t feeling confident in meetings, so we recommended people help facilitate meetings, amplify women by actively crediting them for their ideas, and give direct feedback to people to help them be more inclusive.
- Women were feeling stunted by our team’s tendencies towards agreeableness, risk-aversion, and self-promotion, so we encouraged people to lean into debate, share more early stage work, and celebrate individual growth.
Know we’re not alone
Our presentation not only helped people gather around shared challenges, but it also inspired support. Immediately after, some amazing things happened:
A man on the Design team scheduled an hour with me and Sheta to learn more about women’s experiences and develop empathy.
Another man told me he realized he and his male teammates were dominating conversations in design critiques, and he was going to bring these concerns to his manager.
A man told me he wanted to create an allies group at Dropbox and scheduled time to share his ideas with me.
Multiple men recognized Sheta’s and my efforts in our design team Slack channel, which sparked a discussion about diversity.
In the two years since joining Dropbox, I’ve noticed many other positive changes. Our design team has continued to invest in Ladies Who Create, a community for women and non-binary creatives. Thanks to this type of programming, the Dropbox Design team is 55% women today. In broader Dropbox news, two women were promoted from within the company to the executive team. They often speak at All Hands meetings, which now always include female presenters.
So, I’m happy to say, I haven’t felt so alone as I did that early day at my desk. Looking around now, I’m typically surrounded by a diverse group of people, and that’s really amazing. But I’m also aware our society has deep-rooted workplace dynamics that exclude women, people of color, non-binary people, and anyone who isn’t represented by the majority.
And it’s when things start to look good on the surface that it becomes easy to stop paying attention to how we’re really feeling. Now it’s more important than ever to seek others’ perspectives.
I wanted to share the story of how I noticed something wrong, talked to the women around me, and things started to change. But mine is just one story of many.
Want to read more women’s stories?