By Kayleigh Oliver August 1, 2018

Speaking Up as a Woman in a Male-Dominated Tech Team

Since university, I've been in work environments (and sometimes geographical locations) where I've been in the minority in terms of ethnicity and gender.

It's been this way for so long now that it usually surprises me when I see more than one woman in the office or on the team at the same time as me.

Therefore, I'd like to share with you, especially those female readers out there, the journey I have gone through in becoming a more outspoken person at work and other situations.

Yes, probably not all of these are specifically “female only” issues, but I can only speak from my own experience.

I'm sharing these thoughts with you so that if you're currently going through this, you know:

  1. It's not your fault.
  2. You're not alone.
  3. You can get through it.

I hope that my experiences will help other females find the courage to speak up more in the workplace or other male-dominated environments and situations.

My Early Experiences

As I came from an all-girls secondary school and sixth form college, the change in gender ratios upon entering university took me massively by surprise. What was worse was that boys would make friends instantly, calling each other “mate” until they were friendly enough to ask each other their actual names.

Being in this new balance of males to females, I quickly noticed a few things. One, because of the very small number of girls in my course, I had no one in my seminar groups to bond with and hardly anyone in the lectures.

Two, the boys didn't seem to engage with me in the same way they would befriend a new male and integrate him into the group. Looking back on this time, maybe this was due to the fact that I was in a computing course with a load of boys where some or most weren't used to interacting with women regularly, but at the time, this wasn't obvious. And since I was by myself and far from home, being left out wasn't a pleasant feeling.

Because of the lack of women in the tech industry, we are more likely to second-guess ourselves in situations where we are the most experienced. We don’t shout about our achievements and don't claim our individual successes. So in order to make sure I wasn’t stuck in a course, speaking only to myself for three years, I chose to learn how to speak up.

Why It's Important to Speak Up

I currently work as a QA and Release Manager. Day to day, I have to ensure that the projects we produce for our business and platform users are of a high standard.

I carry out manual testing and write automation scripts to alert the developers as soon as possible when their features are broken. Besides this, I communicate with product managers to get accurate acceptance criteria, and I make sure the product’s features align with the business values.

When testing, I also need to speak with developers and DevOps engineers regularly. Every so often, I also speak with the “chiefs” to update them on issues that may affect the quality of the business products at a high level.

So, I do a lot of talking and listening every day. It's important that I can confidently engage with everyone, from the CEO to developers, so that my point is heard and taken into consideration.

If I'm not able to speak up about the issues that I find or convince others about my opinions, then customers could have a bad experience. This could negatively affect the company's brand and impact their finances in the long term.

If you speak up and show that you are capable of getting your point across, you will portray a stronger, more confident self. Therefore, the sooner you learn how to say something, the sooner you'll be listened to and heard.

Obstacles I've Faced

I have come up against a number of challenges, and they have not been easy to face or overcome. To be honest, feeling at ease about speaking up has a lot to do with your team and company. Knowing that you're in an environment that's not judgmental is key when you're trying to overcome these challenges.

But you won't always get to work with these “golden teams.” Here are some of the things I experienced when I didn't feel like I was working with that “golden team” and what I learned as a result.

When You Think of the Answer First

It's the usual weekly meeting “X” with the team, and you're discussing the best way to solve a problem. After taking a few points in and using your own knowledge, you come to a sensible suggestion, but you stay quiet. The team goes on for another 15 minutes discussing the solution.

Then suddenly someone else will exclaim the same idea you had. You're happy because you were right, but you kick yourself because you regret not saying it.

Lesson: Even if you aren’t sure it's the right solution, speak up and say what you think. Your teammates are not mind readers, so you have to help them hear your thoughts. And if your idea solves the problem, you could save everyone time and build your credibility at once.

When You're Not Confident in a Group

Imposter syndrome affects a lot of people, male and female, but I’ve found that it especially affects women within the technical fields.

Feelings of self-doubt and fraudulence can strike, for instance, when you’re in a small group of developers. You may not feel like you can contribute to the discussion for fear that you’ll be wrong, and then they’ll find out that you don’t know as much as you seem to. You’ll be laughed at for saying something stupid, and then you’ll be fired, fall behind on your mortgage payments, and lose both your house and your partner.

OK, that’s probably getting a bit extreme, but that’s generally what people have in the back of their minds. Your team or employer will find out that you don’t know everything and will think badly of you. So instead of speaking up, you stay silent in the hopes that no one discovers your “secret.”

In reality, this never happens. People on your team are generally more forgiving (and feel exactly the same way as you). The only thing that actually happens is that you don’t grow.

Lesson: Say something, no matter if it could be wrong. Practice engaging within a group to learn more than you currently know. Asking questions and giving your opinion is generally something that’s not going to negatively affect you.

When No One Hears Your Answer

Another situation could be when you’re in meeting “X” and you drum up the confidence to express your idea, but no one hears you, and they continue talking. You go quiet again and continue to listen to everyone’s comments. Then after five minutes, someone has an idea that’s exactly the same as what you said previously, and you kick yourself again.

Lesson: If this happens, don’t shrink back. Remember that the fact they didn’t hear you was most likely accidental.

You need to think about why you may not have been heard. This may be for a number of reasons, for example:

  • There were too many people in the room speaking, so they couldn’t hear your voice.
  • You said it too quietly to be heard.
  • You’re typically a soft-spoken person who may not be easily heard all the time.

Try hard to shake off whatever you’re feeling about this, gather your confidence, and say it again but louder and clearer, making sure that everyone can hear you.

When Your Answer Gets Dismissed

This last example is not very pleasant, but it can happen, so I thought I’d share it.

You’re in meeting “X,” and you are quite confident about the subject being discussed. A question is asked, you give your opinion loudly and clearly, and it’s even a possible correct solution. But you get shot down by the person leading the meeting. However, when another person says the same thing, they are praised for their idea.

Lesson: Note the times, dates, and situations where this happens. Then report it to your manager and/or Human Resources department as soon as you can. This may be a pattern with a specific individual. The stifling of anyone’s opinion should never be tolerated in any company.

Get the Team Used to Hearing Your Opinion

The only way to overcome these situations is to give your opinion whether or not you know it’s right. The idea is to get used to speaking clearly and confidently.

Don’t let people who have opposing opinions when discussing your ideas catch you off guard and shake your confidence. They’re not (always) doing it to challenge you negatively, but they are doing so constructively, making sure your ideas are truly solid. Discussion about your idea confirms that you at least are being heard.

Lastly, you want to make sure you’re not too forceful with your opinion. Be strong and confident, but not arrogant. It’s a fine line, and some people may only see you as bossy, arrogant, or bitchy no matter what you do.

Make sure you identify these individuals and take what they say with a grain of salt. Don’t let them shake you.

Face Your Fears Little by Little

When I first entered these environments, this gender imbalance made me a lot less confident and unsure of myself. Sometimes, this can be misconstrued as you not knowing what you're talking about rather than your being in an uncomfortable situation.

And unfortunately, for some men in high up roles, this can be abused further by talking down to you, making you feel less confident about your suggestions, and even dismissing your ideas when you do drum up the courage to say something.

I'm here to let women who are in the same position as I once was know that this treatment is not OK. The only way to make yourself heard is to speak up. Speak up loudly and confidently.

This is still a personal journey. Some days, I don't want to be talkative (which usually suits my developer colleagues, who want to get in the zone and code all day, just fine), but I still need to push through and complete my daily tasks.

Sometimes I make mistakes and say stupid things, but I’ve learned to pick myself up faster and get better each time, and you can, too.

Like anything worth doing, it takes hard work and practice. And remember, you're worth being heard.

About the author

    Kayleigh Oliver

    Kayleigh is an App Developer and QA Test Professional currently working in London. She has a keen interest in building cross-platform solutions and small games using Xamarin and Unity. Kayleigh shares what she's currently learning and doing on her blog kayleigholiver.com. The best way to get in contact is via email or Twitter @kayleigholiver.