A story about not fitting in
The joke among my female friends in engineering and product is that if you wear a dress or high heels to work, people will probably assume you’re in marketing or sales or recruiting. In fact, I’ve walked into interviews and had the candidate assumed I was the recruiter.
If you know me or have worked with me. You probably noticed that I’m a petite asian woman (5'2") with a distinctly feminine sense of style. You probably picture me in a brightly colored dress, a pair of high heel shoes and long hair. That’s not the usual mental image you associated with a leader in tech. Yet I have had to opportunity to build teams at Google and Facebook and lead the product team for some of the largest consumer products in the world. (Facebook photos, Google homepage)
If you have one takeaway from this post, it is this.
You DON’T have to fit in. You will be more successful when you are comfortable and happy with yourself. That means: how you dress, what you care about, and how you spend your time outside of work.
Being comfortable for me means that I wear bright colors, dresses, and heels. It means I spent my time outside of work on things like food, yoga, painting, guitar, improv classes, and other things that have nothing to do with tech or work. It means I openly admit that I hate video games and have not read Snow Crash. (It may mean something different for you and you may love Snow Crash. That’s OK, just recognize what you wish you could do at work, or wear to work, or talk about at work, but don’t.)
I’ve seen so many friends try to “tone it down” at work. Admitting that they feel like they’re not taken seriously when they wear clothing that’s fitted or talk about things that are deemed frivolous. I wondered why I never questioned that part of myself. I think it comes from having a strong role model early on in life.
My mom is awesome. She has a phD in education, an MBA, speaks 2 languages (4 if you count dialects), plays the piano like a professional, and worked her way up to COO at a tech startup in her 30s. She did this all while being an involved mom who dropped me off and picked me up from school, prepped me for every violin lesson and cooked homemade Chinese meals almost every day. The best of all she did this wearing bright flowery dresses and being extremely true to herself. She never distinguished between the importance of being able to cook for yourself and being able to excel in school. She never took her responsibilities at work more or less seriously than her responsibilities as a mom/wife. She was a woman who did it all with grace and creativity.
Because of my mom’s example, I didn’t try to fit into a stereotype. I didn’t stop wearing bright colors or reading romance novels when I was the only woman in my electrical engineering class. I didn’t replace my neon circuit colored kit box with something neutral because that’s what the guys in class had. When I joined Google as an APM after college, I didn’t wear black/grey suit to my interviews or a T-shirt/jeans to work everyday. I dressed and acted in a way that made me feel comfortable and confident. I never thought about being feminine as a factor in my competence, my leadership ability, or really anything else at work. Now I was lucky that early Google had some great role models who enforced that (Marissa, Susan, Jen).
In a lot of ways, embracing my femininity has made me better as a product manager and a leader.
- Did you know that lots of people try so hard to stand out and fail? By being a woman in tech, whether you like it or not, you stand out. Take advantage of the spotlight and shine 🙂
- Did you know that most of new product and technology adoption is driven by women? In fact, social media usage is predominately driven by women especially when networks are small and growing. (Snapchat is 70% female) Embracing my femininity meant I had insights and intuitions about products that my male counter-parts didn’t.
- Did you know that sometimes being “motherly” is not a terrible thing at work? The ability to engage with someone is personal and requires practice. I think spending a lot of my life babysitting gave me a unique advantage when I had to manage a team. 🙂
It certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing for the last 10 years. The first time I managed a 40 year guy as a 25 years old woman was awkward and I struggled. There were times when I was too ambitious with my shoes at work and they weren’t really functional (find heels you can run around in all day) But I will say that even in hind sight, I don’t regret NOT trying to fit in. This doesn’t mean you don’t refine your craft, learn how to connect with your audience no matter who they are, learn when you need to be polished and professional, when you should be more casual and personal, and learn to be self aware. But you can do this while staying true to yourself.
So whether you’re just starting your career or in the midst of it, I hope this helps. P.S. Hope everyone had a great mother’s day.
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