With Black History Month coming to an end, I felt compelled to write about something from my own point of view: Being a Black Woman in IT. When people ask me what it’s like to work in this field, I usually talk about my first IT job, how I got into tech, but I have never spoke about what it’s like for me, Keithia Williams, to be a black woman working in the IT field.
So, here it goes.
I am an African-American female Systems Administrator. I have worked in the tech field off and on since 2005, but consistently for the past 7 years. I’ve worked in technical support, cell phone, tablet, and laptop repair. I’ve worked as a data center tech, to my now current role as a Systems Administrator. I absolutely love the tech field and couldn’t imagine doing anything else for a career.
I am an African-American female that works in tech, a field that is predominantly male-driven. Being in this field, I don’t see a lot of women that look like me, maybe not at all in most cases. In the early stages of my career, I didn’t think about it too much because working in a call center, there’s a variety of people you encounter: Black, White, Asian, Indian, male, female, transgender. It was great to be around a mix of people with a common goal of providing support to customers and helping each other out within our teams. Once I moved around to different companies and up the proverbial tech ladder, I saw that pool of diversity start to thin out and become more of a male-dominated environment. I was happy to be moving up in this field and being exposed to more challenging issues in the various tech roles I was working, however, finding myself as the only black woman in the group, I sometimes felt singled-out and as if I didn’t belong. Even while attending college for a degree in Software Development I felt this awkward spotlight on me. Having to find a group to do an assignment was a nightmare because some of my classmates would doubt my knowledge and were hesitant to work with me.
Not only did moving up the tech ladder present me with more challenging work, but there were a few social challenges that came along with it:
- I was asked by a former white male coworker if I was bringing soul food to the company potluck
- I have been accused of stealing from someone’s drawer I shared a desk with (there were multiple people sitting at this desk, but I was the only one singled out)
- I’ve been passed over for a promotion, even though I had more work experience, would volunteer for projects and overtime to help out other teams, and the certifications to back me up
- I was told to clean up someone’s desk (this happened at two different companies and not part of my job duties)
- Some coworkers would try to purposefully create me a “nickname” because my actual name was “too hard to say” (Key-thee-uh = Keithia).
- I’ve had customers specifically request to speak with a male support rep because they didn’t like the answer I gave them, only for those customers to receive the same answer from the male tech (that I trained, by the way).
There were a few times in my career I wanted to quit. I seriously thought that if I kept getting treated like this, why bother? I thought, maybe there weren’t a lot of African-American’s working in this field for a reason. Because of some of those negative experiences, my confidence took a hit and in came the self doubt. I looked into going back to school for a degree as a therapist and even considered going back to school for music, but I knew I didn’t want to quit IT. I wanted to make the culture better.
I knew I didn’t want to quit IT. I wanted to make the culture better.
I had to take a step back and ask myself how could I make this better? How could I thrive in a field where there aren’t many people that look like me? I decided first and foremost that I need to show people how I wanted to be treated. No, we’re not going to make stereotypical jokes about what I’m bringing to the potluck. Why am I being asked to clean this desk I did not dirty? And no, you may not call me “Keke” to make things easier on you. My parents put their hearts into the name they created for me and I’m not going to create a nickname because you refuse to take the time to learn it.
I’ll be honest, I used to avoid confrontation in the workplace because I wanted to not be labeled with the stereotype of “Angry Black Woman”. But I was angry! No employee that comes into workplace should be met with the mentioned accusations and racism. I learned that there is a way of handling confrontation in a professional tone with the end-goal of receiving a mutual respect from my peers. If you show people how you want to be treated from the start, it can make a difference.
If you show people how you want to be treated from the start, it can make a difference.
Being a black woman in IT is an experience. I share my views today because there are those in this field that don’t realize that these types of problems exist or don’t realize depth of these problems. I don’t have the answers to right the issues that are wrong within the IT culture, but I think this is something we should be more proactive about. This field is for everyone and no one should feel singled out or hesitant to step into the field because they are different.
Let’s talk about it.