Getting equity for Black women in tech - the Sista Circle approach
Give me what you would give yourself or your friend, says Sista Circle Founder Alexandria Butler.
Black women are one of the least represented groups in the technology sector. According to The National Center for Women & Information Technology, Black women account for only three percent of the US computing workforce, while BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, reports that they account for just 0.7 percent of the UK tech workforce, 2.5 times lower than other professions.
Those Black women who do manage to forge a career in the tech industry will also likely have waited longer for their first opportunity compared to their colleagues. Research from Totaljobs has revealed that after finishing education, it takes Black women on average 5.1 months to secure their first role, compared to 2.8 months for white women.
These numbers are certainly not due to a lack of education among Black women, according to Alexandria "Lexi B." Butler, Founder of Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech. Butler notes that in the US at least, Black women are the most educated body of people in the whole country. What Black women are lacking, however, is insider knowledge of the corporate tech world, she argues:
I've been very fortunate that my career started when I was 22, right out of university. The first two years, there were so many things I did not know. When I looked at my peers who were not Black women, I noticed they were invited to rooms to learn the truth about what's really going on. I wasn't invited in.
Butler graduated from Stanford university in 2011, and worked at various tech companies including NetApp and Airbnb. By 2017, she began to realize that to have the mentorship and conversations required to support and progress her career, she needed more Black women in her circle.
Because as a Black woman, there are things that I can and cannot do, that other people who do not look like me can.
As there were not many Black women at her company, and none in her department or team, Butler invited a few Facebook friends, who were also Black women in tech, to meet up, learn about each other, and find some mentorship and sponsorship:
I thought, if I can't find the Black women at my company, because they're not here, what happens if at least I know all the other Black women at every other company.
Around 25 women met for the group’s first brunch in Berkeley, California in May 2017; Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech now has over 14,000 members across the globe. The organization Butler founded as a result of that first brunch was established as a solidarity group for Black professional women in tech or tech-adjacent spaces:
We’re an organization in a community where women who do not feel safe in their workplace, which many times is a lot of them, can come and have real conversations. They can ask questions that they don't feel comfortable asking in majority-white spaces, for fear of feeling like people are going to judge them. They can come and learn about company cultures at different organizations, or get references for new jobs.
Our own heroes
Butler refers to the organization as “the underground railroad for Black women”. She says:
We are our own heroes. Many times in corporate spaces, Black women are not represented, we are not retained, and there are so many microaggressions. It's very hard for us to have one place where we can just breathe and we don't have to explain what happened that day, because the other person looks at you and says, I get it.
One of the most common micro-aggressions experienced by the group’s members is navigating difficult situations. Butler says that when a Black woman asks for something, people interpret that as arrogance or being too loud or angry, something she attributes to white supremacy and the patriarchy: somebody else in a different body could ask for the same thing with the same tone and the same facial expression, and they would be considered confident.
A lot of the conversations in Sista Circle are how to get what you need in a work situation without being perceived as the “angry Black woman” stereotype.
Butler cites the example of a Black woman reporting to her manager about having difficulty with a task because it seems a colleague doesn’t want to work with her. The manager’s response will often be, - 'what did you do wrong in that situation?'. When it’s the same situation for a non-Black woman peer going to their manager, the response will be much more supportive and helpful. Butler says:
It gets very tiring every single day if you're walking into a situation where people are always assuming you are the culprit for the hardship, and therefore you're on the defensive. Every day, you're trying to figure out how do we deal with the situation at hand; how do I express to the people in power that I need help without them assuming that it's my fault; how do we actually get to the solution; and when they tell me how to solve it, how do I go back to the other person and manipulate it in a way where they don't interpret me as being a negative person or a 'sensitive Sally' or too aggressive.
Although Butler left her job soon after founding Sista Circle, she moved to another tech firm and still works in the sector, as a senior leader in strategy and operations. To have a chance at effecting change, Butler is urging senior Black women in tech to lead the way in educating people at their own organizations. Often, it’s the people who are not in positions of power who try to raise these issues, which can have an outcome of retaliation against the individual, she suggests:
It’s really important for the elders in our community - women who are in high positions of power at their company - to be the ones pushing against the machine. We have the privilege that if we push and there is retaliation, or people are upset, or the office becomes an uncomfortable place to work, because of our skills and our network, it is easier for us to navigate that.
While women as a whole are a minority group in tech, accounting for around a quarter of the workforce, Butler does not believe women in general are more supportive of their Black female colleagues:
We have to acknowledge that among the global community of women, many times we are perpetrating this white patriarchal understanding that only one of us can be great. Therefore we are oppressing other people.
However, she believes it is the responsibility of others to uplift and support Black women. That support doesn't just mean donating money or time to a relevant organization; it’s acknowledging your privilege within your work environment and doing small things to help a Black woman in that environment, including offering mentorship and sponsorship:
It’s recognizing the greatness in this person at your company, who happens to be a Black woman, and going into that leadership room to say we should promote her, let's give her an opportunity to manage. She may not have all the skills, but she has the potential - because that's how white men are promoted every single day.
I always tell folks, I don't want equality, I want equity. I want what you would give you, I want what you would give your friend. Systemically Black women do not receive that in corporate spaces.
Sista Circle has this month launched a jobs newsletter, which gets sent out to its 14,000 members every Sunday. The aim is to lessen the blow of the looming recession and current spate of tech job losses for BIPOC women, and work towards equity for Black women by opening up opportunities that normally would be closed to them. Hiring managers and recruiters can post vacancies, but it’s also a place to share speaking engagements, scholarships and fellowships, concludes Butler:
It's important that we give Black women all these professional development opportunities that many times we don't receive, because those opportunities go to other people's friends.