When did you become interested in science as a career? Did anyone encourage you?
I was in high school and was taking a zero hour (before school started for the day) “programming” class. I’d been into computers and tech, your standard dorking around with Geocities sites and such, but the class was the first time I really gave thought to computer science. I wasn’t really encouraged by anyone because truly not many knew what it was. The encouragement I got was more generalized, in the form of “do your best at what makes you happy.”
What were some difficulties or barriers to entry you experienced while getting into STEM, and how did you overcome them?
Oh, the standard “you don’t belong here,” “are you sure you don’t mean to be somewhere else,” people’s stereotypes and attitudes about Black people, about Black women. I overcame it by a combination of ignoring and burying the comments. To be honest, I don’t recommend that to anyone, especially the burying. It’ll come back to haunt you in the form of lots of therapy!
Tell us about your work at Slack.
I spend 80 percent of my time working on build and release engineering and 20 percent of my time working on diversity advocacy, making sure we talk about the hard subjects in the diversity and inclusion discussion, so we can get to real solutions.
You’re also passionate about increasing intersectional diversity efforts in tech, encouraging companies to go beyond gender in their efforts to make workplaces more inclusive (with your projects like #RealDiversityNumbers). How do you think the landscape is improving for women of color?
Honestly I’m not sure that it’s improving…yet. I think we’re in the nascent stages of improving the tech industry for women of color and for everyone. We’re at a point where people are realizing we’re not doing the hard work yet. We’re not saying words like racism or sexism in those hard discussions. Instead we’re focusing on myths, like the hiring bar myth and the pipeline myth. I think once we get to a place where there is real accountability, where we focus on inclusion, and where we’re recognizing the importance of intersectionality, we’ll start to see the landscape improve dramatically.
You once blew the whistle on salary inequity at a major tech player where you worked as an engineer. What would you say to women who are afraid to speak up about similar issues for fear of retaliation?
Ha, I feel like “blew the whistle” is such an overstatement. More accurately, I empowered people to have the data needed to engage in discussions about salary that needed to be had. There was a point where I would have told women afraid to speak up to say screw it and do it anyway, but that’s a utopian view. In the real world, people have bills, people have responsibilities, people need to make sure they continue to get a paycheck. I have an incredible amount of privilege, in that I work at a company that’s comfortable with me speaking up and using my voice; I recognize that’s not true for everyone. So to those women I’d say, reach out to me, and I’ll speak up for you.
What advice would you give young women who want to get into STEM?
To be honest, it’s going to take a while to see major change in the tech industry. There are so many attitudes that need to be adjusted, so many biases that need to be addressed. It’s going to be a meat grinder for a while. So to young women, I’d say make sure this is something you really love to do, because the love for the work, the love for technology, is what will keep you in this industry when everyone and everything else is telling you to leave.
ERICA BAKER is a senior engineer at Slack Technologies and advocate for diversity and inclusion in tech, expanding access to tech education. She started her career 15 years ago doing domain administration for the University of Alaska Statewide System before becoming a Googler in 2006. At Google, her role grew from support technician to site reliability engineer. In 2015 she joined Slack, where she focuses on build and release engineering. Erica serves on the advisory boards for Atipica and Hack the Hood and is a tech mentor for Black Girls Code. Find her online at @EricaJoy and ericabaker.com.