Lisa Adams is a journalist who has been working in software engineering for seven years. At 27, she is a project manager for Praekelt.org, driving a project called Springster that digitally connects marginalised and vulnerable girls around the world. Lisa co-organises the Cape Town branch of Django Girls, a space for girls to learn to code, and she’s also a mom to a six-year-old girl. Here she tells us how she, as a woman of colour, fights for space for herself and other women in the tech industry, and gives advice to anyone looking to follow in her badass footsteps.
How do you deal with criticism or sexism?
As a woman of colour in the tech industry I face sexism a lot of the time. I regularly encounter male-dominated meetings where you’ll voice an idea and it gets ignored. As soon as your male counterpart raises the same idea, he gets slapped a high five and a pay-raise for his ‘innovation’.
In addition, I am in an industry building technology for girls in developing worlds. The industry is dominated by men who have a strong influence on what females in developing worlds require to better their lives, and it’s not always easy to receive instruction or direction in those situations.
It is hard to stand up to and recognise my own internalised oppression and say in those meetings, ‘hey you’re wrong, that is actually probably not how girls would feel about that.’
This hesitance is probably because we are afraid of pissing off the people who determine our next raise or promotion. Or it’s just giving in to my own impostor syndrome that men know more about technology, or that I need to be a coder to have a say on a how technology is designed.
How do you deal with these scenarios?
It is multi-layered. The tech industry today has a strong push to balance out gender inequality, so it often is ignorant to the fact that I face the added layer of racial prejudice. The intersectionality of this prejudice is heavy and I cannot address the sexism without acknowledging it, otherwise that denies my full experience as a woman.
The only way I know to deal with this is to be unafraid to call it out.
The time is now to refuse to sit silently when you feel disrespected or violated in any situation. Make your boundaries clear, unapologetically. Sexism benefits all men all of the time, so my silence is only to their benefit and to the disadvantage of any future women working in this space or even the girls using our services.
What I do bring to the table in a design process is context. I use my experience in the technology industry and my own context. I was a childhood victim of sexual abuse, a mother at 21, a divorced woman at 25. I am brown in my skin, and an inheritor of post oppression bullshit. That is the context that I can bring to working with a team of coders designing technological solutions for women and girls like me: at some point I was that girl, am that women, have that daughter. I also know that what I am and where I have come from, doesn’t make my opinions any less valuable than someone of the opposite sex.
My feminism is intersectional and my self-awareness gives me a relentless conviction to use my voice.
What advice would you give to your younger self or girls who want to make it in your industry?
I would say stop trying to mould myself to fit in with what I see around me. Spend less time trying to define myself by my circumstances, lack of opportunity and achievements. Work harder to define myself by my bravery, determination and will to be the best me.
Grow comfortable with failure; it isn’t scary. It is in the moments that I am most uncomfortable that I have grown most.
The tech industry is not only made up of a bunch of male software engineers. It is an industry that has the ability to reach and impact people at a large scale.
The tech industry needs more women of colour, and diversity of skills if it wants to be responsible with its ability to speak to people at massive scales.
What was the best advice you’ve ever received?
I was at a Facebook talk for Women in Tech. I was feeling really strained about pushing the agenda for diversity in tech, to the point of giving up. I raised my hand and asked the black female engineer on the panel about the missing intersectionality in the conversation around gender representation.
She told me ‘baby, you have got to keep knocking on that door, it is women like you who have the responsibility to keep knocking for the women behind you. It is a tough road, but the door will fall eventually. Don’t give up.’ That has stuck with me: the acknowledgement of how challenging this can be, but that the responsibility that I have is greater than the strain.
I have applied those words to my career, my motherhood and decisions for my life to always keep pushing for what I believe in. Perseverance will win and I am representing every other woman from my background.
What does the word ‘badass’ mean to you?
I think of the quote ‘Well behaved women seldom make history.’ Badass women have a strong sense of self, of who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve come from and where they are going. They are convicted in their identity and comfortable with their quirks.
These are the women who are unafraid of saying no, who speak their truth and speak up for others who don’t have the courage. Being badass is having the courage to go knocking on doors that have marginalised you or others in any way, and knocking until that door falls down and keeping it open for those behind you.