Tia Williams leads a team that includes 50 instructors responsible for producing the largest online cloud training curriculum in the world. While her accomplishments stack high, it hasn’t always been easy navigating the white, male-dominated world of IT. I sat down with Tia to hear her story.
In most interviews, I tend to edit responses for brevity, but with Tia, I didn’t want to leave anything out. I learned that it’s the small interactions, the tiny voices in your head, that let self-doubt creep in. With something so delicate, this time I chose to let the words speak for themselves. I believe these lessons can be extended to any underrepresented group.
Here is Tia’s unedited, unabridged response to how gender has played a part in her journey.
Being a woman affected my journey quite a bit. I’ve been in IT long enough that early in my career I was quite often the only woman. Being the only woman in a group of men is an interesting experience. Especially early on, it was always a challenge. Do you really know what you’re talking about? How much do you really know? You feel like you work triple as hard to get treated as an equal by others.
In my first leadership role, I lead a group of young men. It was always a challenge to get them to respect me as a leader and as a woman. The other team leads were male, and it was an automatic respect thing. They didn’t have to prove that they knew what they were talking about. They were automatically accepted as leaders. I always had to give extra justification to basically validate that I knew what I was talking about.
When I think about it as a leader throughout the years, that’s always been the case. Quite honestly, it’s not just as a leader, it’s every position and every company I’ve ever gone to. I’ve had to prove repeatedly that I had the technical chops, in ways that my male counterparts never had to do. For them, it was just assumed, even when they didn’t. I don’t think people realize they do that. It’s in our inherent biases.
What I’ve tried to do from a technical perspective is when I would give an answer, I would also have the documentation to justify what I said. The flip side is that it made me a better engineer, because I had to put in the extra effort. I could go toe-to-toe with the best of them, because I had all this extra knowledge.
Once the respect was earned those people became big advocates for me, and also my biggest defenders. They would see others challenging me, and they would say, “She really knows her stuff.” They became protectors of me in some ways and even that can indicate an inherent bias. But I try to look at it from another angle. I converted a critic to a champion. How awesome is that?!
On the flip side, men don’t necessarily know how to interact with me, because I’m female. When you look at social interactions and the way men interact with other males, it’s just… different. For the people that I get to spend the most time with and that really know me, it’s no issue. But you always have that awkward stage where they’re not quite sure what to think about you. From my perspective, I’m just another tech geek. It’s almost like I have to prove that too.
It’s quite funny that people feel that I’m intimidating. I don’t know that as a person I feel that I am intimidating, but I do feel like I am a confident person. I know who I am. I know what my capabilities are. And not in an arrogant way; I know what I can’t do.
But the way people look at women, and the way people interact with me as a woman, always makes you doubt that.
When you always have to prove yourself, it can make you have some self-doubt. It can make you really want to double-check yourself.
As a result, I always try to be humble. When I do need to be a confident person, I do so, but I always feel like I have to be careful that I don’t come off as “the angry woman.” I have to first make sure they’re comfortably established with how they communicate with me.
There’s this whole process before I can get to the place where I can even have a conversation when it’s something that isn’t praise. I very much feel like it’s a mom thing. If it’s praise, people see it as a positive thing, and it comes across as mothering. If it’s something that isn’t necessarily a pleasant topic, or there is some type of conflict, I always have to take a step back and evaluate before I respond. I have to make sure I don’t come across as nagging or what the other person would perceive as the angry woman.
Every time I have had to re-establish myself in a new role, the first thing I always have to do is watch everything; watch my mannerisms, watch how I say things. It’s all about making everyone else comfortable. It’s not necessarily about me.
I found power in all of that. I am who I am. I know what I am capable of. So for me, it’s about extending that so other people know what I’m capable of. It’s hard to try to balance. How do you show that you have that personal power without coming across as arrogant? How do you relate to other people that you have the knowledge without it coming across as you being a know it all?
From my perspective, I’ve tried mostly to let my work speak for me. I try to get people to trust that I am a 100% authentic genuine person with my actions and the ways I interact with people. “WYSIWYG” means what you see is what you get. I am WYSIWYG. That’s the best way I can describe myself in a nutshell.
Establishing that relationship is the most important part. Once a relationship is established and you’ve built up that equity, people know who you are at your core. From that perspective when you have to give a critique, they know you are dealing with the action and not them as a person. When we approach things and we don’t come across with that established relationship first, you don’t know how that person is going to receive it.
It’s the unintentional biases that we all have.
I’ve established those relationships with a lot of the men I work with and they 100% have my back. It’s a lot of front work, but in the end – it’s worth it.
Want to hear more from Tia? On International Women’s Day 2020, Tia shared her full story with the company. You can watch a recording of her talk below.