Diversity in Tech: A 3 Step Survival Guide with Shopify’s Jaime Woo

As part of StackAdapt’s industry wide #HackDiversity project, Jaime Woo, Head of Engineering Communications at Shopify was kind enough to share his story and what it takes to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace—part of our mini-doc, coming soon!

A Quick Intro

JW: I’m Jaime Woo, I head up our engineering communications team at Shopify. I principally help us tell our technical and engineering stories to the world.

We have a saying here at Shopify: “Do things. Tell people.” We’re really good at doing things, but we don’t always tell people what we do. It’s my job to help engineers and developers get that story out there. We want to share what we’re working on with the community. We want to be able to open up about the things that we think are important, the projects that we have. It’s my team’s job to help make that happen.

The State of Diversity in Tech

“The way that the industry has survived for too long has been by not thinking about inclusion and diversity. Things are changing but we’re not 100% there yet. We’re not even close to that 100%, I’d say we’re at like 15%.”

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

JW: This is something that took me a long time to notice because it is very subtle. And it gets under your skin without you really knowing it. And you start asking yourself questions like “am I being treated differently? And why is this happening? How does this affect things?

Whether it’s around my ethnicity, my queerness… it can happen for all different reasons. And so it took a while to understand that people are very quick to point out those differences… people are very quick to think about it.

I think any person who is of a non-white ethnicity, or who has an accent, has experienced that feeling of not belonging here.

I remember growing up and having people say to me “your english is very good.” And I thought “well, that’s great. I was born here, so it’s my first language.”

The assumption was that because of the colour of my skin, that my english would not be good. And that is a bad assumption because people come here from Russia, from France, from Italy, places where english would not be their first language, and they wouldn’t necessarily get the same response that I got.

Another question I get often is “but where are you really from?” And I’m like “Scarborough?”

And of course that question is implying that I don’t belong here. That because of my skin colour, it’s obvious that I am an outsider.

Jaime’s 3 Steps to Overcoming Unconscious Bias in the Workplace (and In Life)

1. Know Your History

JW: Really understanding the history of people, and the cities that we’ve built, and the companies that we’ve built, and the society that we’ve built, because neglecting our history can make us feel helpless, it can make us feel isolated and it can really confuse us.

What’s really interesting is that over time people change in terms of what they’re considered. If you were Russian or Italian 50 years ago you were not considered white. You were considered an outsider. And now, that’s something that’s changed. The perception is they’re seen as white.

One hundred years ago we had Chinese people brought over to this country to help with the railroads but then there was fear around having these foreigners here and a law was passed to stop the immigration of Chinese people. Those laws don’t happen in isolation. These things continue to have an impact to this day. Chinatown isn’t just a place where you can get a cheap bowl of noodles, it was really a place of survival.

When you understand that history it connects you to something bigger than yourself and it allows you to understand some of the things that happened before you.

2. Know Your Limit

JW: Minorities and under represented groups also need to know, at the end of the day, what your limit is for this stuff. You need to know how much you can take. How much of the unconscious bias? There are going to be things that are residual from that historical legacy we talked about. That doesn’t completely just wash away. And everyone needs to figure out how much they can take in their day to day and how much they want this because that safety is most important.

3. Find Your Community

JW: Everyone needs to find their community. You need to go out there and find people who are in similar situations to yourself, and connect with them, because they’re going to know the same things that you’re gonna know. So, I have so many friends of colour who understand what it’s like to be asked where you’re from. Or they understand what it’s like to walk into a room and be the only person of colour. And just how disorienting that can be. And it’s not to say that if you aren’t of colour that you’ll never be able to get to that place, but you’re not going to have those experiences as often.

I definitely couldn’t have made it this far without being around other queer people, and be able to lean on them when I was feeling weak and be strong for them when they were having troubles. To just have people to get through the day with. I think that’s an important thing.

I think the most important thing for people who want to join this industry is to get to know who they are, and to find other people like them because you can’t do it alone.

Whether we’re in the tech industry or not, understanding where other people come from… that’s the biggest thing that we can do. Really sitting there going, what was your path? how did you get there? what are my assumptions about you? how did I make those assumptions? By understanding that, we get to see people as they really are and we can connect with them. And when we connect with people, that’s how we bring people in.

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