Navigating power dynamics has been a recurring theme in my professional tenure. We know what that power looks like - it's about leveraging your authority and access. It's about orchestrating fear, excluding people who are less powerful than you and disenfranchising them.
My experience of being a woman of colour in tech encompasses pockets of weak leadership, toxic culture, bias and sexual harassment. In the tech industry, where companies self-identify as progressive, moral stewards, this lopsided power structure can be especially vexing. But as draining and debilitating as my experience has been, I have always had an intense resolve to fight it. Looking clear-eyed at where I have been, what has happened, what I have done, and what has been done to me.
Speaking up is not easy. It is not glamorous or fun. Yet the truth is contagious. It has an energy in and of itself, like a drum beat. It makes noise. And the more we speak it, the clearer our path becomes. I have been able to break through my own psychological stranglehold with the realisation that it's not just my individual story or individual intent, but the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives occupational inequality its power. By and large, our ability to evolve as a human race keeps me hopeful.
My thinking was problematic a couple of years ago, and there were a lot of things I didn’t know or understand and thought I was right about. Yet I was allowed to make mistakes and grow from them. I never tire of being corrected when I'm wrong, I’m grateful when people think I can take the criticism. I’ve seen what’s possible when you push yourself to the other side of fear. That applies to all of us. We are never going to be perfectly ‘woke’; all we can strive towards is progress.
"By and large, our ability to evolve as a human race keeps me hopeful."
We stand a better chance of overhauling the system by calling out the behaviour versus the person. If we cut someone off completely every time they show their ignorance or make a mistake, we’re devaluing growth, and people will feel there’s no merit in learning because they will be punished forever for the sin they no longer stand behind.
If you haven't done irrevocable harm (and that would be my caveat here), you should be given the opportunity to learn and unlearn. If you own up to the moments where you could have done better, and tell someone, ‘I’m sorry for not having understood your plight and fought harder with you sooner. It was ignorance, not a lack of compassion. I stand with you now and forever’, then we’re heading in the right direction.
Today, I leverage any amount of capital I have gained to advocate for a safe, diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace by educating people around the subject, particularly those the system considers privileged because we need them on our side.
It firstly starts with creating some distance between our personal story and the system. There are people who haven’t been exposed to the intricacies of the system, who might say, ‘I’m a survivor of this. I’ve lost family that way. These are the things I’ve seen. This is all the trauma I’ve had, and you’re going to tell me I have privilege?’ And I understand that. I understand how a person says, ‘I’ve dealt with all these hardships, where’s my privilege?’ In essence, the privilege you might not even be aware you experience, is based on a system that identifies you as being proximal to it. Acknowledge that while you feel pain too, this conversation is bigger than your story.
I can take myself as an example. I experience privilege as a cisgender, light skinned woman of colour. That privilege is not lost on me. I experience oppression as a woman of colour, yes, but I do not experience the level of oppression that for example my transgender and/or black sisters experience. It doesn’t harm me, or take away from my negative or positive experiences, or my trauma, or my success to acknowledge that.
"Everyone should be willing to look at the system beyond their personal, short term interests."
And then to look at the system that has created socio-political and economic barriers for the trans and black community, resulting in generational and lasting effects. When we’re having modern day conversations around reparations, and people say, ‘What are you talking about? We had nothing to do with that history’, that’s a head fake, because the system has mechanisms in place to continue to oppress these communities in every sense of the term.
Look for where your privilege intersects with somebody's oppression. That is the piece of the system that you have the power to help destroy. As someone with privilege, I think it’s really important to say, ‘Who am I? How do I define my integrity? I’ve worked really hard, and built this life and this career, but I didn’t have the barriers that many marginalised groups would have had in my position. I’m privileged. Alright, what am I going to do with the profits my company makes? Who am I going to hire? How am I going to advocate? Who am I going to defend and protect and sponsor? I recognize we all have biases, but what will I do to manage them better and call them out when I see them in myself and others? Who will form part of my agency roster? Who am I going to invite to my conference? How am I going to spend my privilege?’
Everyone should be willing to look at the system beyond their personal, short term interests. Figure out how you’d like to pay it forward. Who are you going to vote for? Who are you going to give money to? Are you going to support local initiatives? Will you come to the next Black Lives Matter meeting? Are you going to befriend people outside of your community? Are you going to stand up for a female colleague being harassed or paid less? Are you going to actively listen? What are you going to do that takes you out of your comfort zone and puts you in a place of not just being aware that the system needs changing, but actively changing it?
We need to look at how to make our society, and consequently our workplaces, a level playing field for all of us. And then each of us can see the ways in which we have either unconsciously/passively participated in that system, choosing to teach and rectify rather than punish as a way forward. Everything we say and do in the pursuit of justice will one day be outdated, and yes, probably wrong. That is the way progress works, but we need to be taking those leaps forward as a collective. We can't change the system without thinking about the whole picture, and we are all part of that picture.
Take #MeToo for instance - it was a metamorphosis; a watershed moment in history, built off of our desire to learn and do better. Together, we were forced to come to terms with the systemic abuse and misuse of power in our workplaces, and as part of the movement, called to shift that balance of power and redefine its meaning.
"You can be successful, in every sense of the term, through kindness and collaboration."
The old narrative told us that there was power in singularity. In being the one and only. That narrative trafficked in control and subjugation and most of all fear. It told us that in order to keep your power you have to reject other nests and make other people feel powerless. The new narrative tells us that our power lies in our partnership. That real power comes from succeeding with people, not succeeding off of people.
In the willingness to share and empower one another, we make it possible for others to step into their own power. Not losing sight of that has been revelatory and it has helped me model a career with integrity and inclusion on top of mind. You can be successful, in every sense of the term, through kindness and collaboration.
I make no claim that my opinions should be yours though. I make no claim to know more or less than anyone else. My hope in speaking out is to spark a dialogue and commemorate our collective experiences. So that with that knowledge, we can hopefully inspire each other. Hopefully we can open each other’s eyes, teach each other new things and prompt one another to do just a bit more. A bit more good that will affect us and those around us.
Written by guest contributor Tina Morwani
About the author
Tina Morwani is a B2B tech marketer and mentor at PWN Global and Reed Technology. Vocal around mental health issues and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) for underrepresented groups within the advertising industry, she is currently the Director of ABM and Field Marketing at Logz.io, and has previously held roles within GitLab, Criteo and Hewlett-Packard.
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*Uncredited photos provided by Tina Morwani