How to Be an Effective Self-Advocate, According to Local Women in Tech

Janey Zitomer
July 7, 2020

We asked eight professional women in Chicago tech what has helped them overcome fears or doubts that accompany advocating for themselves in a typically male-dominated space. 

Many of their initial responses? They haven’t. 

“I don’t actually think I’ve resolved that fear,” Bounteous’s Visual Designer Allison Catuira said. “It’s both a personal struggle and a systemic byproduct of the misogyny that is baked into the fabric of most workplaces and society,” she added. 

For Catuira, as well as Neighborhoods.com engineer Megan Lyle and Fetch Rewards engineer Glenda Adams, self-advocacy is an ongoing process. 

That said, they and other women suggested a few strategies for staying true to themselves and fighting for what they deserve. For example, they lean on both personal and workplace allies for support and keep an ongoing list of accomplishments with quantifiable outcomes handy to share with higher-ups when appropriate.

“Sharing achievements isn’t tantamount to arrogance,” Haley Altman, global director of business development and strategy at Litera Microsystems, said. 

 

Snapsheet
Snapsheet

“What did I learn and what can I take with me to my next endeavor?”

It’s one of a few questions that Manager of Strategy and Implementation Stephanie Acker asks herself after finishing a project or volunteering for an assignment. The Snapsheet team member said she’s learned to speak positively and proudly about her accomplishments from mentors and peers alike. 

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

For me, the first step was realizing that advocating for yourself doesn’t mean that you are arrogant or entitled. It means that you deserve to be seen and have recognition for what you’ve accomplished. Men are much more normalized to talking about the value and insight that they bring to the table, simply because they’ve been brought up to think and talk that way about their accomplishments.

I started my career at a large professional services firm. I was fortunate enough to have both male and female mentors who provided me with guidance and support to feel like I could speak confidently about my own abilities. The biggest (and simplest) thing that helped me was practice. I check in with myself after every opportunity I’m pursuing and ask myself a few questions: What did I learn and what can I take with me to my next endeavor? What would I do differently when faced with a similar situation in the future? How has this helped me progress and grow as an individual and a professional?

To the women who are nervous about the perception that comes with self-advocating: use your previous experiences, understand what you’ve learned from them and where you want to go, and be confident that you have the background and knowledge to get there.

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

If you feel like your contributions are being overlooked in the workplace, take a step back and ask yourself why.

Diagnosing the reason you may be feeling overlooked will help you come to a solution. If it’s because no one knows the work that you’re doing, then you probably need to start advocating for yourself and strategically building your network. If it’s because other people on your team are quicker to speak up, then challenge yourself to contribute more frequently and take the lead. If it’s because a teammate or superior takes credit for your work, have a conversation with them. Ensure they aren’t the only person who knows the work you’ve been doing. If you do identify that what you’ve been working on isn’t adding value toward your company’s goals and objectives, then switch gears. Find an area where your company does need help and be the go-to person to solve that problem or close that deal.

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

I recently wanted to get involved with an opportunity that sits outside of my current role. I knew that I had the appropriate skill set and knowledge to assist with the effort, so I started meeting with a number of different team members and C-suite executives to understand our overall objectives and action plan for the opportunity. Based on my previous experience and leveraging my existing network, I was able to establish myself as a go-to person for questions and assistance, even though it wasn’t part of my normal day-to-day.

In this specific situation, I did face opposition in the beginning from different team members, since it was technically outside of my normal responsibilities. You have to be willing to accept push back sometimes to make a little progress. Creating conflict or addressing confrontation is not for everyone. However, if it’s for the right reason and moves you toward the greater good, I’ve learned it’s worth having a few difficult discussions.

 

Bounteous
Bounteous

In a previous role, an act of boldness led to a fruitful outcome for Bounteous Visual Designer Allison Catuira: she was able to work on a project she was interested in and eventually transition teams. Catuira recommends looking to both friends and colleagues for support when it comes to speaking up and standing your ground. 

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

I don’t actually think I’ve resolved that fear. It’s both a personal struggle and a systemic byproduct of the misogyny that is baked into the fabric of most workplaces and society. That said, I try to hold myself accountable by asking myself why speaking up feels like a burden and leaning on both personal and workplace allies for support.

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

I have seen and experienced workplace situations like this. In a lot of ways, I equate it to being stuck in an unhealthy relationship. If you don’t feel like you’re being heard or recognized, create an action plan to extract yourself from that environment. You have no obligation to stay anywhere that doesn’t respect you.

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off.

Several agencies ago, I got wind of a project that I wasn’t assigned to but involved work that I was passionate about. I had a good rapport with the team, so I basically invited myself to the kickoff meeting. Because of that, I was able to transition onto that team and came up with a winning concept for our client. It doesn’t work for every situation, but the experience did teach me to trust my moments of boldness, especially when that type of behavior is normalized in men.

 

Kin + Carta
Kin + Carta

If you don’t ask for what you want, people are likely to assume you’re content where you are. That’s Allison Glaubke’s experience, anyway. The senior manager of partnership strategy and development at Kin + Carta said she’s learned to ask for what she wants the moment the opportunity presents itself and not a minute later. 

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

Over the years at Kin + Carta, I have strived first and foremost to excel in my current role. Over time, people have noticed, which has allowed me to earn the respect of my colleagues. As a result, when I have looked to make a move or advance in my career, I have a strong reputation built that I can draw from. Before advocating for myself, I always ask one or two trusted colleagues, typically more senior than me, for their input and coaching. They then can help position me for success and I feel more confident asking for what I want.

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

Go above and beyond in your current role. Are there areas where you can take initiative without being asked? Are there any gaps in current processes or activities that you can address? Gather data to inform your position. For example, write down a list of your recent accomplishments with quantifiable outcomes. Find out how much your co-workers are making or others in similar roles in your field.

Finally, seek input from a trusted colleague. Get their feedback on your performance and figure out ways to gain more visibility. See if they will support you in making an ask for whatever it is you’re looking for.

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off.

A few years ago, I was interested in making a lateral move from the marketing department to the partnerships team to a role that did not yet exist. I had planned to voice my interest to the VP of Partnerships but wanted to wait a few months until a big project I was leading was over, as it was consuming all of my time and energy. 

My mentor encouraged me not to delay and to ask to meet with the VP that next week. After a positive conversation over coffee, he advocated on my behalf to join his team. The week my project was ending, I was offered the position. This experience taught me to speak up and ask for what I want and that timing is everything. Had I waited, there is a chance the role could have been created and gone to someone else.

 

Neighborhoods.com
Neighborhoods.com

In the last few years, Neighborhoods.com Front-End Engineer Megan Lyle said she has focused on normalizing the process of making mistakes, learning from them and moving on. As she’s progressed in her role, she said she’s also learned that her successes don’t come at the expense of anyone else’s. 

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

In all honesty, I still have a long way to go in this regard. There is still a lot of fear in making any statement that says my knowledge should overtake someone else’s in the tech space. That being said, I have done specific work to grow in this area.

The biggest mental leap for me has come in recognizing that I have the right to make mistakes just like anyone else on the team. If I say the wrong thing and someone points it out, it’s OK as long as I am listening and respecting the voices in the room as much as they respect mine. There is no arrogance in wanting your team’s work to be better and using your own skills and voice to ensure it. I was hired for a reason. If a company trusts you to contribute, don’t get in your own way.

In that same line of thought, acknowledging that I’ve done well doesn’t come at the expense of my team. It helps that we do foster a tech environment where everyone’s contributions are significantly valued. It makes me feel less singled out when I do bring up an accomplishment.

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

If you have a relationship with your manager or team members, talk to them about it. If you do not, then it may be time to try and create one. In previous jobs, deadlines were tight and praise was harder to come by. Actively seeking feedback, and being prepared for both the good and the bad, was an important skill to have. 

It is nice when a company takes initiative, but that isn’t always going to be the case. Open the lines of communication and know that you deserve to be in a place that recognizes the value that you bring. If leadership will not change after prompting, it may be a bad fit. There are other workplaces that will do better.

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

Self-advocacy has actually paid off a lot for me recently as I became more comfortable speaking to my skills. For example, I recently decided to reach out to a community leader outside of work who I admired. I asked whether I could take on managing her website. I spoke to my skills and expected not to hear back. 

It turns out that she did need the help and that she was impressed with what she saw. Since then, we’ve been in frequent contact. I’ve both redone her old website and begun working on a new platform that will help her community grow immensely. That isn’t something that I will forget anytime soon. You can be your own worst enemy if you assume you aren’t good enough and quit before you even begin.

 

Pricefx
Pricefx

If you don’t see someone who looks like you in leadership, it might be a sign the ceiling is too low, Senior Project Manager Catherine Kirk said. Kirk, a Pricefx employee, said she leverages her relationships with key influencers to widen her experience within her field. 

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

When you’re not absolute in your confidence, self-promotion is less necessary than you might realize. Instead, others can promote those accomplishments on your behalf, which can strengthen your brand. Someone else speaking to my value resonates with greater credibility than my rattling through a list of wins. So, leverage your relationships with influencers within your organization. When the opportunity arises, share accomplishments that will ultimately widen your exposure to new opportunities. 

When I was invited to observe a board meeting, an executive once told me, “Eighty percent of what is said about you happens when you’re not in the room.” You can shape a percentage of your story for others to tell.

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

The underrepresentation of women and people of color in leadership in most Fortune 500 companies characterizes the persistence of systemic bias and discrimination in the workplace. All too often, women –– and to a greater extent, women of color like me –– remain stuck in the pipeline of opportunity. If you don’t see someone who looks like you in leadership, it might be a sign the ceiling is too low. 

Take an objective evaluation of the organization’s promotion pattern. Additionally, your manager should be a primary advocate. If they are not, seek a mentor willing to strategize and share feedback on your journey to rise. Do you communicate from a place of strength or weakness? Is there a certification or particular capability required for recognition? Meanwhile, keep your resume updated, continue to develop professionally and consider an exit timeline.  

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

As a project manager in software, value is easily measured. When projects are deployed on time and within budget, it’s a win. Taking ownership when things don’t go well is a challenge but I view failure as an opportunity to demonstrate professional improvement. I also advocate my value by emerging from disappointment with a reasonable action plan. Leadership appreciates self-motivated colleagues who are inspired to apply lessons learned to the next round of work. 

I strengthen my brand by a willingness to do work others may find menial to grow and learn. A commitment to meet goals and recommit when things go wrong creates a sustainable advantage that speaks louder than words.

 

Fetch Rewards
Fetch Rewards

Glenda Adams works on seeing negative reactions to her confidence as a reflection of others’ own insecurities rather than her actual abilities. At the loyalty program company Fetch Rewards, the principal iOS engineer says she’s been deliberate about speaking up and taking credit when credit is due. 

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

It’s been a long struggle and I still have to concentrate on it after many years of working in tech. The most important thing I’ve learned is to embrace my inner confidence and to be less concerned with other people’s reactions to me. If someone reacts negatively to my being confident, capable and outspoken about my abilities, that’s up to them. 

If I continue to prove my abilities and build my track record, eventually anyone who felt I was too pushy would hopefully see that attitude in a more positive light. I also try to be quick to admit when I don’t know something or made a mistake. I find the people who come across as arrogant often always need to be right. 

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace? 

As hard as it is, keep speaking up. Make sure you get the credit for what you’ve done.  Even if it feels like you are having to force your way into being heard, keep at it. It will become easier. Those who might ignore or dismiss you will realize you aren’t going away. You have valuable skills and insights to contribute.

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

After working for myself for many years as an indie game developer, I needed to get a regular job. I hadn’t written a resume or interviewed in forever. But I spent the time reviewing what I’d done and highlighting achievements that were important and relevant. When it came time to interview at Fetch, I was confident and ready to talk about all the things that made me a perfect fit for this job. 

I didn’t shy away from taking credit for the amount of experience I had and what I could bring to Fetch. Looking back at what I’d accomplished in my career and admitting to myself that I have done some pretty amazing things ended up being a good exercise.

 

Microsystems
Microsystems

In a previous role, Haley Altman, global director of business development and strategy at Litera Microsystems, was passed over for a position she knew she deserved simply because higher-ups weren’t aware of the extent of her contributions to the team. She and current colleagues Kate Jasaitis and Gwen Smith shared how such experiences have given them a new perspective on self-advocacy. 

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

Kate Jasaitis, director of adoption: I was terrible at advocating for myself for the longest time. I think a lot of women look at self-advocacy as having a negative impact because it may cause confrontation, which can be uncomfortable. I know I felt that way. What I’ve learned over the years is that if you can put a positive spin on it, self-promotion is received much differently. 

Start with a positive statement, such as recognition of another’s accomplishments or a compliment. Then use facts to be specific about what it is you want or need. Be patient with yourself. Not all scenarios are the same. Practice advocating for yourself in familiar, supportive groups. And most of all, remember you have a voice. Use it!

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

Gwen Smith, senior manager of product marketing: When we think our efforts are overlooked, our sense of belonging is at risk. As a result, we may begin to question our self-worth. It’s easy to go into a downward spiral. If you don’t take a minute for  self-evaluation, you won’t be able to see a path forward.

Start by asking yourself why you feel this way. Write your answers down, providing as much detail as possible. It might help to think of a specific event. Who was there? How engaged were attendees? How did I contribute? Or think about a specific project you worked on. What would it have been like if I was not a participant? With an open mind, think about what went well and what you could have done differently.

Once you debrief, talk to your peers and your boss. Walk them through some key projects and your findings. Ask for their opinions. As you explain, you might find that they had no idea how much effort you put in. 

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

Haley Altman, global director of business development and strategy: When I was a senior associate, I felt like the firm passed over me for partner at my law firm. I thought I should have made it based on the volume of business I brought in and quality of my work. 

I asked the managing partner directly why I hadn’t made it when I felt like I earned it. He assured me I was on the right track, but that I could better finish out proposed initiatives. Caught off guard, I explained that I not only completed and launched the initiative he was speaking of, but brought in a number of clients from it. He had no idea. I hadn’t shared the success past my direct supervisor, counting on him to pass along the news.  I let my fear of being perceived as arrogant impact my goals. 

The next year, I switched the billing partner on new clients I brought in, showcased cross-office work and informed the entire corporate group about completed initiatives. I made income partner that year and made equity partner one year later. I’m my best advocate. Sharing achievements isn’t tantamount to arrogance.

 

SDI Presence
SDI Presence

Shanna Rahming, a senior delivery executive, doesn’t let herself accept “good enough.” She shared an experience from her time as the CIO of the state of Nevada that inspires the work she does at IT consultancy and managed services provider SDI Presence.  

 

How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

You must know and believe that you are doing the right thing for your client, employer, community, etc. It’s not simply a matter of subject matter expertise. Passion and drive make you successful. Share your passion with your boss and other stakeholders to show that you are the right person to accomplish the work.

 

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

Share your passion for what you are doing, whether it be through status reports, one-on-one conversations or newsletters. If your company has expert groups that meet to educate each other or new staff members, join one. Attend local group meetings. This will allow people outside of your organization to see your expertise. 

 

Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. What did you learn from this experience?

When I was the CIO of the state of Nevada, I wanted to get involved with a state-level cybersecurity project. I worked hard to learn the information I needed to know to make sure that we could participate. I filled out surveys and applications, explaining information succinctly and thoroughly. I made sure that my higher-ups understood the benefits the opportunity would bring us. 

I then confirmed that the application was top-notch and that my team was ready to perform at a high level. I was rewarded with the knowledge that I had made the project happen.

 

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