In 2016, Slack made headlines when their CEO, Stewart Butterfield, sent four black female engineers to accept TechCrunch’s award for fastest-rising startup. Foregoing the stage himself, Butterfield was lauded for celebrating diversity in tech. What few people heard, however, is that Butterfield hadn’t asked those women to accept the award—that was orchestrated by Erica Joy Baker, then a senior engineer at Slack, and one of the women on stage that night.
This is just one of the highly successful efforts Baker has made to promote women and people of color in tech. As one of the few black female leaders in her industry—she’s now the senior engineering manager at crowdfunding platform Patreon—she is unafraid to attack the status quo. Earlier in her career, while working as an engineer at Google, she sensed a wage gap, badgered the company for its workforce demographics, and circulated a spreadsheet of salaries to fix inequalities. As a child, she even wore a button that read “Question Authority.”
Baker uses public speaking, Medium essays, and Twitter to address tech gatekeepers (mostly white men) with a clear message: Women and people of color did not create the biases that block them from professional success, so stop tasking them with fixing “the diversity issue.” Start recognizing their talent, recruiting them, promoting them, and making your companies more welcoming. And, most importantly, interrogate and check your own biases.
“I see my job as holding companies accountable until stuff gets better,” Baker told USA Today. “I am trying to keep moving the needle, to make sure the stuff that we didn’t talk about—the stuff that gets brushed under the rug—gets discussed and gets solved.”
In an interview with Quartz, Baker explains how to elevate black women in tech and beyond, her therapist’s perspective-saving advice, and why being called “strong” is actually restricting.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
We aren’t thinking enough about how dealing with racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. is affecting those who are experiencing them in the workplace, beyond the emotional trauma. We aren’t thinking about the lost time spent having to fight those issues. We aren’t thinking about the mental energy wasted on dealing with them: energy that should have been spent on doing our jobs. We aren’t talking about the amount of productivity lost because of it. While those who aren’t affected by bias and and bigotry in the workplace are able to completely focus on their work and advance as a result, those of us who have to spend time, energy, and effort on dealing with bias and bigotry instead of doing our jobs end up even further behind.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Can I have two? Tenacity and resilience.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
Flip the gender balance of the executive team and board members at every company.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I’d known how important having a good support system is and cultivated that. I wish I’d not believed that I could “handle” and do everything on my own.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
Summer 2017. I turned it around by asking for help. I honestly would not have gotten out of the place I was in without the help of my friends.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I treat my colleagues like people and practice the platinum rule: “Treat people the way they want to be treated.” I don’t necessarily make friends (although sometimes I do!), but I make it a point to be kind, considerate, and decent. That goes a long way.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“You don’t have to,” from my therapist. I have a strong loyalty and commitment streak. My therapist often reminds me that there are things I don’t have to do, which is freeing.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
I kid. Seriously though, find those who aren’t normally put into positions of power and bring them to the table. Speak up for them when they aren’t in the room. Fight to get them promoted. Demand that they’re paid fairly. In short, men should spend some of their political and social capital to make the workplace more equitable.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is the one I’m standing on, having marshaled all forces available to me, to protect those I care about.
I wish people would stop telling me… that I’m strong. Strong is too loaded. It implies being unmovable, unbreakable, unshakeable. People often say, “You got this, you’re strong,” when you’re facing a difficult situation, which doesn’t leave room for you to not have it. It doesn’t leave room for you to bend a little bit and have the moment or three when you just need to break down—moments we all have at some point. I much prefer resilient, which says, “Yes, stuff will get me down, but I will bounce back.”
Everyone should own… a dog. (My apologies to those who are allergic to them.)
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.