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Desk Lunch Issue 37

Leveling Up to Lead by Changing Their Perceptions of You

Dear reader,

I recently started a new role as a Lead Product Designer. For the first time, I’m leveled above Senior IC and officially manage direct reports. I’m excited to take this on, but the truth is, this work isn’t completely new to me. I’ve been performing at this level for awhile now and I have received little credit for it.

I’m a marginalized individual in tech. As an East Asian American woman, I do acknowledge my privilege. We are the highest paid woman minority. Our reputation is willing and competent. In numbers, we are more represented than our peers of color in the workplace. Despite this, we are rarely promoted to leadership. We have a 90% wage gap compared to white, non-Hispanic men and that is amplified by under-leveling. It's the bamboo glass ceiling.

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Here’s how I broke the ceiling.

Know the stereotype you are cast as.

I've been a “mid level” designer for years. Most of my managers weren't bad managers. They always asked what I needed, but the problem was I didn’t know what I needed. I saw myself as a hands-on creative. Turns out, the problem was never my work, but the perception of my ability to do work. The catch is no one will see a marginalized individual for their potential worth. You need to present your ideal future self.

Measure your worth.

Sometimes, I still don’t feel like I measure up, but it’s hard to argue with facts. I benchmarked myself against higher levels in my previous role. There I saw the evidence of my success. Besides delivering design work, I removed operational inefficiencies between functions. I addressed complex issues with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. I onboarded and mentored fellow designers. These were not things a “mid level” designer could do on their own.

I’m going to be real. This was my 7th full time job search. I’m tired. To make sure I rectified my gap, I collected data from friends. I set up a Calendly link to do 1 hour calls. I offered to repay friends with framed prints. I asked about their lead roles and expectations for their peers. I also asked for the most transparent version of compensation they were willing to share. Then, I was able to map myself comprehensively. I made a Johari window to confront what wasn’t working in my favor:

Take a good look at what’s impactful and what works against you. Since women are cast as soft skilled, emotional labor will go against your promotion. They erase memory of your technical contributions. Teammates often remembered my Slack emojis over my complex system flows. Make sure you get credit for your work. This Survival Tips For Women In Tech post expands on this further.

On my stereotype and how I broke it.

Teams are looking for leads who are talented, intuitive, driven, and inspiring. To combat my stereotype, I had to overcorrect especially for driven and inspiring. As a petite Asian American woman, I’m cast as meek in the workplace. It wouldn’t be enough to highlight the success of the work. I needed to show my influence.

I made sure to cite numbers in all my case studies. The more uncomfortable those numbers made me feel, the better. Next, I was explicit about the question, “Why was this hard?” This took the guesswork out of my ability to drive work forward. For example, HealthCare.gov is an online form. But I talked about every constraint, process, and stakeholder meeting that made building a form challenging. Correcting this cast me as the inspiring design lead in the job requisition. I gave every interviewer the evidence they needed to make my case.

Your reach goal is your actual goal. Believe you are worthy.

It's time for me to admit that getting an offer for a lead role was my reach goal. I had only expected to correct myself back to the path of Senior IC. The plan was to do both job searches in parallel. If I had 1 offer, I had nothing to lose with the back-up plan. If I had no offers, then I could see where my gaps were.

When reaching past your comfort zone, frame everything as practice. For example, if you’re leaving your job regardless, you don’t need your remaining social capital. If you’re happy where you are, you can approach a potential opportunity as a reach goal. Rack up those failures.

Bias doesn’t stop when you’re hired. You need to maintain your position.

Now that you are correctly leveled, the challenge is to stay on that trajectory. Position yourself strongly from the start. Keep your doubts to yourself. Don't let biases have a chance. It’s healthy to consider a 360º view of your work self, but your team only needs to see the you who can lead. Lean on your friends in the industry for questions like, “Am I cut out for this?” We all wonder sometimes. Expect each place you work to have an ugly truth. Implementing a truly inclusive workplace is tough. No company is there yet.

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It would be disingenuous to claim I made it here on my own. I surrounded myself with ambitious women, especially women of color. I wouldn’t be writing this letter if it wasn’t for Iyo, my career strategist. Together, we all know this isn't a zero-sum game. We can lift each other up. My hope is that we can maintain this new status quo. An inclusive tech is one where we don’t need to plan to earn respect. I want the advice in this letter to be irrelevant one day. Until then, repeat after me:

“I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.” –@hels at #xoxofest

Susan Lin is a Lead Product Designer at Cloudflare. Cloudflare powers 10% of global internet traffic and serves 2.8 million users each month. She manages the design team at headquarters. We are building world class products to keep the internet up and safe.

She also runs an art business. Mintlodica Studios has held a 5 figure annual profit since 2015. Her studio partner is Mango Roll, the cutest Mame Shiba Inu.


Art used in this issue: “Vase of flowers on the desk” by Pan Yuliang
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