Finding My Voice Again
I’m ethnically Chinese, but I spent most of my foundational years in a suburb that was 90% white. Not growing up with people who looked like me, or lived a lifestyle like my family made me uncomfortable in my own skin. It made me doubt the things I did and the way I thought. I didn’t know anyone else like me, so I always felt wrong.

The more and more I reflect on the insecurities I have in my personal and professional lives, I realize how much I carry those burdens even today. Although I’m lucky to have known people from all different backgrounds and cultures since then, it hasn’t helped that I’ve still spent a lot of my early career with people unlike me. In these situations, I’ve found that I often valued others’ voices at the cost of my own.

I went to engineering school, where I was lucky to be a part of a cohort where a whopping one-third of the class identified as female. Despite being at the top of my class, I rarely raised my hand in lectures or asked questions because, as a woman, there was already the perception that we weren’t as intelligent as the men in our class. I didn’t want to risk confirming that for my peers and professors. I kept my hand down.

In the summer before my senior year, I was a design intern at a reasonably well-known tech company. I was the only woman, the most junior on the team, amongst a very homogeneous set of mostly white men. Design critiques were combative and my manager was heavy-handed in controlling my work. It was shocking at first, but after a while, I convinced myself that I was the odd one out for not being used to this way of working. By the end of the summer, I’d transitioned from coming up with my own ideas to just executing on my manager’s. 

The year after, I started my first full-time job as a product designer. Again, I was the most junior on my team and the only woman. There was another designer on the team, many years my senior. We worked together on a few projects and I’d let him present my work for me. When it came to receiving feedback, I always let his opinions override my own. What did I know? He’d developed his intuitions over many more years than I had. I’d only just begun, so his opinions were more right than mine. I let him speak for my work.

As I worked more independently and found myself in more situations where people asked me my opinions, however, I started trusting my intuitions more. I’ve had supportive managers who’ve said to me, “I’ve noticed you not speaking up. Let’s work on that together.” Sometimes it was as simple as a coworker turning to me and asking, “what do you think, Jenny?” Also, the more and more I’ve worked on non-homogeneous teams, the safer I’ve felt. By taking away the idea of a “norm”, it’s made me realize just because my experiences have been different, it doesn’t make them any less valid.

I’m still working on this, but every once in a while when I feel myself holding back, I remember—it’s literally my job to speak up. I’m getting paid for my opinions. 

For me, this has been a lifelong journey. So this year, my resolution is simple. It’s to feel a little more valid, a little more comfortable with myself, a little more vulnerable with those I care about, and a little more proud of my voice. This journey starts with sharing my story and in acknowledging the truth in all of your stories, too. 

That, and a lot of therapy. 
Jenny Wen is a Product Designer at Figma in San Francisco, CA. She can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and her website.
Art used in this issue: “Still life” by Pan Yuliang
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