Building and Breaking Patterns: Inclusion in Tech

5 minutes read
RV Engineering Manager Brittany Maffesoli presenting at this year’s Tech Summit

Hi, I’m Brittany. I’m an Engineering Manager, a mom, and an avid reader (especially fantasy). In recent years, we’ve seen some awesome social shifts and progress when it comes to inclusion – but as we all know, we still have a long way to go.

Today I’d like to share a bit of my own personal experience and advice, which I hope will inspire other women in tech and allies to continue advocating and making space for more diversity in tech. 

Pattern Recognition

I’ve worked in engineering for nearly a decade, and let’s face it – in meetings, at tech conferences, I very often have found myself to be the only woman in a room. And, while I’ve had some truly incredible male managers, leaders, and peers who have genuinely wanted me to succeed, I’ve noticed a pattern.

Some advice and types of coaching – while they may be proven paths of success for majority groups – may not work for everyone. New paths may need to be introduced, accepted, and supported. I’ll give you a few examples. 

“Be more assertive.”

I was given this advice early in my career, as I imagine many people of all backgrounds are. For some, this may be effective. For me, it was not. My efforts to implement this feedback actually led to further feedback from colleagues that I was behaving rudely in meetings, and I should give everyone a chance to speak.

“Be more protective/strategic with your time!” 

Another common piece of advice, especially at the mid-level. However, as I practiced saying “no” more, this led to feedback that I was unhelpful and not a team player – despite my task lists actually including more unplanned support work or “glue work” than my colleagues.

“Fake it til you make it.”

When I started leading my first team, a common piece of advice I received was “act confident, even when you don’t feel it.” However, in practice, this came across as inauthentic, and actually may have damaged my team’s confidence in me. 

“Don’t let people interrupt you when you’re speaking.”

My response to this: I’m not letting them… they’re just doing it! Are they getting feedback to have more self-awareness, to create more space for their teammates?

A-ha. I recognize a pattern. Perhaps we should break it.

Since becoming a leader, I’ve found that I’m not the only one who has experiences like these. Many of my reports do too, including men! Together, we’ve learned to be curious about why we each find certain things challenging, and to be open to new ideas on how to overcome challenges. 

Being open to recognizing and questioning patterns enables us to break them, expand them, or build new ones.

We also make an effort to celebrate that different people on our team have different strengths, because we all can learn from and lean on each other. Having a culture of curiosity about problems, questioning conventional methods, and looking for creative solutions is great for coaching and personal growth, but it comes through in our engineering work as well.

Outcome-Based Feedback

When we offer feedback framed as “act like this” or “you need to do that” – we’re forgetting the “why,” which is the part we really need. Regardless of which side of the conversation you’re on (manager or direct report) we should ask clarifying questions and make sure everyone understands what the actual desired outcome is. Then, empower people to deliver that outcome in ways that are authentic and effective, without the constraints of old patterns.

For example, one time I was asked to try using a more authoritative, confident tone when presenting. I tried, but it made me feel… not me. I was speaking in someone else’s voice and it was tripping me up. It made the presentation weaker. I went to a mentor and asked if she had any advice for me to be more confident. She asked me, “what outcome are you hoping to get from implementing this?”

The (unacceptable) answer: I don’t actually know, I was just told to do it!

It turns out, my manager’s concern was that my call to action wasn’t strong enough to get the engagement and drive the change I wanted. And he was right. I took that information back to my mentor, and she helped me brainstorm ways to make my content more engaging in order to drive a better result – in my own style, with my real voice.

Once I understood the outcome my manager wanted when he gave me the feedback, I was able to respectfully say “I can address this, but can I do it a different way?” That unlocked a lot.

As an ally, be curious, not judgmental.

One of the most impactful things allies have done for me is simply believed me when I experienced something different from them, and put in the effort to learn more so they could help me. 

No one is expected to understand everything about someone else’s experience, but we all have the capacity to listen and take it seriously when they share.

For example, I once shared with my manager that I felt someone was exhibiting an unconscious bias against me. He admitted he had never experienced what I was going through but wanted to help.

After our conversation, he read articles by female leaders, listened to female-driven podcasts, and came back to our next 1:1 with new advice and perspectives he’d learned from them. It meant so much to me that he got curious, went and did that work himself, and came back with new perspectives and ideas.

He didn’t ask me to teach him. He didn’t push the problem back on me by simply telling me to listen to the podcast myself or seek out a woman who’d understand better. He got curious, and he sought out new perspectives so he’d know how to be a great leader for someone who faces different challenges from himself.

That’s how it’s done.

Want an inside scoop on what it’s like to work on the RV Engineering team? Check out what our engineers had to say

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Brittany Maffesoli

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