the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Shannon Li

Minding the gap: How I navigate tech as a queer woman of color

January 18, 2019

As an aspiring software engineer, I tackle problems every day. But some problems—the personal ones—are the most difficult ones to grapple with. In an industry struggling with diversity, tech rarely crossed my mind as a career option and growing up as a queer women of color, seeking a role model in the tech industry to look up to has not been an easy feat. Trying to make my voice heard and find my place in a field in which my identity is denied has affected my ability to succeed in STEM.

I have tried to understand the unspoken convention of STEM: the lack of visibility of its LGBTQ members. Even in an increasingly progressive society, visibility for the LGBTQ tech community remains highly overshadowed. We have been left out of the dialogue in the discussion of the gender gap in STEM. The gender gap is the disparity between women and non-binary people, and men, in which women and non-binary individuals are falling behind in interest in STEM, pursuing and graduating with a degree in a technical field, and maintaining a career in the industry.

According to a report conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), while there will be 7 million new STEM jobs by 2025 and not enough people to fill them, only 35% of higher education students studying STEM subjects are women. It is clear that despite the increase in employment within STEM, women are still less likely to fill up these jobs.

The gap in the tech industry will remain stagnant if I do not choose to remove myself from the statistics of LGBTQ women falling out of tech. The journey to gaining a seat in the tech industry is not just for me, but for the queer community, who not only deserve role models, resources, and opportunities in STEM, but also deserved to have their stories heard. Representation is about shining light on underrepresented communities, and showing the ability that the queer community has to offer.

It’s so important to teach LGBTQ folks to break through the shackles of confinement that society has created for us and defy stereotypes. It’s about building resilience and confidence. Viewing challenges as an opportunity for growth is formative to succeeding in a male-dominated field.

Coming out as LGBTQ at work is a prevalent issue, but there remain additional challenges once you are out, especially if you are a woman and/or a person of color. LGBTQ individuals may face being misgendered, having sexual orientation and gender presumed in the workplace, identities invalidated, disregarding and misusing pronouns, and using anti-LGBTQ comments or derogatory remarks.

Based on a survey conducted by Boston University, over one-third of LGBTQ survey respondents have considered leaving their workplace or school in the past year after experiencing or observing harassment and discrimination. For women and people of color, it is especially difficult working in at companies where their racial and gender identity leads them to be met with unfair hiring process, lack of opportunities for recruitment and promotion for higher positions, lack of encouragement to pursue rigorous professions like STEM at an early age, and their work contributions are invalidated and doubted simply for the color of their skin or their gender.

As challenging as being a queer woman of color is in STEM, I know for certain, it will not prevent me from succeeding. Taking charge of my story was hard, but not as difficult as running away from it. I love being a queer woman, and being queer in tech makes me love it even more. Given my identity, I am more than proud to be someone who can bring different ideas to the table from my own life experience that can help solve some of the greatest problems in the world. I get to disrupt stereotypes, push the boundaries of what is expected, and create a more open and tolerant environment for all. My road to acceptance remains as the venerable and vulnerable reminders of who I am, how far I have become, and who I will become. I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.

I strive to be a part of the next forthcoming and one of the many new queer innovators, bringing greater visibility to the community, while making a profound impact, and hopefully, one day make history. I hope I am already well on my way down that path. Cementing my passion for technology with social justice has been the forefront of my mission. In our tech savvy world, I strive to start an intersectional movement for people with queer identities to fill the tech talent gap wherever they go. I will fight for my seat and the seat of other queer folks at the table, and resolve to build my own table, where queer folks who don’t have equal access of opportunities can join and serve as leaders in their respective industries.

For the millions of young queer women of color in the world who struggle to pursue their dreams in a field that is heavily underrepresented in their identity, I am here for you. Open the hearts and minds of those around you, leave behind a legacy that reverberates for those who do not have a role model, and let your journey be a lifeline and inspiration to those who need it most, even if it may not seem apparent.

Shannon Li is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and first year at University of Michigan studying computer science. As an aspiring software and UX/UI engineer, Shannon strives to integrate technology with activism. As a Girl Who Codes and #BUILTBYGIRL ambassador, she hopes to build products in the future that serves humanity.

the voice and vision of a new generation