Supporting women in tech — real examples of what works

Brigid Johnson
Sep 25 · 5 min read

“There are a lot of boys coming out your building,” my mother said when she picked me up from work one day. I am a woman in tech, and yes, I work with a lot of men. When it comes to inclusion and diversity in the workplace, I have heard it all from mentoring, sponsorship, and affinity groups. I also was president of Women@Amazon and Tepper Women in Business, and I was vice president of Women in Computer Science at the University of Illinois. More importantly, I have had many leaders (female and male) support me as a female leader in a male-dominated environment.

Other AWS employees often ask me, “How can I help support women in tech more?” Though funding and programs are a critical part of progress in this area, what matter most are how you make women feel and how you set an example for others to follow. This is how you can help change the dynamic at work and make women feel included. In this post, I share examples of times when leaders lifted me up and made me feel included, valued, and supported.

“That’s what she said”

I recently read the book, That’s What She Said, which is not about Michael Scott from The Office. Although the book wasn’t as actionable as I’d hoped, it did underscore a powerful way to include women at work. For example, I was involved in a heated debate about priorities in AWS. In an effort to persuade folks to prioritize a project, I wrote an email outlining all the reasons why we could not let this project wait. A well-respected and influential leader read this email. Not just once but at least three times, he mentioned my email in meetings. Each time, he said, “You know Brigid wrote this great email….” He made it clear that he heard, supported, and valued my ideas. Additionally, he signaled to my coworkers that I was someone to listen to.

“Nope, you’re gonna do it”

I was working on a project and the strategy document was going to be reviewed by AWS leaders. Although I wrote the document, I was going to be the most junior person in the room. Before the meeting, I asked my manager if she was going to field the questions. She quickly replied, “Nope, you’re gonna do it.” I was a little nervous, but quickly determined that if she had so much confidence in me, I should too. During the meeting, I answered all the questions or identified the best people to do so. Even better, the leaders didn’t address their questions to anyone else in the room. I deserved a seat at the table after all my hard work, and I was supported by my leadership. A year later, I haven’t forgotten that moment, and I say those same words to my employees about their projects.

“Brigid can answer that”

As a part of AWS Identity, I attend meetings that include leaders all the way up to our CEO. It always feels good to hear this in a meeting: “Brigid can answer that.” Leaders trust me to answer questions, make it clear I am the subject matter expert, and identify me as someone who should be heard. I usually call my parents afterward and tell them about how I got to answer specific questions. It makes them feel proud, too.

“Do you mind if I share this?”

Sometimes, I walk into a room and feel like I don’t belong. When this happens, I usually end up counting the number of women in the room to see if ratios match feelings. One time, I was surprised at the culture in the room of a recurring meeting. I have a supportive manager and we talk about these types of topics, so I told him how I felt. He replied, “This is interesting and something I don’t think about often. Do you mind if I share this?” With that simple response. I knew he cared and wanted to share it with others who would also care. That email sparked bigger conversations about the recurring meeting’s culture.

“Advocating is my job”

I find that when leaders openly support or recommend the work of women, we all move the needle. Recently, I have had leaders tweet support of my presentations, share my Medium posts, and recommend that I take on a critical project. When I thanked my vice president, he replied, “Advocating is my job.” I’m happy he takes it seriously because although it might seem like a small thing, it signals to the world that my work is valuable and women are an important part of tech. When leaders advocate for women, others tend to consider women for the next critical project.

“Why do you want more women in the workplace?”

My first manager was one of the most inclusive managers I’ve ever had — in a way all his own. He made me feel like a part of the team by bringing me into inside jokes and including me in team activities. Yes, he even taught me how to play blackjack because I felt left out when everyone knew how to play but me. One day he asked, “Brigid, I know why we need more women in the workplace, but why do you want more women?” I told him about how it is helpful to have women as models of communication, and at the end of the day, I want to chat with someone about shopping and Grey’s Anatomy. The next day he came to the office and said, “So I watched Grey’s Anatomy!” I laughed so hard. It obviously wasn’t the point I was making, but he cared enough to watch a TV show and give us something else to talk about that wasn’t work. We eventually decided that Walking Dead was a better show to talk about week to week, and years later, we still do.

There you have it — real-life examples from real leaders who are making a real difference in day-to-day inclusion and diversity. I don’t recommend blindly copying these phrases because most of the phrases were spoken by leaders who care. They are committed to lifting women up in my workplace and changing the daily dynamic. If you start anywhere, start by caring. That will take you further than you think.

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