Embracing My Identity in Tech

UXR Julia Meriel shares her personal story about claiming her identity as a woman, person of color, and an LGBTQ person working in tech.

Julia Meriel
Jul 9 · 9 min read

Hello, world! I’m Julia, a user experience researcher inspired by design, and doing good. I’m powered by coffee, an invigorating exercise, and meaningful conversations. I volunteer as a writer with Hexagon and my home chapter is in Toronto. Today, I’m sharing with you my journey as I began to embrace my identity in tech, as a queer, female, first-generation Filipino-Canadian.

Me on the right, chatting with a student at a lunch and learn for Canada Learning Code. Photo by Lorraine Chuen.

I was a fresh graduate entering the tech world as a UX intern. I had a UX certificate from a local strategy firm, and experience from a UX class, a research entrepreneurship, and my thesis on human-computer interaction. I was (and still am) so excited about UX, especially when I realized it married my interests and that it had applications across varying fields.

I was set to start right out of school, but I had a hard time being confident in what I knew about UX. Was it enough? Am I supposed to be here? I was uncomfortable, and had thought it was because I was new. That wasn’t the case—my discomfort was with my identity as a person of color, a woman, and a member of the LGBTQ community working in tech.

I didn’t see anyone else like me, nor did I hear of any stories of anyone like me. Yet there I was. I felt compelled to fit myself into the shape I associated with successful (tech) people. In my mind, contorting myself to match, excused my existence in this space.

UX Research and the UX Researcher

When I was hired, my first task was to clean up research data that others had collected (FYI —this is a very difficult way to build any sort of deep understanding of users’ issues).

Within a year of work, I had somehow been trusted to create workshops for international groups, and within three years, I was leading my own research studies with international participants. I asked myself, how is this possible?

I stumbled countless times, felt like I’ve faked it, yet miraculously made it.

It’s pretty ironic that a user experience researcher (UXR) would struggle with asking questions, but that was me. I had a hard time bringing up why we were doing a certain project in a certain way, and grappled with the “why are we doing user research so late in the game?” problem. I didn’t use my voice, I thought, “I’m probably wrong, this is how things are done in tech.”

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

I remember when I was suddenly responsible for the workshops; in less than three weeks, I had to get up to speed with a project, understand why we were going, and work under the ambiguity of whether or not our heavily English script was going to work across countries in Southeast Asia.

I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know how to ask for it. I didn’t want to be seen as incapable, like I shouldn’t be there. So I did my best asking for help here and there, and continuing to work even when I wasn’t clear on some of the whys.

The struggle was real.

I knew that curiosity drives me, but I never attributed my ability to push through the ambiguity and fast timelines to the unique background I had. I was actually ignoring where that might have come from.

As an immigrant, I grew up first in the Philippines and then in Canada. Through my childhood and adulthood, I often took on an observer role, noticing the difference between two cultures that I have internalized, and doing so without judgment. A critical trait for a UXR.

I’ve also been able to channel the hardworking spirit I have seen my parents exhibit, their resourcefulness, and particularly, my mother’s ability to lead us and her resilience even in the face of extreme ambiguity. Key attributes for being able to succeed in a start-up.

As a woman, I now know the impact and strength that my caring and compassionate nature has. I have listened to stories with genuine interest and established greater rapport with people, thereby reaching deeper insights.

Skeptics, Non-Believers, and Perception

As a UXR, you are the champion for the user’s voice (even if the data goes against your own beliefs). You must be able to withstand strong opinions and reactions of what may be a room full of stressed-out skeptics and non-believers.

In the beginning, this frightened me.

I thought, maybe if I just stick to what the data says then I’d be fine. So, in meetings, I spoke up less than other colleagues because I would often say only what I thought was 100% going to contribute to the conversation — something that the research said. I was fearful in taking a perspective on the data because I was afraid to be wrong, to be judged.

I locked in on being just a researcher. Being objective, and leaving who I was at the front door of the office. I felt frozen in some ways, and was acutely aware of how I might be defying a cultural office norm.

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

Sometimes, I was even afraid to bring food from my culture to lunch. Unfamiliarity often sparks inquisitiveness in people. In practice, these are the what-is-that question or the I-wonder-what-that-is look, perhaps tinged with more judgment than curiosity. Reactions that I perceived as signals that I had been “caught” as different. That I would fail because I didn’t “fit in”.

But I robbed myself of beautiful, honest, and open relationships at work by hiding parts of myself. I was blind to efforts of people reaching out to me because I carried the weight of shame.

A Shift

However, with time and the right pieces in place, I began to focus less on differences and concerned about standing out as a promising UXR instead.

I shifted my focus to building my craft because of how I saw it could help my team—whether it be understanding the right problem, better solution, or making a tough product decision—I was gripped by the power that UX insights could bring. Especially when brought in at the right time.

Me in the messy stage of research.

I embraced that each perspective — that diversity — is critical in problem-solving.

Simultaneously, I had a manager who believed in my talent and potential. Therefore, I was empowered to make my own choices at work and be responsible for those choices. Through deeper collaboration with colleagues of vastly different disciplines such as Engineering, and Medicine, I embraced that each perspective — that diversity — is critical in problem-solving.

I also saw what could be achieved as a woman in tech. My own team members provided shining examples —succeeding in the ambiguity of a product’s design overhaul, the power of supporting each other through adversity, and the resilience and bravery to make big moves. Many of these achievements owned by women of color. In addition to this, I also saw firsthand how being queer does not equate failing — it was the opposite of that.

I saw myself in my colleagues in these ways and became aware that although none of them had the exact same background as me, that their passion and confidence could be something I channeled as well. I felt the power of representation. And slowly and quite unintentionally, started to bring other parts of me through the front door of the office. The parts that made me uniquely me.

My mind opened up to new perspectives and experiences.

The UX Community

I leaned in to my community and in return, I learned from confident, talented, and experienced UXers. I learned how to navigate tricky conversations in the workplace, and was inspired to live with authenticity that the community brought. Designers, researchers, and emerging UXers were genuinely themselves, owned their craft, believed in their power.

Me at the second Hexagon UX Toronto event, Selling Your (Great) Ideas. Photo by Maggie Chan.

I had begun to realize I had the power to fully embrace myself and that it would only bear fruit to my work life. So, instead of building relationships in this community with walls, I channeled the energy I would to champion my users’ voice and used it for my own.

At an intimate Hexagon event in Toronto, I even shared with pride that one of my proudest moments was how I came out as bisexual — something the UX intern version of me couldn’t have imagined sharing in a professional setting.

Left: Photo by Tristan Billet on Unsplash | Right: Learning to lean into my strengths as a woman. Photo by Meghan Yabsley.

Standing Up to the Skeptic In Me

When I began working in tech, I was “in the closet” in more ways than one. Fearful of being given less opportunity and being seen as having less potential, I hid. Up against adversity and scrutiny, confronting criticism that originates internally (and, unfortunately, sometimes externally), I still fight the good fight every day, the fight to embrace myself.

But as I see and continue to realize the presence of women of color, and LGBTQ folk in and outside of tech, I build up my own courage to own my full identity.

I see the strength in being vulnerable, in openness. I’ve experienced first-hand how even small actions, like rainbows or flags beside peoples’ usernames on Slack during Pride month, has brought me comfort and instilled a sense of pride in me. And with openness, I see how acceptance within myself breeds the thought that, I, too, belong.

To thrive as a budding professional, didn’t mean I had to put away the parts of me that didn’t fit the mold I had imagined; I realized that bringing my full self to work — my perspectives, unique experiences, and approaches to problem-solving —as my colleagues and community had, could push me to heights I hadn’t even thought possible for me.

My preconceived idea of what success looked like started to come apart through this journey and I internalized the following:

Success does not mean ignorance of the color of your skin, your culture, your perspective, and especially not of your identity.

Success is valuing all of the above and being mindful of their presence, and allowing it to come through in your approach at work.

While I’ve come this far in my journey, it’s a trip that never ends. It’s a journey I see as building me up and sometimes breaks me down; but as we all know, building a product isn’t a one-and-done process. It’s iterative, and never stops.

I’ll leave you with this:

Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

Many thanks to Bonne Marie Bautista and Fiona Yeung for edits. A big thank you to all those who have helped me learn to claim myself, and continue to support my growth —you know who you are! ❤️

Hexagon UX is a community built to empower women and non-binary folks, level the playing field, and encourage them to be the best versions of themselves. Join us on Slack, where we will be continuing the conversation.

Hexagon UX

A global 501(c)(3) non-profit community built to empower women and non-binary folks to bring their whole selves to work — building confidence, balancing the ratio in the UX industry, and effecting change on a greater scale while fostering personal and professional growth.

Thanks to Fiona Yeung.

Julia Meriel

Written by

User Researcher and sometimes-writer swinging through the jungle gym of life. Intrigued by design, research, history, culture, and new ideas.

Hexagon UX

A global 501(c)(3) non-profit community built to empower women and non-binary folks to bring their whole selves to work — building confidence, balancing the ratio in the UX industry, and effecting change on a greater scale while fostering personal and professional growth.