Celebrating Muslim Women in Tech

Zone’s senior UX designer Shabana Ahmed finds joy and inspiration at the event hosted by Muslamic Makers…

Shabana Ahmed, senior UX designer at Zone

If you’d have told me five years ago, I’d be attending a Muslim Women in Tech event, I wouldn’t have believed you. But last Thursday, I did just that. Hosted by Muslamic Makers, a community of Muslim changemakers who upskill and pioneer the world of tech, this event was dedicated to the fantastic women of our community.

I was delighted to see the speaker line-up featured Muslim women in fantastic roles across the tech industry, ranging from data scientist leaders and devops managing teams to a director of engineering on a global brand. The host told us that things had changed so much they were inundated with Muslim women in tech offering to speak.

This sea change is important and means a lot to many. When I started out as a designer in my 20s, I never saw women like myself or my sister in the design and tech teams that I worked in. It was usually just me who identified or looked like I do and, at times, even across the wider company.

Throughout my career, I have led UX workshops and often been asked by clients: “Where are you from specifically?” This is usually because they are so surprised to see a Muslim Asian woman in our industry. Over time I have got used to it, but have always wondered where the other ‘Shabanas’ were…

I have always had high hopes for an evolving tech industry, where people of any colour, gender and faith can lead change. Nonetheless, there are challenges to being a Muslim woman in tech that we need to overcome:

  • A lot of times we worry about what people will say about us, but people actually respect the things that make us different. So don’t change your values to fit in — you’re fostering a better environment by being yourself.
  • Stereotypes — people will associate stigmas and frame you in certain ways — but the more you discover for yourself and the more mental barriers you overcome, the more you will achieve. Do it for yourself.
  • You will find that you’re different in every room you go into. People may think you are a secretary or here to take notes. People may think you’re not ‘smart’ because for example you cover your hair. How do we break these stereotypes? By showing up.
  • Lacking self-confidence is one of the biggest problems in society, we put limits on ourselves, often driven by society. Success is not an overnight thing, try the 1% rule — you try to improve by 1% every single day.
  • We have to stand up for ourselves and make our cases for our value, particularly when it comes to pay and promotions.

Here are some key takeaways from the event I hope will inspire you.

  • Accept yourself for who you are. Even when it is hard, and you don’t fit into the crowd.
  • Find your ‘black swan’: the thing that you thought was impossible — but that you can make happen.
  • Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

- One of the speakers said: “I’m a hijab woman of colour in a room full of white men. Leading 40 engineers in London and New York.” I especially love this because it’s not the norm, she is my trailblazer. Let’s normalise this.

  • Don’t worry about the word diversity. It’s really about finding talented people and putting them together in the right teams.
  • You belong.

Imposter Syndrome

Did you know 58% of tech employees experience imposter syndrome at the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Airbnb? Imposter syndrome increases if your work is regularly visualised or reviewed.

If you’re from a minority background you might end up working twice as hard as your peers to prove your worth.

How to break this:

  • Develop a healthy response to failure and mistake making. Instead of giving yourself a hard time, see it as normal, healthy and successful.
  • Right the rules. If you’ve been operating under misguided rules like, “I should always know the answer,” or “asking for help is weakness”, recognise that you have just as much right as the next person to be wrong, have an off-day, or ask for help.
  • Get a mentor. There is a high chance that another person has experienced some of what keeps you awake at night: find someone who will help you stretch, think taller and look at all sides of the problem.

Glue jobs

You’ve probably had a glue job. I have had my fair share. Yet I only found out about this term at the event.

What is it? Tanya Reilly created the term glue work to capture “the less glamorous — and often less-promotable — work that needs to happen to make a team successful.” Glue work is valuable — without it, projects fall apart — tasks get dropped, teams miscommunicate, and it is just harder to get things done. However, there is a difference between valuable and valued.

Women seem to get volunteered for glue work, earlier in our careers. Be aware of what that might mean for you. It could be career limiting, it might not support your career trajectory into promotion, leadership etc.

It’s OK to say no, to refuse extra responsibilities and tasks. It’s more than OK to focus on your specialism or role and get the support around it. Your time is exclusively yours, be precious how you spend it at work. Turn the balance, look into courses or accelerator programmes, or mentorship to fuel your growth.

Muslim Women in Tech event poster

I found new joy and inspiration from this event — the poster alone made my year. I believe the equality in the messages are that these are life lessons for anyone. Everyone is entitled to be the very best they can or wish to be. Build those doors, walk in and go sit at the table.

However, it is important to recognise that if you find there aren’t role models and leaders who look like you, that makes you even more important. Our industries are not always fair. So go on, aim higher, be proud of who you are, take up space and you better believe it — you are paving the way for someone else. We need you!

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