How to Be an Effective Self-Advocate, According to 8 Women in Tech

by Janey Zitomer
July 24, 2020

“Diverse perspectives result in a better product for more people.”

The benefits of self-advocacy reach far beyond the person doing the advocating. When certain voices are left out of consequential conversations, entire groups of people are negatively affected. Katie Cleary, a software engineer at Transparent Systems, learned this the hard way over the course of her career. She said she realized that when she didn’t speak up, the products she worked on were affected down the line. 

Cleary and the following seven Seattle professionals said they’ve overcome certain preconceived notions about when and where to pitch in. As a result, they’ve been assigned projects they wouldn’t have led otherwise and got raises and promotions they might not have received. 

And guess what? Their peers, managers and even their employers have all profited.  


Pitchbook Data
Cindy Zu moderating a Women in Venture Capital panel at PitchBook.
Jessica Buerkle
Sales Team Manager

Sales Team Manager Jessica Buerkle compares the feeling of closing a sale to that of making an important play during a sporting event. She and Tango Card colleague Monica Bush, who serves as VP of information security, said they got to where they are by controlling what they could and using their power as leaders to educate colleagues when appropriate.   


How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

Buerkle: Growing up playing sports provided a space where swagger and confidence were assets. The competitive nature of selling provides a similar opportunity to win. Working with leaders who celebrated my success helped drive ownership of my career accomplishments and confidence in my current role.

In a company the size of Tango Card, I have a huge responsibility to advocate not only for myself but also for my team and a rapidly growing channel of customers. This period of my career has been a catalyst for self-advocacy. It’s helped me to accept that some people are going to have opinions of me I don’t find flattering, especially as an outspoken woman. I think a lot of my confidence comes from not caring about those opinions and understanding they’re inevitable. While I know being outspoken will sometimes put people off, I also know it’s why I’m seen as a leader.

Monica Bush
VP of information security

What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

Bush: Outline what isn’t being recognized and hypothesize why. Identify what you can actively change and what you can’t control and then make a plan to work on things you can directly impact. Decide who’s going to be your advocate and work with them to reach the planned goals. 

If the change required isn’t in your control or advocacy seems impossible, be willing to move on. Sometimes it’s best to seek opportunities that better fit your contribution rather than fight a losing battle.


Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

Bush: I was struggling to acquire buy-in for managing a very large project. I argued with my manager, pleaded with my opponent and  even tried to get the ball rolling on various aspects hoping I’d put my foot in the door first. None of that was the correct approach for the situation.

Instead, what worked best was relaxing into the idea that I may not end up managing the project. To feel good about either outcome, I wanted to ensure that all stakeholders were educated on the decision-making process. I taught all involved parties a framework for making a decision before moving forward. Among other things, I outlined options for resourcing and described the roles required to perform various chunks of work. I also took my manager aside and explained why running this project was valuable to my career advancement. In the end, we were able to take it over.


Katie Cleary
Software Engineer

It took Software Engineer Katie Cleary some time to realize that when she wasn’t voicing her opinion, the product that she was working on didn’t meet its full potential. After she started speaking up, her co-workers reinforced the value of her contributions. But more importantly, she finally felt part of a process from beginning to end.  


How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

Having worked primarily at startups, I’ve become used to being in a room full of strong personalities with even stronger opinions. In the beginning of my career, I spent a lot more time concerned about how my co-workers might perceive me. I didn’t want to risk coming across as rude or correcting a colleague and looking like a know-it-all. But some of the projects I worked on would have benefitted from more of my input earlier. 

Diverse perspectives result in a better product for more people. If I wanted to spend my time building the right things, I needed to make myself a part of that design process. The only way to do that was by making sure I was heard. It was pretty uncomfortable at first. But the more I spoke up, the better the projects we built became, the more comprehensive the designs were and the more problems we spotted earlier. Co-workers reinforced the value of my contributions to our conversations. I started feeling more comfortable interjecting in conversations and meetings and I was finally getting to build software that I really helped create.


What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

People can’t fix problems they don’t know about. Most software companies have a male-dominated workforce and in my experience, people with masculine personalities aren’t great with details. If you are being underpaid, unpromoted or uncredited, you need to tell someone about it. Let your supervisor know if you're not feeling valued and create a plan to change that. You don’t want to work in a place where you don’t feel respected or necessary.


Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

In my last engineering position, I was working on self-driving cars. We had a few different offerings, one of which was an electronic control override kit for an actual car. It enabled you to drive a real car with an Xbox controller. The people who worked on the project were able to field test it at the amusement park, go to self-driving car racetracks and play with a giant vehicle lift. It was all pretty cool. 

When they were looking to overhaul the firmware on the circuit boards, I emphatically campaigned for a spot on the team. It was the first time I had a strong opinion about something. I didn’t have hardware experience so it was really out of my skill set, but I eventually convinced my boss to let me participate. I got to help rewrite the firmware and actually found a bug that had been haunting the project for a year. It was a really rewarding experience. If I hadn’t communicated my interest in the project, I would have been overlooked. 


Jade Vance
Senior Software Developer

To Getty Images Senior Software Developer Jade Vance, self-advocacy isn’t simply a tool for personal gain. By advocating for herself, she is also advocating for other women who are facing or have faced similar hurdles to professional development. For example, she doesn’t let demeaning comments slide, no matter the person’s intention. 


How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and/or promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

Part of self-advocacy for me is about making space for myself as well as others who are frequently underrepresented in the tech field. Because I am able to recognize the unnecessary hardships I faced on my professional journey, I do my best to help my junior colleagues better navigate any pitfalls they might come across.


What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

First off, being valued by your team is incredibly important for both your personal well-being and for your professional well-being. If you are feeling undervalued or even overlooked by your colleagues, have an honest conversation with your manager. And if you feel like you can’t have that conversation, talk with your human resources department or perhaps consider that a different team or opportunity might be the best way forward for you.


Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

Admittedly, there have been times in my past when teammates have made demeaning comments. At first, I would try to be tough and let it roll off my shoulders. But then I started thinking about how others could be hurt by thoughtless comments. If I didn’t say anything, who would? I decided that I would not let this kind of behavior slide. I started pointing it out and explaining that even if the speaker did not intend the comments to be demeaning, the impact was such. This change has allowed me to put my authentic self forward at work.


Mihaela “Maki” Tepordei
Senior Technical Program Manager

To get past the initial potential awkwardness of connecting with a professional advocate or ally, OfferUp’s Mihaela “Maki” Tepordei suggests finding common ground on topics both work-related and not. Over the years, the senior technical program manager has discovered the difference taking a seat at the table can make. 


How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and/or promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

Many years back, I recall being in a large meeting to discuss some work on a product my team was building. The room was full of men and included just two women, including myself. There was a big conference table in the middle of the room. Since I was new to the team, I decided to sit in a chair on the perimeter. The other woman on the team sat at the table. At some point during the discussion, she joined the conversation to suggest a solution. People paused for a second after hearing her statement, but continued the discussion without addressing her contribution. A few minutes later, she repeated her suggestion, insisting on being considered. That was when I realized I needed to have a literal seat at the table. As I moved from team to team and even between companies throughout the years, I ensured that if I had something to say in meetings, I not only made my physical presence clear, I spoke up when my suggestions weren’t considered. 

Build strong relationships with your manager so that you’re not the only one advocating for yourself. With every manager change, I make sure to communicate my skills and experiences, goals and expectations so that we can work together. Over the years, I’ve discovered that my managers were happy to have these conversations because they enabled them to support me. While it was uncomfortable to start these conversations earlier in my career, it becomes easier to advocate for yourself as time goes on.


What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

Carve out time to communicate your goals, aspirations and desires to others. Include your managers, team leaders, mentors and your colleagues. Do not let your assumptions and insecurities jeopardize you. You owe it to yourself to be your most influential advocate. Seek out mentors and allies in people you admire throughout the company. I use a mix of personal and professional topics to connect with potential supporters. 

Talk with them about your passion, goals, ideas and projects you are involved in, including projects or hobbies outside of work. Ask directly for their support and advocacy. The more people know you, the more willing they are to support and advocate for you.


Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

I joined OfferUp five years ago as a software test engineer. At that time, the company was still very young. We didn’t have that many precise details around official job levels and descriptions. Doing many things, even if it wasn’t part of my “job description” was one of the things I loved about being at an early-stage startup. However, as the company grew, job levels became more defined and skills tracks were implemented. With these updates, I felt that I was initially placed at a level that didn’t reflect the scope of my role or the amount of impact I had made for my team. 

Once I realized this, I scheduled a meeting with my manager and the director of engineering. I reminded them of my experience in the industry, the skills I had developed doing all the different things I had done, and the impact of my work. I convinced them that my assigned job level was not reflective of my contribution. It was clear to me that unless I had advocated for myself, the situation might not have been corrected and my contribution would have been overlooked. Managers are humans, too. Sometimes we take things personally when it’s just a matter of taking the initiative to educate someone. 


Anne Retterer
Senior Director of Agile Project Management

How are you showing up at work? 

Senior Director of Agile Project Management Anne Retterer recommends asking yourself this question, especially if you feel like your contributions are being overlooked. At EagleView and at previous companies, she has role-played conversations with colleagues and managers to make sure she is fully prepared to ask for what she wants and deserves. 


How do you recommend advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

Let’s start with a scenario we’re all familiar with: a performance review. Many women approach this situation through a different lens than male co-workers might. Break down key functions that you’re responsible for and write down examples of how you tackled them using your experience on the job and strongest attributes. This exercise generates talking points for the review and shifts the discussion from subjective to an objective, fact-based conversation. Moreover, it serves as a strong reminder that you do have the skills to thrive. 

Still unsure? Practice! Ask friends to role play with you. Additionally, don’t shy away from owning gaps. Enthusiasm and an aptitude to learn and grow in a career or position can hold a lot of weight. 


What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace? 

I would first ask yourself this question: How are you showing up at work? I recommend starting with a full assessment of the workplace and your performance. What does the culture demand? What is being asked of you? How and where are you contributing and delivering? 

During my career, I’ve seen a few different causes for such a situation. Sometimes, someone is caught behind a bad boss who may be discounting contributions or taking credit. This is rare, but if it’s you, find a mentor in that organization, set up one-on-ones with others in a variety of departments and look for other opportunities within the company. Or start looking elsewhere. In most cases, there may simply be a lack of understanding. Meet with your boss and walk through specific examples of situations in which you feel your contributions were overlooked. Approach that conversation from a place of curiosity without attacking and seek to end the meeting with mutual understanding as well as at least one specific, actionable goal. 


Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

I think one of the best ways a person can self-advocate is to let the organization know areas in which you’d like to grow or contribute. Speak to specific areas of interest. If you’re in a company already, build a framework that helps others  see you in that role. 

I remember a time when I learned that my department was exploring the possible creation of a new entity in Latin America. I expressed interest, worked hard and compiled a framework of legal and tax items we’d need to address at formation. I even started taking Spanish classes. I made the ask, kept on my current responsibilities and demonstrated that I had what it takes to advance my career. And it worked. I was eventually tasked with the creation of the entity and I continued to grow that effort. 


Van Le
Senior Data Analyst

Early in her career, Senior Data Analyst Van Le assumed that opportunities would come her way despite her not speaking up in meetings or sharing her goals with managers. But once she started getting passed over for the projects she found most interesting, Le discovered that hard work wasn’t enough. At PitchBook Data, she not only advocates for herself using data, but also encourages others to do the same. 


How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities? 

When I first started working, I had a fear of coming off as arrogant. I didn’t speak up a lot in meetings to share my ideas, nor did I tell my managers what I wanted to work on. Instead, I hoped that someone would notice my work and hand me opportunities. Eventually, I noticed that people asked the questions that I did not want to ask in meetings and that I wasn’t being assigned interesting projects. That’s when I knew I needed to step up and do something. 

I started with observing other women on the team and asked them for advice on how I could get rid of the fear and approach those topics with my managers. Their advice helped me change my perspective. I no longer look at advocating myself as a means to self-promote. Now, I think about advocating for myself as a means to help my managers understand and keep track of what I have accomplished and how I can contribute to the team’s success. It’s difficult for managers to know everything about your work. As a result, speaking up for yourself helps your managers advocate for you and think about you when opportunities arise. 


What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace?

If you feel like your contributions are being overlooked in the workplace, speak up for yourself. Start keeping track of your achievements, regardless of how small or big they are. If you don’t keep track now, things will get blurry over time. Bringing concrete examples that are hard to overlook to the table to help managers understand your value. 

If you still find it hard to approach your managers, find someone you trust to help you navigate through it. You can even practice with other women in your office. It’s good to leverage people around you to make sure you are communicating the message you intend.


Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

In my last job, I was assigned an opportunity that was rarely awarded to a junior team member. Through that experience, I learned that good work pays off as long as you advocate for yourself and have someone that advocates for you. In order to have someone that advocates for you, you need to help them understand your value and contributions. I also learned the importance of advocating for others, so I have started doing that when I can.


Allison Arzeno 
Chief Data Scientist

Rather than simply telling her colleagues they exist, Allison Arzeno shows off her talents. And in her current role as chief data scientist at insurance platform Assurance, doing so has gotten her far. Allison Arzeno lets her accomplishments speak for themselves while understanding the benefit of seizing the right opportunities. 


How have you gotten past any fears or doubts about advocating for and promoting yourself, your accomplishments and your abilities?

I strongly believe that your focus should be on showcasing your ideas and expertise. Look out for opportunities to do so and never be afraid to pursue those opportunities. I’ve found that if I focus on driving business value and making positive contributions to the company I work for, my accomplishments and actions work to promote me. 

When you see a project or opportunity that you can excel at, seize that opportunity. Your work will advocate for you and your teammates will help to promote you. Showing others your abilities through action will always be more powerful than telling them about your accomplishments.


What advice do you have for women who may feel like their contributions are being overlooked in the workplace? 

Think critically about the company you are working for. Is it a culture that values confidence and self-promotion over competency and adding business value? If so, it unfortunately might be tough to change. However, there are many companies out there that focus on rewarding those who add value to the organization. The best cultures value those who show humility and collaborate with others to get the job done, regardless of who gets credit at the end of the day.


Share an example of a time when self-advocacy paid off. 

Several years ago, I worked for a small startup that was struggling with its main product’s performance. After working to clearly articulate an idea for how to fix it, I brought it to the CEO for consideration. She was intrigued and encouraged me to continue to pursue it. 

While the company wasn’t successful in the end, it was a successful experience for me personally. I was able to learn so much along the way. My idea had merit and its pursuit was worthwhile. I learned that the sooner you speak up and voice your ideas, the bigger impact you can have on your team and company. If you don’t advocate for your ideas, you won’t be able to learn from their success or failure.


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