Occasionally we feature employers and women at companies that support gender diversity and inclusion. This week we’d like to introduce you to some great women at Asana. If you would like to feature your company here, please contact us at [email protected]
Wondering what female employees are like at one of the hottest tech startups in the Bay Area? Meet the women of Asana, a web and mobile application designed to help teams track their work.
Recently, the company convened several lady Asana’s —from Product and Design to Marketing and Recruiting—to talk about what it means to be a woman in the workplace and how the company culture at Asana empowers and inspires them. Here’s the conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you could pick any woman in history to join us at the table for this conversation, who would it be?
Kelsey Aroian, Consumer Marketing: I’m taking Beyoncé. Have you seen “Formation?”
Erica Ebinger, Talent: Sonia Sotomayor. She’s had an amazing life.
Vanessa Koch, Designer: I’d pick Georgia O’Keefe. I’ve been reading her autobiography, and she was a woman artist during a time when it was all men. Her work was really misunderstood, but she kept making it anyway.
Bella Kazwell, Product Engineer & Manager: I’d love to talk to Virginia Woolf and other early feminist activists. The problems they were solving back then were different. I’d want to know whether they’re happy with where women are today, and what they think we should do next.
Sonja Gittens-Ottley, Diversity & Inclusion: Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. The characters that she created really influenced my life: it’s one of the reasons why I became a lawyer. It taught me about empathy and being an ally.
Jenny Thai, Content: Hillary Clinton. Because she’s potentially on the cusp of breaking the ultimate glass ceiling.
Here at Asana, who inspires you?
Zöe: [Points to Sonja] Everyone in this room and lots of other ladies at Asana have inspired me, but it’s been especially wonderful to see Sonja here, who is unafraid to speak her mind and who has forged relationships with women across the company. We do a good job of supporting one another here, but I’ve seen you [Sonja] talking to so many different people, encouraging us all to sit at the table and join the conversation. It’s been really inspiring to be at the table with you.
Sonja: I think that speaks to the culture here at Asana. It’s a place where I really feel that from the top down, the guys are in touch with their feminine side. They’re so self-aware—the company as a whole is so self-aware—in thinking about different perspectives, staying mindful, and connecting with others. We tend not to speak about these things in a traditional workplace. At Asana, we recognize all the different ways that you can bring what your gender means to you to the company. I think it’s great to let that pervade the workplace.
Katie Schmalzried, Product Manager: One thing that attracted me to Asana—which is very different from past experiences elsewhere—is that the majority of our Product Management team is women. I have a lot of friends with whom I’ve worked and gone to school who are also PMs at both big companies and small startups. They’re usually the only female on their team. If you look at recruiting patterns on our PM team, we continue to attract more and more women at the top of the funnel than other companies. This speaks to the importance of planting that early seed of strong female leaders.
Vanessa: I’ve worked at places where all of the creative directors and design directors were always men. I was early in my career and in junior positions, so I was used to having other people send the strategy down and telling me what to do. When I joined Asana, people were like, “No, you’re the one who’s going to figure out how to make this work.” It was really overwhelming, but Stephanie, the first designer here, was someone I learned a ton from. Just having day-to-day access to her was awesome. I attribute my ability to lead projects and do things I wouldn’t have before coming here to that.
We’ve talked about strong female mentors in the office. What other relationships or resources are important for you?
Bella: The fact that I can talk to my [male] manager about anything. I don’t have to seek out a woman to talk about things. I can talk about things with anyone.
Zöe: Having so many channels for conversation, be it the ladies channel in Slack, Team Conversations, or mentors. Whenever something is frustrating me, there’s always a communication channel available to me. I don’t feel like I have to bottle things up and move on.
Katie: The conversations we have are really open and conducive to expressing our emotions. I’ve been in a lot of other cultures where expressing how you feel is not welcome. I think that being able to say “I’m feeling stressed or frustrated or anxious”—and not having to swallow your feelings and muster through with stoicism—really connects us as a team.
Sonja: I’ve been in work environments where it’s not easy to talk about how you feel—or it’s not encouraged. I remember being told in one of my first work experiences, “Don’t ever cry, and certainly don’t ever cry in public.” That’s not how I feel about Asana.
[Murmurs of agreement across the room: “I cry all the time.”]
To me, being told not to cry means putting on a mask and not letting people know anything about you, which isn’t sustainable for anyone. That hasn’t been my experience here at Asana.
Zöe: I’ve seen men get emotional and open up. It’s not just women opening up and bringing our emotions to the table. It’s knowing that every person at the table has emotions and is able to share.
Sonja: Right, it’s not just a “female thing” or dismissed as a “female response.”
We’ve talked a lot about having a seat at the table. How do you know that you’re good enough to sit at the table? How do you fight impostor syndrome?
Katie: In my first month at Asana, I crashed a meeting I wasn’t invited to. I was sheepishly sitting in one of the chairs around the perimeter of the room—not at the table— waiting for the meeting to start, and [Asana co-founder] Justin would not start the meeting. He was like, “Hey, sit at the table,” and I was like, “No, no, I’m not part of this meeting. I’m just here to learn.” And he said “No, no, I want you to sit at the table.” Now, if I’m in a meeting, I don’t think twice.
Sonja: I saw Bella do that in our Roadmap Week meeting, when she expressly said as we were setting up, “Lean in, sit at the table with us.” Unprompted. I love that people here do that automatically and invite people to contribute.
Bella: I spent a lot of time at big team meetings in previous jobs, sitting in the back row. And then I saw the Sheryl Sandberg talk about sitting at the table, so now whenever I come in and see a table, I have her words in my head and always sit at the table.
Sonja: There are so many unconscious things that we learn, whether it’s saying things like, “Can I ask a question?” as opposed to asking the question. Or, “I’m sorry, but…” as opposed to just saying it. They’re engrained in how we approach meetings, leaders, and our peers, and we don’t always recognize it. It takes work to consciously break these patterns of behavior.
Cristina Gavin, People Operations: Our self-reviews have helped with that. One-on-one I can talk on and on, but in big groups I get nervous about saying the wrong thing. Getting peer feedback was a great exercise for saying, “Yeah, I am good at that” or “I do own that,” and “I should feel empowered to make decisions here.”
If we had a new hire starting, or someone was just entering into the workforce, what advice would you give them?
Erica: If you feel uncomfortable about something, flag it. If you have something to say, flag it. Anything that you’re feeling is your intuition, and you should be open to really understanding why you’re feeling that way or that you might be wrong, but flag it. You should bring it up if you have something to say. Ask, and have it explained.
Jenny: Be nice to yourself. You’re going to have days when you don’t know what you’re doing and things are going wrong, but it’s okay. You’re doing just fine. On the flip side, when you do something great, let yourself celebrate that a bit.
Kelsey: Find a strong mentor. One thing I’ve struggled with in my career is identifying someone that I’d like to learn from and feeling like they’re way too high up to even ask, and feeling nervous about that. But one of the greatest gifts we can give someone is the opportunity to teach, and I think that a lot of people are willing to be a mentor if given the chance.
Cristina: You’re here because you deserve to be here. Remember that when you’re having a bad day.
Bella: Figure out what you want to do. I once was in a role where I thought that my manager wasn’t giving me a project. A friend told me to figure out what I wanted and to ask for it. I did, and it turned out great. There’s a book, Women Don’t Ask, which is all about how if you don’t ask for something, nobody will give it to you. Know what you want, and ask for it.
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