Posted on Apr 11, 2017
Muslim Women in Tech is a series of interviews that highlights inspiring powerhouses who are making their mark in the tech industry, detailing the highs and lows from their career journeys. They offer insight on the day-to-day demands of this burgeoning and lucrative industry and what it's like to be a Muslim woman in Technology. Our fifth installment features Faten Hijazi, a 37-year-old Computer Engineer grad with an MBA in Leadership who is a Program Manager at Google.
Disclaimer: Faten is speaking in a personal capacity and not as a spokesperson for Google.
What inspired you to go into STEM? Is this something you always wanted to do?
I always loved math and science. I was inspired by the verses in the Quran that encourage men and women to reflect upon nature and the universe. To me, that was a call to study science as a means to get closer to God. It was also a field where if I worked hard enough, I could find an answer. If I worked even harder, I could find different ways to get to the same answer. When I was in high school, I often found myself trying to solve the same math question in different ways. I'm not sure why it fascinated me, but knowing that different paths could lead to same destination was a real source of excitement!
How did you become an engineer?
After I graduated college, I landed a job at a semiconductor company as a hardware engineer. I started as an applications engineer and then spent over 6 years in hardware design. For a long time I was the only female on my team. I enjoyed that role. I was given challenging projects and often made the project lead. However, even though I took on leadership roles in the team, I found formal promotions were slow to come. I learned the hard way that women are often too shy to ask for a promotion, while men don’t share the same inhibition. Women are often trained to wait for recognition and reward. Men learn to ask. At some point I started itching to do something else. I was looking for more challenging work, more opportunities, and I hit a plateau. That’s when I decided to get my MBA. I continued working full-time while taking classes part-time. During my time in the MBA program, I had a huge epiphany. I was surrounded by men who were in more impactful roles than I was. Some had already started their own business or were on a clear path to becoming a VP at their company. I didn’t see much difference between them and me; it made me realize I could be where they were, too. I suddenly had this huge confidence boost. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?
How did you act on suddenly seeing yourself differently?
Seeing myself differently was just a mindset change. I started viewing myself as having more potential. When I finished my MBA program, I moved into program management and eventually into a business/marketing team. I was the general manager for a business line within the company, which meant I was responsible for the business strategy, revenue growth, product definition, partnerships, and marketing. I traveled, visited customers and spent a lot of time working with executives to push forward the needs of the business. I was highly visible both inside and outside the company. I loved the job and had a phenomenal time doing it. Sadly, it was also one of the most frustrating jobs for all the wrong reasons. In that industry, few women hold that kind of role. My gender suddenly had become very apparent to me in a way I did not feel in engineering. As an engineer, I was judged on my technical deliverables. In business, I was judged by what people thought I could do. As a Muslim woman of color who wore hijab, I looked very different than my male counterparts. My power and authority were often under scrutiny. Yet I had a business to manage! I had to work harder to establish legitimacy, fight for the needs of the business, and get recognition for my work. I eventually figured out how to solicit fellow colleagues, customers, or vendors to get behind me and support me so I could get the job done. While I learned many valuable lessons here, it was exhausting having to carefully navigate the system while it felt like others could simply focus on their jobs.
Can you expand on some of the difficulties you faced working in a new role?
When I took on a business role, I had three young children at the time. I traveled while I was still nursing my daughter and was carrying breast milk around the country! I went out of my way to make sure my home life did not interfere with work, and this came at a huge cost. There were times I didn’t see my kids all day – I left before they woke up and came home after they went to bed. It was a big sacrifice, but I did it. My husband was very supportive and we made it work. But it was disappointing to hear the judgment that came along with it. One coworker would see me late at my desk and would joke that I was not working but watching Netflix to avoid going home to my kids (not that I was making a sacrifice to bring in revenue or grow the business). Another time, an important customer was visiting, but my VP couldn’t make it so he asked me to go in his place. When one of the salespeople heard about it, he tried to block my going, likely afraid my presence would spoil the mood. He said, “don’t you need to watch the kids?” I was shocked! A man would never be asked the same question if the tables were turned. He later apologized for the comment, and we both went to the dinner and everything went smoothly. But it was clear he viewed my presence as a liability. That’s a problem. And to be clear, my experience was not unique to the company I worked for. It was a wonderful company with supportive management. But it was an old, established male-dominated industry. When you are the only woman seated at the table, you are bound to run into sexist microaggressions- intentional or not.
What prompted your transition to Google?
I was loving my job but hating the baggage that was mounting with it. Google pinged me on LinkedIn for a very different type of job, one I did not initially consider to be on my career trajectory. I liked being in a business role, and this was on the operations side of Google’s technical infrastructure. I went to the interview with skepticism and came out in love with the people, culture and workplace environment. The people I interviewed with were awesome and focused on making an impact. I had just gotten another promotion and felt deeply conflicted about what I wanted. I could continue in the semiconductor industry and eventually move up in scope and responsibility or I could start fresh in a new industry with a company that actively tries to be more inclusive in its products and its workforce. I chose to start fresh.
What’s been your experience as a Muslim woman at work?
It’s a double whammy being female and Muslim. When I was in engineering, people assumed I was not as technical as my male colleagues because men made up the majority and that was the stereotype. Ironically, when I moved to business people assumed I was more technical because my skin tone was brown. When people discovered I was a strong technical contributor, I felt idolized. Women often fall into very narrowly defined categories. Either you’re “wow! So amazing!” and you’ve blown everyone away or you’re just sliding by because you’re not viewed as strong. Men typically have a wider range of acceptable behavior. Women are much more susceptible of falling off the edge in either direction.
From a Muslim perspective, the most common experience is that people assumed I didn’t work or I didn’t speak English well. Several times people assumed that I was married to an employee at work (such as an Arab or Muslim man). This implies I don’t fit the “profile” of a business professional. Often, my religion or ethnicity would “invite” very awkward and inappropriate conversations, such as colleagues joking about terrorism with me. One time, a colleague decided to randomly tell me what he thinks about suicide bombers. He knew I was Palestinian and I’m pretty sure he was trying to make a statement. It was wholly inappropriate. Over time, I’ve learned to navigate around these instances and use them as teaching opportunities to educate people around me.
How do you draw the line between teaching opportunities and inappropriate treatment?
I’d say be aware of gender, race and religion, but don’t assume that every bad experience happens because of it. You can fall into the trap of self-loathing, self-pity and victimization. Going back to our faith, Muslims have the concept of “ihsan”, or “excellence”; whatever you do, you should do it well. Your point of comparison should be to your own capacity, and not other people’s accomplishments. Ihsan turns your attention towards the work at hand, and helps untie the shackles of bigotry. If you can do a better job than your coworker can, you need to do a better job. Period. But don’t kill yourself over it. Set boundaries and limits, and seek the recognition you deserve. But don’t regret having to work hard or do a better job. While it may not feel fair that you have to work harder than a person with more privilege (because it isn’t fair), use it as a growth opportunity and reflect on your own set of privileges. As a community, we must work together to dismantle bigotry, racism, sexism, and all forms of systemic bias and discrimination.
How have you proven your value as an employee over time?
It is important to have management alignment, which means that you align yourself with your management’s strategy and goals. I am a more valuable employee when I can solve my manger’s problems, and when I can better understand the big picture. I take the time to understand the culture and big picture rather than jump in headfirst and create output for the sake of creating output. I'm focused on creating value. At the end of the day, people recognize value. This is really important. Make sure your work is valuable to those around you. Whether you’re helping a teammate test his or her code, or another team member hit his/her sales target, people around you will recognize your value. The tricky part is making sure your manager recognizes your value – and that may take some time and communication. We should take this same concept of “creating value” to our community and neighborhood. We should share a meal and offer a lending hand to our neighbors. This is important to do particularly with the backlash the Muslim community is facing today. We cannot live in isolation and assume our neighbors know who we are and what we care about. Is it unfair to have to “prove” goodness? Absolutely. But that is not what I am suggesting. I propose we create more value in our communities. And if we are creating value that isn’t recognized, we may have to build more bridges, communicate, and help people connect the dots.
What were some of your favorite insights from Faten? Share them in the comments below and check back next week for Part VI of the Muslim Women in Tech Series by Alina Din!