Being the only woman in the room is not a feeling you get used to, said Liz MacLean, a lead full-stack developer at STRATIS IoT.
“I went to school for electrical engineering, and I was often the only woman or one of two women in a class at any given time. In my small stints at other non-STRATIS companies, I was constantly the only woman in the room,” she added. “The feeling of isolation in that aspect wore me down.”
At STRATIS, a Manayunk-based IoT device maker and management platform, MacLean is a member of SHINE — an antithesis to those prior isolating spaces. SHINE is an employee-organized resource group (ERG) for women, nonbinary and other underrepresented people at STRATIS. Cassi King, a software developer, founded the group, which began meeting in April 2021.
King joined STRATIS in June 2018. As time ticked on, she noticed that while about 40% of STRATIS developers were women, there were not many women among the team leads at the time. (BTW, this experience is a norm for women in the tech industry: According to a 2021 Women in Tech Report, 72% of women in tech report being outnumbered by men in business meetings by at least a 2:1 ratio; 26% of women report a 5:1 ratio.) The lack of gender diversity in leadership inspired King to form SHINE.
The genesis of SHINE was to ask, “how do we discuss these issues at STRATIS?” King said.
“It’s a safe space where we can discuss these matters,” she said. “Someone disrespected you? You did not feel included? Your voice wasn’t heard? It’s not just a place to vent. We ask what we can do about it.”
How SHINE promotes inclusivity
The group meets biweekly. On a day-to-day basis, SHINE members have a Slack channel that is private to anyone outside of the group. SHINE encourages allies within the company, but limits participation in its meetings and Slack channel to employees who identify as a woman, nonbinary or an underrepresented gender. Keeping their conversations confidential is a top priority so members feel comfortable sharing their experiences.
STRATIS informs all new hires about SHINE during onboarding. King also personally messages each employee about SHINE and its mission when they join the company. That was Erin Browne’s first introduction to SHINE when she joined STRATIS in May 2021.
Just about a year later, Browne said SHINE has “almost completely changed my relationship with work.” It emboldened her to ditch imposter syndrome and advocate for herself.
“Raise and promotion conversations have never been my strong suit. I can’t stress enough the confidence and empowerment that I’ve gained from SHINE,” said Browne, who was promoted to be STRATIS’s marketing communications strategist in March. “I wouldn’t have had the guts to go to my boss and say, ‘Hey, can we talk about this?’”
SHINE does not sponsor any specific leadership initiatives, but “just knowing that you have that type of support system at work is a game-changer,” Browne added. She hasn’t been the only beneficiary. The lack of women among engineering team leads that King first noticed? Now, STRATIS has internally promoted several women to be team leads.
Besides fostering a safe space for its members, SHINE promotes inclusivity as a part of STRATIS’s culture. King, for example, has invited several speakers to discuss gender and identity at STRATIS, such as trans rights advocate Freedom Foster-Grady.
“The talks aren’t limited to SHINE members. It’s reassuring when your cis male coworkers are willing to listen and ask insightful questions to speakers discussing their experiences,” said Lori Aparentado, a SHINE member and software engineer.
Advocacy leads to policy changes
The group also took on a recent initiative to appeal to STRATIS parent company RealPage for more trans-inclusive healthcare. STRATIS was acquired by RealPage in 2020, and employees are covered under RealPage’s healthcare through BlueCross BlueShield.
While BlueCross BlueShield entities in other states, such as Pennsylvania, cover gender-affirming surgery and hormone therapy, Texas-based RealPage does not. SHINE members developed an email campaign petitioning RealPage to offer more trans-inclusive health insurance, King said.
Members of RealPage’s HQ and HR team told members of SHINE the topic would be considered during the company’s upcoming insurance renewal. Now, King said, they are waiting for a response.
“For us here at STRATIS, we really pride ourselves on being a place where we’re going to provide you with the tools and the environment and whatever it is you need to become the best version of you at work, no matter who you are,” King said. “We remain hopeful and positive that this will be taken seriously.”
In the meantime, SHINE has continued to gather as a supportive, inclusive environment. King looks forward to the group’s ongoing conversations.
“So as long as you maintain that sacred space, I think it will be a place where you can have certainly open, wonderful, sometimes raw and uncomfortable conversations. So we don’t shy away from discomfort. Because that’s how change happens,” she added.