Takeaway: Women are vastly outnumbered by men in technological fields, which is why networking, mentoring and advice from other women in the field can be invaluable tools.
The gender gap that persists in tech career paths remains an obstacle to overcome for women who want to break into the field. But it can be done, and women who have made it have some valuable insight to share with those aspire to follow in their path or blaze their own. It all comes down to overcoming self-doubt and moving fearlessly forward. A number recommend connecting with others for support, but sometimes the motivation has to come from within.
Fortune Favors the Bold
Sophie Knowles, Founder & CEO of PDF Pro goes this far: “Do not be afraid to start your own business. A lot of people are scared by the prospect of going out on their own, but there is so much opportunity.” Her recommendation is to follow your passion because “you will have a much greater sense of purpose and see that you are capable of so much more than you ever thought you were.” That doesn’t mean just following your heart, though. She adds on the necessity of persistence, as well as doing the requisite research and asking for help when needed.
Likewise, Nancy Wang, Founder and CEO of Advancing Women in Product (AWIP) tells women, “If you see an opportunity you think is a fit, take the risk. Changing careers or taking on a new job can be scary, but never be afraid to take that job that you’re really excited about.” (Can crypto help level the playing field for women? Find out in How Crypto Can Help Women Gain More Equal Footing in Business Leadership.)
“Good things do not come to those who wait” seems to be the consensus for women in tech. Krystal Persaud, founder of Grouphug Tech and an adjunct college instructor, warns: “Don’t wait for opportunities to be offered to you, ASK for them.” Should something of interest come up, “be proactive and ask to be considered for it.” Even “if the answer is no,” you can try to learn what would be required of you “to get there.”
Persaud also advises women to find a mentor who can answer their questions and offer “real-world advice.” From her own experience she said, she has “a few women in my network that I really look up to and regularly keep in touch with.” She assures women that “most people are flattered and happy to help.”
While many women speak of the importance of mentors, Stefanie Causeya points out that they don’t have to be limited to female mentors: “men make great mentors too.“ She recounts that recognizing that helped her career: “Two of the best mentors I’ve had have been the stereotypical white males most prevalent in leadership positions. They both pushed me to see beyond the ‘it’s because I’m a woman’ phase and see that in many ways, I was limiting myself.”
Causeya also stresses the importance of being willing to take on “new challenges of any type” and not be held back by self-doubt. “I have struggled some with impostor syndrome and have found that I can overcome it by taking on something completely outside my comfort zone and just rocking it,” she says. That can be the reward of going after “the challenge no one else wants.”
Sarah Sheehan, cofounder of Bravely was plagued by questions of what to do early in her career. But she found her own answer:
At 25, I spent a lot of time thinking about who other people wanted me to be and questioning whether I was showing up as that version of “myself.” In every situation and every room I entered, I would ask myself: “Do I need to be more serious? More feminine? More outspoken? Quieter? Funnier? Am I wearing the right outfit?” The underlying message and narrative running through my head, without me even being fully aware of it, was that I was not enough. What became clear over time: the more I showed the real Sarah the more successful I became. Trusting my instincts and being authentic took me further than I ever imagined. Be you, because it’s enough. I give that advice to every woman I meet.
Nitasha Syed who started Unboxd, a media platform that highlights women in STEM fields, also recognizes how these questions can be unsettling for women. She recalls: “From being one of two women to graduate with a computer science degree from my college to working on the FIFA14 team where the man-to-women ratio in engineering was like 1-to-50, I always felt like an outcast.” In practical terms the absence of other women at the workplace translates into a lack of cues for basic things like “how to dress” or “whether to go to after work drinks (Because again, you’re the only woman).” As a result many women report “feeling like they don’t belong,” which she believes is a major reason why 53% leave the field by the time they’re 30.
Building a Network
To combat “this feeling of being an impostor,” Syed advises women to get in touch with each other through communities online like Women in Product, Women Support Women and Latinas in Tech. When you share with others, you will discover that “most women in those groups have gone through the same thing and can help you cope.” That would give “you the sense of belonging” you need to stay the course.
The benefits of female networking is a fairly common refrain. Women supporting each other is something more have to embrace, according to Gina Callari, CEO of EVOX Images/RelayCars. She says emphatically: “Be supportive of competent women in your field. We all worked hard to get here.” She explains that there’s a particular danger in such a male-dominated field “for unhealthy competition amongst women.” But women should not fall into that Darwinian trap, always keeping in mind that they “can coach and elevate others.” It’s no surprise that she’s also an advocate of female mentors. (For an interview with a successful woman in tech, check out How I Got Here: 12 Questions With Web Entrepreneur Angie Chang.)
Be Kind, But Not a Pushover
Callari also talks about the other kind of networking that benefits a tech career: “Attend industry trade shows, stay current with industry happenings, maintain a healthy network.” The connections made there “can be colleagues for life.” That’s why it pays to “nurture those relationships.” She adds: “Be kind to people at all levels; it’s both pragmatically good for your career and also nourishes you as a human being.” But don’t take this soft-sounding stuff to mean mean you should be a nice gal who finishes last. She also advises women to speak up about what they want in terms of jobs and salary: ”All too often women take the first offer for a job or position.” You don’t have to just accept what’s given. “Educate yourself on the market value for the position” so that you have a basis to refer to when presenting your case. “It’s uncomfortable to ask, but it’s worse to wonder.”
Self-Promotion and Self-Training
Making certain you get recognized for your accomplishments is another common refrain. It’s the first tip offered by Olinda Hassan, partner in the Strategy & Innovation team at Twitter: “Never stop promoting yourself. From your first job application to every project, promotion or opportunity that comes your way, there is only one person who will be guaranteed to sing your praises: you.” It’s not always possible to get someone else to advocate on your behalf, so you have to be willing to speak up for yourself, or else you may not get a chance to take on those “projects or roles that you are perfect for.”
You also have to build your own foundations for that kind of advancement, which is why Hassan’s second piece of advice is: “Be constantly learning & bettering yourself.” It is essential to stay competitive in “a fast-moving and male-saturated industry like tech.“ That’s why you have to constantly work on becoming “a more capable, valuable and competent employee.” She includes really pragmatic, concrete pointers like using your leisure time to read up on skills that would help you in your career path. It doesn’t take a large investment to make progress, and the result would be greater confidence and expertise that will be noticed.
The advice to self-train and self-promote is echoed by Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and COO of Chargebacks911. While she also favors finding mentors, she knows that some may not be able to reach a person to do that. In that case, she advises, “write down the qualities and achievements of the person you want to be, and focus on driving toward this goal.” She also includes this warning: “Don’t rely on others to advance your career. If you expect someone else to make sure you move up the ladder, you’ll likely be let down.”
Think Business Goals, Not Cookies
Nicci Townsend, VP of Account Management at Evolve IP, and co-founder of techaWare, the company’s not-for-profit group dedicated to supporting women’s advancement in the technology field, reminds women to get the whole picture for the business value of what they do and to avoid becoming a person who rewards people with treats for getting the job done.
With respect to the business goals, she explains, “Too often women working in technology organizations (or working in the tech field) get caught up in feeling the need to prove their technical aptitude and lose [sight] of the strategic value that they can provide.” Accordingly she advises women who want to advance to: “Stay focused on opportunities to add value outside of the lines of code.” As for the challenge of being surrounded by men, she warns women not to fall into “the ‘cookie con’; bringing cookies or other treats to the IT team in order to get their projects done.” Instead of offering edible rewards, she suggests women do the following:
- Start your interactions from a position of strength – even if you are uncomfortable with the technology on the back end. Be confident and direct.
- Make eye contact – and be sure that the person is fully engaged and present before you begin the conversation.
- Be able to clearly illustrate the business benefit.
- Understand how their team defines success. Be clear about requirements, deadlines and outcomes.
- Document, recap and follow up your conversation. Nothing drives accountability like a well-documented email.
- Publicly recognize and thank them after a project is completed – but no cookies!
A Great Opportunity for Women
While there is some consensus on the challenges and the drive a woman needs to draw on to make it in a tech career, one response to the query on what women should do to make it in this field offered a contrarian perspective. Brianna Rooney, the founder and CEO of Techees, aka The Millionaire Recruiter, admits that she’s not an engineer. But as someone who has had to advise people about such careers, she feels “I have a lot to say.” She views the scarcity of women in tech as a great opportunity:
I think the tech field is making such a big deal about being fair and diverse that they are going the opposite way. I have companies that tell me they will take an engineer with less experience but only if they are a female. Plus, they are pretty open about paying 20k or so over market for women engineers. Therefore, my advice to women engineers is take advantage of the people and companies feeling sorry for us. Companies are putting so many resources and money into making women engineers feel welcomed and paid well. I say, take it, ask for more and don’t apologize. Rise up to the challenge and show the world what you got.