InspiR&D: 5 Lessons From Women in Tech That You'll Use Your Entire Career
These days, it seems like there is always a new "it" gadget or app creating buzz. Whether it's something that turns your house into a smart home, or an app with real-time rapid fire questions (HQ, anyone?), there is constantly something new coming out of the tech industry.
So, if you want to be in tech, you'd better love the intensity and pace of it all, says Michelle Wingard, co-founder of Dynamo, an IT consulting and recruiting firm, noting that we're living in the midst of a transformation of the technology landscape. These changes don't just lead to the challenge of keeping up—they also lead to a wealth of opportunity.
Jen Low, career developer at Hackbright Academy, an engineering school for women, agrees. She points out that curious, adaptable people are likely to do well in tech. “It's hard to get bored with so much to learn and different areas to pursue within the industry," she says.
While there's plenty of opportunity, the reality remains that building a career in technology has proven more difficult for women than it has for men. Just one quarter of all computing roles are filled by women, and less than 10 percent of that number are women of color. Not only do women hold less tech jobs, but they also don't stay in tech for as long as men do.
So, we spoke with five women in tech to get their advice on how to build a lifelong career in their field.
When Sheila Oh, now director of Seattle University's Computer Science Fundamentals Certificate Program and community leader of AnitaB.org's Seattle Chapter, started her tech career, she says she wasn't surprised to be the only woman in the room and didn't give it much thought.
But as she moved forward in her career, her sense of isolation grew until she finally realized that there must be other women feeling just as isolated as she was and also not getting the support they needed. Rather than leaving the field, she decided to give and seek help by getting involved in Systers, an online forum for women in tech, which later lead to her volunteering and mentoring with AnitaB.org.
“Understanding that I wasn't alone was so powerful for me," she says, noting that isolation can often lead to imposter syndrome and is part of what causes some women to leave the field.
“Having a community, even just someone else to talk to who's in a similar experience, helps you support one another." Not only can you connect with and inspire others, Sheila says, but you can even use this as a venue to trade diversity and inclusion solutions from one another's companies.
Nearly everyone harbors biases of some sort, and this has proven true when it comes to women in technology.
“It's almost empowering just to accept that there will be bias," says Sheila. “Women may be seen as less technical, even if their experience matches their male counterparts." To combat this in interviews, she says it's most effective to speak directly about the job description and how you fit it.
“Focus on what you bring to the table and on what you do know rather than focusing on where you may need to further develop," Sheila suggests, noting that bias can affect everything from interviews to promotions to the projects people are staffed on.
Lisette Cruz, program manager for Hewlett Packard Enterprise's Power Advisors and Data Center Infrastructure, admits that because her field is male-dominated, women may feel that it's risky to share their ideas for fear of being ridiculed when they speak up. But she fought through this fear when she saw opportunities to improve the user interface of one of HPE's software tools.
“I had moments of doubt. I felt like I couldn't deliver and that my ideas were not innovative enough," she recalls. “But I told myself I was hired for this position for a reason. When I presented the changes to my team and our stakeholders, they loved it."
Michelle agrees. “Be proactive when looking for opportunities to help move the organization forward and grow. When you observe opportunities to contribute to the greater good of the people you serve and the organization, take it," she urges. “There's no shortage of opportunities or hard problems that need solving. Stepping up and taking action demonstrate accountability, with the added bonus of building new skills and keeping yourself relevant in the process."
Special projects are a great starting point, but why stop there, asks Erica Peterson, founder of Moms Can: Code, a membership-based community that provides opportunities for moms with the similar goals to connect.
“Pulling up a chair to sit at the table is great advice if you want to be a part of someone else's legacy. I want to encourage women to build their own table," she says. “My advice is to create your own!"
“I highly recommend identifying a mentor and reaching out to them for direction," says Erica. “If this isn't something you're comfortable doing within your own company, you should hire a career coach."
Jen explains how Hackbright alumnae find active mentors within their network. Some, she says, even land future engineering roles by leveraging their greater alumnae community. She suggests using the filtered search on LinkedIn to identify a few individuals with a role, company, or career path that interests you. Then reach out to them via a LinkedIn message or email for an informational interview.
“The purpose is to get to know each other and start developing a professional relationship—not to ask for a job," Jen advises, noting that, depending on how your relationship develops, one of these mentors still may end up referring you or keeping you in mind for job opportunities down the road.
“Find female mentors who can support you and share their own experience navigating the tech industry as a woman. Mentors are especially important in tech, where women empowering other women can really make the difference in staying in the tech industry."
Finding mentors can be more challenging for women in technology, says Sheila. So, she suggests viewing the relationship as both give and take. Feedback and introductions don't have to go only one way, she says. Consider how you can help your mentors just as much as they help you.
“Finally, try for multiple mentors," Sheila counsels. “You'll get value from different people in different ways. Mentors can be above your level, of course, but also peers or even those junior to you."
“Many women I've worked with question if negotiating and asking for more will lead to the employer rescinding the offer," Jen says. “But I have not seen any of the women I've worked with get their offer rescinded from negotiating. Most employers expect you to negotiate!" At Hackbright, she coaches students to prepare for negotiations not only by researching the average market salary for the title, company, and city, but also by writing and practicing responses out loud. “This is especially important for women," she says, “as more women than men accept a job offer without negotiating."
Sheila, who has experienced the sting of making significantly less than a male employee junior to her, points out that practicing negotiation can happen more often than just in the salary conversation. “It's about being heard and getting a seat at the table," she says. When trying to negotiate anything, whether it be a promotion or getting an opportunity to lead the next big project, start with why it's in the other person's interest to say yes. “Get more practice asking and find things that are mutually beneficial," Sheila says.
All five of the women we spoke with share this sentiment: Women who are about to start or have already begun their career in technology can have a positive impact on what the future environment will look like for women in their field.
“There is strength in numbers and the numbers representing women in tech are not currently in our favor—yet. Every unique challenge brings an opportunity to do something about it. Being a woman in tech is a badge of honor. Wear it proud, loud and continue to do the hard work to help lead the way for others." Even if you're uncomfortable inciting change at your own company, there are plenty of ways to make a difference.
Sheila suggests volunteering and mentoring, teaching tech skills to kids, and even inviting men to events for women in technology to build their understanding and help them gain perspective.
“Technology is a great field for women because it gives us power," Erica adds. “Knowledge is power, and when you know how the world works, you're better able to not only contribute but also innovate."