Getting ahead in a male-dominated field as a person with a marginalized gender is no easy task. Consider the tech industry, for example. According to the Society of Women Engineers, only 13% of engineers are women and 26% of computer scientists are women. And even then only 12% of women in computing roles are Black or Latinx.
But that doesn’t mean women and other marginalized genders can’t find success in roles that are popular in tech, such as engineering. Take Amanda Gellhouse, Kate Dameron, and Tracy Burge—three members of the engineering team at Hinge Health, a digital health company for treating back and joint pain and one of the top 10 unicorns in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Here, they offer advice on how they’ve navigated their careers as female engineers—from the importance of having mentors to finding the confidence to speak up and make their voices heard.
1. Cultivate a Support System
While it would be great if our credentials could always speak for themselves, it’s helpful to have someone who can advocate for you as well. That’s where mentors come into play. Don’t have one yet? Not to worry. You may know someone already you can turn to for professional (and personal) advice.
Senior engineering manager Amanda Gellhouse suggests taking stock of your existing network, including current and former colleagues and managers. “All of my mentors appeared around me, and I recognized them as people who could provide valuable input,” she says. “Connect with people, and start learning from them.”
And make sure to look beyond your industry. “I’ve learned quite a bit from people who are in totally different departments with different skill sets,” Gellhouse says. “They can also teach you how to become successful in a professional setting.”
Gellhouse is proof that these connections can pay off: After graduating with a degree in computer science (but before she began working at Hinge Health), she landed a job with a tech consulting firm through a personal reference.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Pivot
“I did some learning on my own online while I was waiting for school to start and fully embraced it,” she says. “I haven’t looked back and I’m really enjoying it.”
There are plenty of online tutorials such as Free Code Camp that can help you decide if engineering is something you want to do full time. “Try it out and give yourself some time to discover if you enjoy the process,” Dameron suggests. Community groups such as Women Who Code and ChickTech are also great resources.
3. Never Underestimate Yourself
A now infamous internal study at Hewlett-Packard found that men apply for roles when they meet just 60% of the qualifications, whereas women will apply only if they meet 100% of them, research that was recently backed up by a LinkedIn survey.
“I would really encourage people in general, and women specifically, to apply for a role they’re interested in even if they feel like there’s only a piece of that role they can perform. It never hurts to apply,” Gellhouse says. “Be honest about your gaps and you may be pleasantly surprised.”
4. Make Your Voice Heard
You may have heard the story about the female staffers in the Obama administration who rallied together to prevent interruptions from their male counterparts. But the trend isn’t limited to politics. In fact, women tend to receive lower performance evaluations than their male colleagues when they speak up and contribute new ideas.
Hinge Health staff software engineer Tracy Burge let her fear of sharing ideas silence her in meetings. “When I was a junior engineer, I rarely wanted to speak up and never felt secure in sharing my opinion,” she says. “I was always ready for somebody else to volunteer information or ideas first.”
As Burge has advanced in her career, she’s become much more vocal—but it takes work, and confidence. “You have to keep pushing yourself to do it when the opportunity comes up,” she says. “And if you’re on a team that makes you feel bad for putting your ideas out there, I’d say find a company with better engineering leadership and more of a mentorship policy.”
If you’re in a managerial role, make sure to support more junior colleagues by specifically soliciting feedback from them and making it clear their thoughts and ideas matter. “The more we get women to be vocal, the more confident we’ll be,” Burge says.
5. Set Boundaries Around Work
Engineering roles can be demanding—but, as with any job, it’s important to try and maintain work-life balance (especially if you find yourself WFH). When Gellhouse felt overwhelmed in a previous role, she asked for and received more flexible and reduced hours—a valuable lesson in advocating for yourself.
If changing your work schedule isn’t an option, try some other tactics that you do have control over, such as deleting work email and Slack from your phone. Gellhouse also shuts her laptop at the end of the day—and doesn’t open it until the following morning.
It’s just as crucial to set boundaries with colleagues during business hours. In fact, the best advice Gellhouse received from a mentor was to get comfortable with making people wait.
“No matter who stops by your desk and asks if you have a minute, tell them you’ll get back to them in 10 minutes or tomorrow. Better yet, ask if you can schedule a meeting,” she says. “The intent here is that you don’t put yourself in a position where you’re catering to someone else and you create clearer boundaries for how you work. You and your time need to be respected.”
6. Ask for Feedback
“Feedback is a gift” is a quote often shared in career coaching for good reason. Asking a manager or a mentor what you could be doing better can be nerve-wracking at first, but ultimately supports you and helps you achieve your goals in the long run.
Honesty and communication are two of the most important tools when it comes to requesting and getting feedback, according to Gellhouse. “I’m constantly soliciting feedback from people who I think could help me with those weaknesses so I can continue improving them,” she says.
7. Never Stop Learning
Being a lifelong learner is an asset in any industry, but especially one as rapidly changing as technology—which is why you should actively look for professional development opportunities to keep growing your knowledge. You could also seek out roles at companies like Hinge Health that value learning and development and encourage employees to continuously learn.
“Be proactive and find out what else you can be doing, and what tangible tasks are going to help move you to the next level,” Dameron says.