Tech has long been an industry where women are underrepresented, but the good news is that’s finally changing. Overall, the number of women technologists is growing each year, according to a 2020 report by global nonprofit AnitaB.org. And while there’s still progress to be made to reach equal representation in the field, it’s becoming less common to be the only woman in the room.
“The general notion that a woman is not a typical engineer is changing… There is a new normal now,” says Shivani Sahi, a systems engineer at Samsung Electronics America. Sahi is just one example of a woman who has found success in the tech world; countless others at companies in the U.S. and worldwide are breaking glass ceilings in all manner of roles, from software and IT to product.
Here, 11 of these women share their tips for those aspiring to get into the field—drawn from what they’ve learned from making it in the industry.
1. Find a Good Mentor
“Seek out people whose work and approach you respect to be your mentors,” she says. “I have been fortunate to have excellent mentors—both men and women—who have guided my career choices, served as sounding boards, and helped me identify opportunities for growth.”
2. Don’t Let Self-Doubt Get in the Way
It can be scary to work in an industry where you may be the only woman in the room or on a project—and you may even question if you belong there. That’s exactly what Emilie Murphy experienced during one of her first engineering internships. Luckily, she didn’t give in to these thoughts and her internship at Northrop Grumman turned into a full-time job.
“After gaining some experience and becoming more confident in my skills, I have never let these doubts affect my work again,” she says. “As women, we have a tendency to quickly count ourselves out... It’s important to be confident in your abilities.”
3. Learn How to Take Negative Feedback
A lesson that has served Lisa Pearce well throughout her career is knowing how to handle criticism. Instead of allowing it to derail her from her goals and aspirations, Pearce—who moved up from intern to executive at Intel—sees it as an opportunity to adapt and grow.
“As women, we can be more prone to moments where a negative comment or feedback can sit in our minds for some time. We dwell on it, and that can cause us not to take future risks to stretch ourselves,” Pearce says. “It is important to view failures and feedback as a gift. Learn to build on it and focus on how you will adjust for next time. Let it fuel you into your next challenge.”
4. Never Stop Learning
In her 20-plus years working at Siemens, Toni Neal has held a number of different roles, including market analyst, product manager, and business development manager. Today, she is the Senior Director of Service. She partly owes her rise within the company to continuously expanding her skill set—which she did by taking advantage of the learning and development opportunities available to her.
“I cannot think of any training that I wanted to take that I was told no,” says Neal, who has completed leadership courses as well as university courses on various business, marketing, and service-specific topics. She has also attended internal hands-on training sessions and classes about communicating effectively and giving presentations.
5. Speak Up
Despite having more than 20 years of experience in the field, Sharmeelee Bala—the VP of Engineering at Gap Inc.—admits she still needs a reminder once in a while to voice her thoughts and ideas at work. And she advises other women to build up their confidence to do the same.
“Remember, if you are invited to a meeting, you have earned the seat at the table,” she says. “If you have a point of view, make sure it’s heard. If you don’t agree, speak up.”
Even if your idea doesn’t work, there’s still something to learn from the experience of putting yourself out there, Bala says.
6. Communicate Clearly
Having the courage to speak up is one thing—but successfully delivering a pitch is a different feat altogether. A great idea might not land if your delivery is off. That’s why Devon Westerholm, Vice President of IT Customer Experience at cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks, recommends brushing up on your communication skills.
“You should be able to publicly speak in front of people and share an idea confidently and clearly,” she says. “After all, to contribute your ideas, you need to be able to articulate them.”
Although your job may not require you to give formal presentations, this skill will help you communicate with your team more effectively.
7. Build a Support System
For Alexandra Hjert, a key part of successfully pivoting her career from customer operations to software engineering was finding a community of women in the field that she could turn to.
“With the lack of female representation in engineering, self-doubt can swoop in and take over quickly,” says Hjert, who now works as a software data engineer at Squarespace. “It makes a world of difference to meet those who have traveled the same journey you’re navigating.”
You can find and create a support system within your company, attend women’s empowerment conferences like Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, or join tech meetups outside of work, she says.
8. Collaborate With Colleagues
In Sahi’s experience, collaborating on projects has been crucial to her growth as a systems engineer at Samsung Electronics America because it’s allowed her to develop her skills, wear multiple hats, and become a more well-rounded professional.
“All the people I work with do not hesitate to help each other and make time to brainstorm and come up with great solutions,” she says. “This environment has definitely shaped me into a better engineer, not only with respect to growing the breadth of my technical knowledge, but also as a leader and collaborator.”
9. Find Work That Means Something to You
Throughout her career, Alissa Cooper Stein has learned the importance of focusing on work that is truly meaningful to her. “I’ve found that you’ll be most successful when you’re working on something that you enjoy doing, so it’s important to be interested and believe in the work or mission,” she says.
Case in point: Her decision to work in software development at Audible was fueled in part by the personal connection she felt to the products and services the company offers.
“My grandfather was an avid reader, but when he lost most of his sight, he turned to mailing audiobooks on cassettes back and forth from the Library of Congress,” she says. “I love how our product can help someone who may learn differently or may have difficulty accessing content through traditional reading methods.”
10. Be Patient
Whether you’ve always wanted to work in tech or have plans to pivot into the industry, it’s important to remember that it takes time to achieve your career goals. Prachi Sahoo, Director of Product Management at BlackLine, knows this all too well.
Sahoo held various roles at some of the biggest software companies in the business and founded a startup before getting to where she is today.
“Be patient. It takes time and the right opportunity,” she says, adding that it’s important to be flexible in your first role and to not be afraid to make a horizontal move if it can help get you where you want to go.
11. Find Out What Motivates You
Everyone has something that fuels them professionally. For Tamara Bain, a software engineer at the fintech company Robinhood, what keeps her going is considering how her own career path might pave the way for the next generation.
“I like to think about the future [and] the brilliant young women engineers who are just starting their careers or just discovering their love of software engineering,” says Bain, who started coding in sixth grade. “I want them to be fearless. I want them to be part of this industry that has and will continue to change the world.”