Overcoming the Challenges of Being a Woman in Tech
With men comprising a high percentage of those in the tech space, it can be difficult as a woman trying to compete. Even tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Twitter have extremely low numbers of women in their tech roles. In 2015, women in tech roles at these companies were only 16.6 percent at Microsoft, 10 percent at Twitter and 17 percent at Google. When you look at the numbers in executive leadership roles (not just in tech), only 23 percent of Microsoft’s leadership roles are filled by women, 21 percent at Twitter and 21 percent at Google.
Previously, we shared about the “Highs and Lows of Women in Tech” to highlight some of the challenges women face in the industry. With thousands of shares, comments and likes, it was clear that it hit a cord in the tech space by highlighting the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done in the industry. As a follow-up to that piece, this covers the major challenges that women face in tech and avenues and advice from experts to address and potentially overcome those challenges.
Not having the right education
With less than half of computer science students being women, many women that might have an interest in tech may not have the right education that employers are looking for. However, just because you didn’t gain an education specifically in tech, doesn’t mean it’s too late to jump into the tech space. In fact, many companies have found that it’s often easier to train a specialist to code than it is to train a programmer on a specific industry. Healthcare software companies actually hire doctors and train them in technology in order to design and build their EMR system. Who better to help design a health record system used by doctors than doctors themselves?
Stephanie Sylvestre, Chief Programs Officer/Chief Information Officer at The Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County, started her education in International Relations, but found she was able to use that knowledge to enter the tech space. “Back in the late 1990s when I got started, there was flexibility in knowledge of technology so I decided to give it a try,” she said. “I found two things – one it’s a high paying industry and two, I could transfer my education in international relations to analysis of computer systems. I was able to parlay that into a highly successful IT career. In 1995, I entered the IT vector without any experience, over 20 years later, I am CIO of a $100 million company because I kept learning and was okay with asking for help. Of course, being a great team player and having humility went a long way.”
Deborah Vazquez, CEO of IT Staffing Firm PROTECH, believes that it’s important in any career to have a plan and to leverage your skills to attain that goal. “I entered the tech field begging my way into a programming role after working as an assistant in an accounting department of a theatrical organization. I had purposely looked for a job where I could use the accounting skills I had gained, but where the opportunity existed to transition into a tech role.”
There are also boot-camps and training programs like IronHack for both men and women that have realized a passion for tech after college. Programs like these allows students to use their current skills to transition into a tech focused role. There are also free ways to learn computer science – here’s a list of resources to learn to code for free.
The confidence gap
Unfortunately, women often are not confident or underestimate their skills. Reports show that female computer science concentrators with eight years of programming experience are as confident in their skills as their male peers with zero to one year of programming experience.
Some have a hard time believing in a confidence gap and that this is a simple case of men overestimating their skills and less about women lacking in confidence. Interestingly, it is a combination of both. It several studies, when men and women are given the same skills test and asked to self-assess, women give themselves an average score lower than their actual score and men give themselves an average score higher than their actual score. Both men and women score very similarly in a variety of skills tests (so there is little discernible differences between level of skill between sexes). In the programming example, this was an actual study done by Harvard (graph above) that found men started their self assessment (from 0-5) at about 3.3/5 with 0-6 months of experience. Women started much lower (2.6/5) and only self assessed as a 3.3/5 after 8 years of experience. Men with that same experience self-assess at 4.3/5 after 8 years. Since it is unlikely that men will start lowering their own assessments and confidence, I believe it is up to women to bridge the confidence gap.
In the recruiting space, I have seen this first hand, and often have to push female candidate to be more confident when talking about their abilities when preparing them for an interview. On the other hand, I have had male candidates with 6 months’ experience tell me they were as strong as other candidates with 3+ years’ experience. Confidence plays a big part in the tech space, and the unfortunate reality is that the male candidate with the 6 months’ experience and confident attitude will land the job over another candidate, male or female, with several years of experience but lacking in confidence.
“Some observers say children change our priorities, and there is some truth in this claim. Maternal instincts do contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, a tug that, at least for now, isn’t as fierce for most men. Other commentators point to cultural and institutional barriers to female success. There’s truth in that, too. But these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence,” say Katty Kay and Claire Shipman on an inspiring article about the confidence gap for The Atlantic. Turns out, women hold themselves back in the workplace, often believing they aren’t good enough, when chances are, they are as competent as their male peers. In fact, companies have tried to figure out why they have a lack of women in key leadership. A famous study by HP came to the startling conclusion that women were not applying for a promotion unless they met 100% of the requirements while men will happily apply if they only meet 60% of the requirements.
Women are holding themselves back in the confidence department. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman add, “We were curious to find out whether male managers were aware of a confidence gap between male and female employees. And indeed, when we raised the notion with a number of male executives who supervised women, they expressed enormous frustration. They said they believed that a lack of confidence was fundamentally holding back women at their companies, but they had shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist.”
Then of course there is the flip side. Women that are confident are told they are too aggressive, with 84% of women in tech reporting they have been told this, often more than once. 47% also have been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to do (e.g., note-taking, ordering food, etc.). With a very well-established confidence gap between the sexes, it is very possible that women that are simply confident come across negatively when compared to other woman, who may not have the same confidence traits.
“Confidence with a big ‘C’ is a myth,” said Lerner, who founded WomenWorking.com, a career website for women. “We hold ourselves back from valuable opportunities if we wait for everything to line up and to have all our skills in place. [We] have to redefine confidence and understand that courage is the main ingredient for success for achieving their goals.”
How can a woman in tech find the courage they need to succeed and excel in a career where their perception of their own skills is often most important?
Jill Flynn, partner at leadership consulting firm Flynn Heath Holt, recommends women stand up for themselves and their ideas, especially in meetings. “Meetings are so important because they’re the corporate stage,” Flynn said. Rather than observe, contribute to the meeting and do not be afraid of your idea being rejected. Confidence and courage are muscles that need to be flexed in order to grow, sharing an idea in a meeting might be scary the first time, but each time you speak up you will grow your confidence.
Women in tech also need to train themselves to use more direct language. Instead of using passive language like “what do you think about doing it like this?” women should instead use active language like “I suggest we should do it like this.” Along with that, Flynn says we need to stop apologizing in the workplace.
Team sports also appear to play a big role in developing confidence for pre-teens, however, this is also the time when many girls tend to drop out of competitive programs. Confidence also stems from not being afraid of mistakes or failure – both of which are encouraged by competitive sports. As an adult, even if you missed out on being on the baseball team, there are still ways to build confidence including joining an adult sports league or competitive exercise programs. Exercise on a whole is a great confidence boost and adding in an element of competition can help boost your confidence in the workplace.
Finding a support system
It’s also important for women in tech to find a mentor, whether that is a relative or someone in the tech industry you admire. For Patti Barney, Vice President of Information Technology at Broward College, it was her grandfather that motivated her into the tech space. “My grandfather was an adjunct instructor in the technology field,” she said. “He projected high demand and high wages for female careers in technology (back in the early 1980’s – great insight!) I also saw it as an opportunity to learn many new things, innovation stems from ideas and creativity which was one of my strengths plus I preferred a challenge over “routine” every day of the week.”
What makes someone a good mentor for you? The best mentor would be someone whose career you admire and are looking to mirror that you share a common connection with.
“The best mentors are often women that you establish a relationship with, that you find a connection with. And then it develops – and it takes on its own natural progression. And some of the best mentors you might never have the conversation about whether or not you’re a mentor or a mentee. But you know it – and they play that role for you, and they’re happy to do so. So, it isn’t helpful for some women, in that, they really want to know specifically, tactically, “How do I do this?” So the best advice that senior executive women have shared with me to pass along is that, you find a connection with these women. You put yourself out there, and get to know them – and, if they reciprocate with equal interest, then you keep going. And you build the relationship like you would any other relationship,” says Wendy Cukier, Vice President Research and Innovation, and Founder & Director, Diversity Institute, Ryerson University.
For example, if you are looking to be a director of software engineering one day, find someone in this type of role through networking or company events and invite them to something informal, such a coffee or lunch. She also warns that asking someone to be your mentor is not the best approach. “On the subject of asking for a mentor itself, I have heard a consistent response from peers and influential women everywhere; they don’t like to be asked. In fact, the general rule of thumb for finding a mentor seems to be that if you have to ask, it’s probably not right.”
Finding a mentor is similar to finding a significant other – best practices would advise against asking them to be your boyfriend or girlfriend on the first date. Instead, you work on building a relationship and getting to know each other – the key difference being you may never officially declare yourselves a mentor-mentee relationship – you’re just two people at different career levels that enjoy learning from each other. Good mentorship relationships are not one-sided, your mentor is likely learning from you as well, perhaps to better understand those they manage in their team.
Vazquez believes that success as a women in tech is less about gender and more about education, self-confidence and hard work. “My advice to young women is to seek out a mentor that understands your goals, appreciates your talents and is willing to help you succeed. This combined with a good attitude and tenacity has been the right formula for me. After many years in the software industry and a lot of domestic and overseas travel which was wearing on me, I pursued my entrepreneurial passion and founded PROTECH. This allowed me to once again do something that maximized technical and business skills in the software business to create unique value for our clients. I’m proud of the reputation and quality brand my team and I have built over the years. And much of what we do involves career coaching which we enjoy very much.”
Along with being a minority in the workplace, many women report both harassment from their male counterparts and superiors. Shockingly, 60% of women in tech reported unwanted sexual advances with 65% of those advances being from a superior. For those that did report sexual assault, 60% were dissatisfied with the outcome. As a woman who has reported sexual assault to HR only to be told I should be “flattered” to be receiving attention, there is no easy solution for women when it workplace sexual harassment and assault. The biggest challenge facing women in the workplace is something outside of our control, and something the industry needs to address on a whole, as demonstrated by several high-profile lawsuits in the industry.
Along with sexual harassment, many women in tech also felt a general sense of not being included. 66% of women in tech felt excluded from key social and network opportunities due to gender, 59% felt like they did not receive the same opportunities as male counterparts, and 90% reported sexist behavior during company events and industry conferences.
Barney admits that women in technology can sometimes feel out of place. “Every conference and learning engagement I was surrounded by men. They were very much about the technology, I was very much about the business,” she said. “I always found ways to learn from them, but apply it to the actual business value our institution would gain from it. At times, you will feel inferior, out of place and perhaps weaker… find a way to fit in! I used my background in athletics and sports to join conversations.”
Showing up and standing out
For Vazquez, being a woman in tech can be a tremendous advantage. “I later worked my way up the ladder at a global software company and transitioned into executive management,” she said. “As the only female Sr. VP, I was the only woman around the board room table. I never felt being the sole female was an issue. I always felt the highest level of respect from my peers and superiors. And in fact being the token woman sometimes even felt as an advantage because I brought unique perspective from that of my male counterparts which they seemed to appreciate.”
The best way to shrink the women tech talent gap is to encourage more young women to consider technology careers. Sylvestre advises young women to be bold and not let anyone intimidate you. “Be okay with not knowing and okay with having to ask for help and spending a lot of personal time learning and refining your skills. Always volunteer for projects even those you might not have a knowledge set in – it’s an opportunity to learn and diversify your skill sets,” she said.
Barney advises young women to “be prepared for an exciting job that comes with challenges in such a highly dynamic environment. Be flexible and courageous. Set your goals and steer the course – Be a risk-taker only if you have a thorough understanding of how to mitigate the risk. Don’t embark on a new technology because someone else is doing it – Have a PLAN! Surround yourself with experts that know the technology and have a passion for the institutional mission.”
At the end of the day, having a diverse workforce isn’t just about a company feeling good about itself. McKinsey research indicates that gender-diverse companies outperform by 15%. On top of that, ethnically diverse companies perform 35% better.
According to the report “More diverse companies, we believe, are better able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making, and all that leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing return. This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity—for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mind-set and cultural fluency)—are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain such diverse talent.”
It’s clear the benefits of women and people of color in tech greatly outweigh any costs. With the higher returns that diversity is expected (and proving) to bring, the more tech leaders invest now in diversity and inclusion, the further they’ll pull ahead of their non-diverse competitors.