Women & Tech (and You & Me)

Recently, I had the opportunity to take part in a panel discussion about women in technology. The panel took place as part of Hacker Paradise, a program for digital nomads in which I’m currently participating. The talk was difficult. Even as someone who is a relatively confident speaker, I found my voice shaking as I spoke in front of the audience of mostly male developers & entrepreneurs. A great deal of the subject matter was highly personal and reflected my own experiences, or the experiences of the other women on the panel. And I wasn’t sure how the suggestions we put forth would be received.

When I volunteered to give a talk on this subject, I thought to myself, “there’s no way a bunch of developer dudes are going to want to hear about this”. I was wrong! They did, and once a date was picked for the talk, we starting scrambling to put together some content we thought would resonate with our audience. We decided to bring in some of the other Hacker Paradise ladies and make it a panel discussion, focused on best practices for making the tech world a more comfortable place for women. 

 Inspiring women. Left to right:  Wendy Hu ,  Lori Tillery , yours truly,  Barbara Mendes , and  Cayla Green .

Inspiring women. Left to right: Wendy Hu, Lori Tillery, yours truly, Barbara Mendes, and Cayla Green.

In order to do so, we needed to first recount some of the problems women face in the tech industry today. Many of the issues below have been discussed at length in the media as of late, but I was surprised to find from speaking with some of my male peers that some of them are lesser known. They are:

  • Isolation & lack of support. It’s not uncommon to be the only female in the room. Finding allies is super important.
  • Gender discrimination. Includes stereotyping — “You can work on the UI, since you should be good at making things look pretty”. Also includes things like constantly being talked over in meetings and then being told you “need to find your voice”.
  • Sexual harassment. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still very much an issue. ‘Nuff said.
  • The pay gap. As of 2014, women are still paid 79% of what men are paid. Each panelist was able to share at least one experience with pay inequality.
  • Mansplaining. This is a fun one! Ever been in a discussion with someone and he asks you if you know how an API works? You say yes, of course I do, I am (was) a developer. He proceeds to explain to you how (he thinks) the Internet works. You try to stop it but it keeps going. And going. And going…
  • Imposter Syndrome. Feeling like you’re not good enough or smart enough to be in the position you’re in. Women undersell themselves all the time. I can pinpoint the exact moment my imposter syndrome kicked in. Junior year of college, I received a technology scholarship offered to one student in my program each year. A male student raised his hand in a class and stated that he didn’t understand why I had received the scholarship. This was a couple weeks after I had helped him out by recommending him for a job at the computing center I was working at. Ever since he questioned me, I questioned myself.

Nothing new, right? I’m sure some of you are trying to recall situations in which you may have contributed to one of the above issues. It’s OK — that’s a good thing. The first step is recognizing the behavior.

Now for the more interesting stuff. How can we, together, help better this situation? It’s not just about the guys. Women, also take note.

Open up.

The key here is to open the lines of communication early, and keep them open. Though I would have loved to have more women mentors throughout my career if they had been available, most of my mentors have been men. I was only able to form a solid relationship with them after I felt like they were open to it. In other words, they made the first move.

See a new person on your team? Introduce yourself. Let her know you’re available if she needs help getting up to speed or learning about the culture of the company. But also, don’t assume she’s constantly in need of help. If you make yourself available as a resource, she’ll feel comfortable enough to reach out to you on her own time. You should expect the same from her.

Correct bad behavior when you see it.

I mentioned the fact that men try to talk over women all the time. After a while, you start to feel invisible. But, there have been some instances that I’ve seen (and it’s happened to me too) when men have actually interjected and said things like “She was talking. Let her finish please.” There’s always a split second of “OMGICANTBELIEVEHEJUSTSAIDTHAT” from all parties in the room. But the invisible woman is secretly jumping for joy inside, because somebody finally noticed. After 11 years of this I’ve become much more aggressive and don’t really stand for it myself anymore. But it takes time to get to that point. If you see things like this happening, speak up. Most of the time people don’t mean any harm, and would rather be corrected.

Know your strengths.

Speaking openly about these issues and attending group events will help you become confident enough to understand who you are, and what you deserve. Know that you’re within your rights to speak up, present a differing viewpoint, and NEGOTIATE for fair pay. This applies to both men and women!

Assert yourself.

Make it known from the beginning that you’re not going to put up with bad behavior. If somebody makes a comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t smile and let it go. Let the person know. You can also reach out to people and ask them for help with sticky situations. This also goes back to the whole speaking up in meetings thing — don’t let anyone make you feel like your opinion isn’t important.

Help other women.

Being competitive is human nature and unfortunately, some companies are more political than others. I don’t subscribe to workplace politics if I can help it. But especially in matters between women: I’m a firm believer in the fact that regardless of the situation, women should go out of their way to help other women. I see too much of the opposite. Whether you’ve been in the industry for a while, or you’re brand new, check in with other women to see how they’re doing. Recognize that they’re likely going through the same things you are. Talk about it. Act right. Bottom line, if you’re belittling other women to get ahead, you lose my respect. At that point you’re not so different from the guy who decides to campaign against a woman at the office who won’t sleep with him (yes, this happens). And you might find that helping others actually helps your cause, too.

Make it a point when hiring (or looking for a job).

If you’re looking to recruit more women, simply open the diversity dialogue. Make it a point to have women on the list of interviewers. Let applicants know that you’ve got X number of women on the team, and X in leadership roles. That your promotion rate for women is X%. That you believe in equal and fair pay for all. Hopefully, you work at a company where you can actually say these things. If you don’t, maybe it’s a good time to start asking questions.

You should be asking these questions during any interview process if they’re not already answered for you. In tech, having a strong HR team that cares about these issues is extremely important. If you don’t have this support, and you find yourself in a sticky situation, nobody’s going to care or help you.

Get involved.

The issue is big enough now that many support groups have popped up. Whether you’re a guy or a girl, attend events these groups put on. Show your support for the cause. Women have gone out of their way for a while to better understand men’s lives, try it on the other side!

***

Our panel was set up such that we all sat, left to right, ordered by years of experience in tech (30+ years to 5 years). Each panelist had a wide array of stories to share. One of the most interesting questions we received was, how many women do you think we need sitting to the right until the problems go away? Meaning, how many more generations of women in tech will have to work just a little bit harder than their male peers? After a bit of debate about the role of the media (and how traditional portrayals of women need to continue to be challenged), we settled on 2 as a realistic and hopeful number. Let’s keep the conversation open so that we can actually make that happen. And so that we don’t have to talk about it anymore.

I want to thank the inspiring women who participated in the panel and the content generation with me: Lori TilleryBarbara MendesCayla Green, and Wendy Hu. I’d also like to thank HP facilitator Ken Hu for his support.

Last but not least, thanks to the fantastic San Francisco Women in Tech organization, whose panel on mentorship in May 2016 inspired the talk!