Tanya Sam via Instagram
Despite gains for women on many fronts, representation in male-dominated—excuse us, white male-dominated—industries remains lacking. Tech, one of the sectors most heavily criticized for its homogeneity, continues to struggle to recruit, retain, promote, and support women.
Only about 25 percent of employees at the five “Big Tech” companies (GAFAM, or Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft) are female, and the ratio of men to women in tech overall is 3:1. Women’s turnover rate in tech is more than twice as high as that of men—41 percent to men’s 17 percent.
As for the leaders and innovators in the industry? Around one in four leadership roles at large tech companies are held by women, and only 5 percent of tech startups are owned by women. At all levels, women are underrepresented.
“The problems facing women in technology today are the problems that have been facing women in technology for eons,” says Lisa Smith, the director of the Raleigh/Durham chapter of Women Who Code. “There’s just a little more light shed on things now.”
Smith is an engineering manager at Zapier. She founded her local Women Who Code chapter because, for the first 10 years of her career in tech, she was the only woman on whatever team she joined. Now she uses her role as a leader in the industry to create opportunities for women to network and to help companies address practices that keep women from working and staying in tech. She says the obstacles women face come down to systemic misogyny and systemic hiring practices.
“The way people have been hired for years has not served women well at all,” Smith says. Like many other women in the industry, she’s had a nonlinear career path, beginning her career in library science, then teaching herself to code. She didn’t get her first job in tech until someone recognized the value that her interpersonal skills brought to a programming role.
“Part of what I do now is go around to companies and talk to them about not putting every qualification they can think of in a job announcement, but to be realistic and ask for what they really want,” Smith says. “And know that they can teach people things. Nobody’s going to walk in the door knowing exactly how to do what you do. Even if you’re an expert in the field, you’re going to have to learn how to do your job where you are. My message is:‘Think about what you really want. Take chances on people who have important adjacencies. If somebody’s in a field that you might not anticipate being the next step over for them, think about how what they bring to the job might be different for you.’”
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4 women in tech who lead and inspire
Even given the setbacks women in technology face, there are still women in the industry charging ahead. These four women from all over the world have advanced despite everything working against them, and now they’re empowering other women to follow their passions through entrepreneurship and advocacy.
Rocío Medina van Nierop is making waves in Silicon Valley as the cofounder of the non-profit organization, Latinas in Tech. Since its founding in 2014, she has expanded the organization to chapters in eight cities outside of San Francisco to empower and connect more than 4,000 women in the industry. Medina van Nierop has over 15 years of experience in product management and marketing, and her passion for equality has allowed her to give back to the Latinx community by allowing more Latina women the opportunity to pursue careers in tech.
Ashlee Ammons is a force to be reckoned with. She first made a name for herself in event production by working with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Leonardo DiCaprio. Then, with no background in technology or entrepreneurship, Ammons and her mother, Kerry Schrader, cofounded Mixtroz, an app that collects data to easily facilitate networking events by providing algorithms to ensure diverse connection groups, icebreaker conversation starters , and more. Since its conception, Ashlee has raised over one million dollars in pre-seed funding for Mixtroz, and has been recognized as one of Birmingham Business Journal’s 2019 “40 Under 40.” In the last five years, Ammons and her mom have made headlines in the industry and in 2020, Entrepreneur Magazine listed them as two of the “100 Powerful Women.”
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Sadaffe Abid is the founder of CIRCLE Pakistan, an organization that aims to support women in Pakistan. The organization hosts workshops and mentorship programs for ambitious women interested in technology, and Abid’s mission is to teach the female Pakistani community how to advance economically in their fields. She also brought She Loves Tech, a platform that hosts the world’s largest tech startup competition focused on women-led companies, to Pakistan. She was a founding team member, COO, and later CEO of Kashf Foundation, a Forbes 50 global microfinance organization that she grew to 300,000 women clients in Pakistan. In other words, she’s doing an incredible job championing women in Pakistan and is determined to eradicate the digital gender divide.
Sam’s career is noteworthy because it didn’t start in tech, but in medicine. The Canadian-born entrepreneur left oncology to pursue her passion for creating pathways for women and minorities in business, and eventually became the Director of Partnerships at Tech Square Labs, a venture capital fund that has invested in more than 30 companies, and those companies have raised over $300 million in venture capital and generated over $100 million dollars in revenue. Sam also cofounded BuiltxWomen, a business accelerator for female entrepreneurs and leads Ascend 2020, a tech startup and small business pre-accelerator for female and minority founders. Outside of her businesses, she travels the world and appears on The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
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How to support women in tech
Getting more women into tech roles doesn’t simply come down to hiring and promoting more women—although, please do that. Tech needs sweeping changes to policy and culture in order to keep women in the industry. Smith says these are some good ways companies, managers, and peers can support culture shifts that advance women in tech:
1. Change hiring practices
Like Smith mentioned above, managers need to pare down job descriptions to ensure they’re asking for exactly the skills they want, and they need to be open to hiring candidates who don’t quite fit the bill but show promise in other areas. “What ever happened to apprenticeships?” Smith says. Exactly. While some candidates might not have the exact skillset you’re looking for, they do have other skills that are transferable or could be an asset on your team.
2. Know why women leave—really
Women tend to leave tech jobs at about twice as high a rate of men at the 10-year mark. “Everyone thinks it’s because they want to have a family or kids,” Smith says. “That is untrue. It’s because they lack opportunities for advancement. They lack the opportunities to participate in meaningful work. That doesn’t necessarily mean charitable work. It means work for a specific purpose.” If you’re not a woman in tech, imagine, for instance, that you walk into work every day knowing you’ll never be promoted and your ideas will never be respected, that you’ll always be doing the same work you did the day before. That is why women leave.
3. Root out microaggressions
Employees need to feel like they belong at work, like they’re welcome. “The pressure of being‘othered’ on a daily basis is extreme for any underrepresented group in tech, and women bear the brunt of that,” she says. “At one job, I was called‘office mom’ because I was a mom, but I was the only woman on the engineering team. I already felt othered to begin with, but being called‘office mom’ put me in a box I could never climb out of.” An employees’ worth isn’t determined by one trait, or any trait. Train managers and team members to be more aware of microaggressions, and foster positive conflict resolution that helps underrepresented groups feel safe coming forward when someone crosses a line.
3. Change the way you talk about benefits
Paid time off, fair pay, great coworkers, and flexible work hours are the four things women want most from employers, but are those factors supportive of women alone? “Doesn’t everybody deserve better parental leave? Does it matter?” Smith says. “Paid time off. Working from home. These options benefit everyone, people of color, people with disabilities.” To foster major culture shifts, rally around the idea that the things that improve the workplace for women improve the workplace overall and are essential to employee happiness.
4. Make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a cultural change, not a just policy one
Policies and procedures that support women in tech and underrepresented groups are important, but Smith says companies need to be more intentional when developing programming. “As your company grows, it becomes more and more important to make sure spaces are safe, and you can’t just rely on ERGs (employee resource groups) to pick up that slack,” she says. “Putting the emotional labor back on people who are already being othered is a huge issue.”
Instead, set measurable goals for the company to achieve, set up training for managers, and provide avenues for feedback. Also, if a company is hiring a DEI director, be ready to support their initiatives wholeheartedly: “I’m a little conflicted about hiring a head of diversity,” Smith says. “I think it’s important. It puts focus on a good issue.” But you have to support the person and be active in their programs. Hiring for DEI doesn’t absolve company-wide responsibility.
6. Champion transparency
Ask for honest feedback about not only diversity programming, but also company culture and advancement opportunities. Use that feedback to set goals and make measurable changes in your organization.
7. Rethink your approach to inclusion
Speaking of larger culture changes and benefits that support everyone, making the workplace “inclusive” of all employees takes serious effort. “There are so many vectors that are not gender or race that you need to think about,” Smith says. Age, parenthood, sexual identity or orientation, even whether a person drinks alcohol—these factors all affect how employees carry out their day to day and setbacks they face as they attempt to advance in their careers. For example: What’s an employee who is a parent or doesn’t drink to do if everyone is networking at a happy hour after work? If they have to pick up their kids or simply don’t feel comfortable in that environment, they might not be able to make valuable connections. The onus shouldn’t be on them to create opportunities that are inclusive of essential aspects of who they are.
About our source
Lisa Smith is an Engineering Manager at Zapier. She founded the Raleigh/Durham chapter of the global organization Women Who Code. Smith has been working online since before there was a Google, holding a variety of positions in both front- and back-end development in whatever language or framework was needed for the job. She is an instructor, a speaker, and passionate about diversity and inclusion in technology, specifically retention and advancement of underrepresented groups.