Raise them up: Cultivating female leaders in tech

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at my alma mater, University of Washington. The topic was centered around what it is like to be a “Woman in Tech”, and I was joined by fellow female panelists representing from Amazon, Adobe, and Tableau to speak to the University’s Undergraduate Women in Business club. The conversation involved prepared topics, as well as questions from the young women in the audience, and it proved to be one of the most valuable hours of my time I have spent in recent memory.

I have been a “Woman in Tech” for the entirety of my professional career. I’ve worked both in research and in software, and both fields were widely dominated by the opposite gender. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but it was impossible not to notice the wide discrepancy. As I got further down my career path, I began to see the way the deck was really stacked. From sexist comments, to being underpaid in comparison to my male counter parts (when I was both more qualified and higher performing), to consistently being the only female in the room, I encountered just about every scenario you’ve heard countless other women complain of in this industry.

I didn’t let the situation hold me back, but I was never about letting it pass as an acceptable status quo either. In situations or roles where the misogyny was too much to bear, I moved on to companies that seemed to more aware of what century it was. As a whole, the further I’ve advanced, the better things have gotten. But that is a large part due to my awareness and due diligence, not because the state of things has changed dramatically. After having worked for disappointing orgs in the past, I have learned quite well how to ask the right questions to weed out company cultures that breed sexism and inequality. I wish I could look back and be wowed by the way things have changed. Unfortunately, in the tech space, these types of companies still make up the majority.

That’s why I have realized it is time to do something about it. Participating in the panel was one small way that I hope that I could arm my fellow females with the insights they need to change this industry, and the place that women hold within it. Progress never seems to happen when people sit back and wait. I hope that by speaking out about my experiences, I can help empower other women to stand up for themselves and demand for equality within tech, as well as all other professions. I hope that in doing so, we can create the change we’ve so long been seeking.

 

The toughest question for me personally during the panel discussion came up when someone asked about having children and managing that with work obligations. Hearing from a fellow panelist from Adobe about how nothing has changed since she had children over 20 years ago really struck a nerve with me. In America, we are so far behind the rest of the modern world when it comes to paid maternal leave, and early childhood care options. The impact and negative result this has on women in the workplace is glaringly obvious. The biggest barrier today to women progressing in their careers is choosing to have children. The vast majority of women either see a drop in wages or drop out of the workforce all together under the insurmountable pressure to be super mom and a stellar employee. It’s a pressure that our male counterparts simple do not encounter.

I have worked hard to progress far enough in my career that I can negotiate something different than this for myself. I have also been fortunate to have found a path where I am working for a company that never once has asked me to compromise between the two things, and focuses on putting family first. It’s not all talk either, when my (male) bosses have a new baby, they take leave. When we negotiated my contract with the company, ample maternity leave was added without question. It helps that the company is from Australia, a place where these types of benefits are common place. But it meant a lot more that it came from our company’s core values. It means when the time comes for me to take that leave, rather than feeling questioned or compromised, I can feel celebrated in choosing to grow my family and entitled to well earned time off.

However, the problems women face in tech isn’t just about maternity leave. And it isn’t just about sexism. It’s about equality. And that’s where we as women really come in. We need to be helping each other level the playing field. I’ve experienced it myself, and I have spoken to enough fellow women to know: we aren’t doing enough to help each other. In order to have more women in tech and in leadership, we need to open the door and help raise up the next generation of women in this industry and in the workforce at large.

In some cases, this is about mentorship. In all cases this is about being kind. I’ve heard way too many tales of women slamming doors in each others faces, rather than reaching out a hand to open one. Even if we had to fight our way to the top, that’s no reason to hold each other back. It’s just one thing we could be doing, but it would have a huge impact on the pace of our progress.

In addition to that, I believes it’s high time we quit compromising on what matters most to us. Change isn’t doesn’t happen easily, but it doesn’t happen at all if we don’t ask for it. Whether it’s maternity leave, paid sick time, stamping out sexism, or getting rid of gender bias, we all need to stand up and demand that it be done differently. After all, statistically speaking, women already make up more of the workforce in many countries. If we focus on working together for change, we can make equality the reality.