What Do Women In Tech Wish They Knew Early On?

Written by Dana Sanchez

What do women in tech wish they knew early on?

This question originally appeared on Quora, the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. Some questions on Quora, like this one, stimulate responses and discussions that continue for years.

Answers by Jean Yang, Sabrina Majeed, Vanessa Tan, Xin Lu, Jennifer Apacible, Natalia Burina, and Claire Callahan.

Natalia Burina, Director of Product at Salesforce (Answered Mar 11, 2014)

Grades are really not that important. Relax, you’re just as good as all the men in the room so stop being intimidated by their bullshit about how they started coding when they were 2. It’s bullshit.

Jean Yang, assistant professor of computer science

Taste precedes skill. You learn how to recognize something good before you learn how to make something good. Just because your first few attempts at building a system are failures, it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Keep at it.

Nobody really knows what they are doing. A lot of people are just good at saying things and doing things confidently. Chances are you deserve to be one of those people too.

It gets better. When I was younger, people didn’t take me that seriously. I was girly and played sports. Neither fit with the “boy genius hacker” stereotype. People generally didn’t listen to my ideas and often tried to do my homework for me. When I told people I interned at Google, a common response was, “As what? A… software engineer?” When I started grad school, the systems administrator was skeptical when I asked for root access on my machine. He asked me if I could handle it.

These days, I am sufficiently established that I can surround myself with people who take me seriously. I would like to think that I have done enough work that people know I am a Serious Computer Scientist capable of doing Serious Work. A professor on my floor even once told me that I am intimidating. That made my year. When I tell strangers I am in graduate school for computer science, a common response is still to skeptically ask me what I studied in undergrad, but at least I have a bubble to live in for most of the time.

Sabrina Majeed, designer at BuzzFeed

I wish I paid much more attention to gender issues earlier in my career, and taken the disparity more seriously. Admittedly, until it affected me personally I dismissed a lot of the discussion surrounding the issue as frivolous whining. I subscribed to the idea of meritocracy and believed that the issues other women were facing were a result of their lack of focus – and that the opposition they faced wouldn’t happen to me because I was smart, talented, and hard-working (so my mom tells me).

In retrospect I realize that it was naive of me to feel that way as an entry-level employee. I was the bottom of the food chain and posed no threat to anyone. The enthusiasm, encouragement, and lack of repercussion I received for speaking my mind at that stage in my career only reinforced my view that I was just genuinely smart/talented, etc… It wasn’t until the past year-and-a-half that I began to experience the backlash of speaking up and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that around the same time many of my female design peers who are near my age and previously experienced the same sort of early career success began to have similar experiences at their workplaces.

When I would interview for jobs I always focused so much on evaluating the role from a design perspective. I would grill the company on the structure of their team, the design process they employed, the types of challenges they faced, and what kind of product vision they had in mind. I tried to get a sense of how much designers were valued at the company. I honestly never thought to ask the same question of women: what was the ratio of women in the company? What kind of roles did they employ? What were their responsibilities? Were there any women in the leadership? My current job is the first company I’ve worked at where I thought to evaluate such things (more on that later).

Sub-Lesson #1: Being a ‘trailblazer’ isn’t the only way to advance the current state of women in tech. The reason I didn’t question these things is because I assumed that being the only woman on the product team (meaning PM/Designer/Development) was normal. That I would not find another awesome place to work with more than two women on the team. That if I wanted to work this industry, I had to be a trailblazer. So not true.

When I joined the last company I worked at I was the only technical female and one of two women in the whole company. I won’t lie, I romanticized the notion of being the first. I thought hiring me was an indication of open-mindedness on the part of the company (in reality it was because they viewed me as the non-threatening ingenue). I thought I would pave the way, be the point of change. I knew so many talented women engineers, designers, and product managers that I could potentially bring into the fold. It was very telling that when I got one of them to interview, the experienced and talented female designer was met with criticism from my boss while he pushed me to give a boy who had no design knowledge or evidence of intrinsic skill, who hadn’t even graduated college, an offer on the design team.

When I decided to leave and look for my next role, something occurred to me. The idea of being a ‘trailblazer’ is a very direct way of addressing gender equality. I am grateful to anyone who is or has been in this position: someone has to be the first and I know very well it is not easy. However, it is not the only way. By supporting companies that already demonstrate and value equality, you are also helping advance women. If, as research claims, diverse teams perform better, then I hope to help advance companies that already have their heart in the right place. Copy-catting is an undeniable tactic in the tech industry. Apple’s definitive success with design has increased the value of design and led to a slew of startups clamoring to hire designers. Imagine if the next Apple or Facebook’s definitive trait was having equal gender (or race!) distribution on their teams.

The ugly side of the “first woman on the team” coin is that not every woman wants to be a ‘trailblazer’. There’s an undeniably seductive quality about the “princess spot”. Don’t automatically mistrust other women – or other men, for that matter. Also, don’t let the subtle differences in your perspective on feminism stop you from being friends with other women.

There’s a lot of lists out there for women in tech who deserve recognition. I follow those, but in addition I have a mental list of men that I want to make it a point to work with in the future. These are all men whom I’ve seen publicly speak (or tweet) about gender equality. I think it’s important to recognize men too because they currently do make up the majority of this industry. My list is actually pretty long and I know that if I were to work with any of them I would be treated respectfully, and if I found myself in a questionable situation, whether at work or a conference, these men would use their privileged position to speak up.

So basically, Sub-Lesson #2: Know and Embrace Your Allies (but not literally, because HR).

As I mentioned earlier, when I started looking for my current job I had new criteria on which to evaluate companies. In a sense, I wanted to work somewhere in which Sub-Lesson #2 was irrelevant because there was no ‘us’ or ‘them’. I wanted a culture, not just individual people, that respected women. So what do you look for?

Sub-Lesson #3: Don’t Rely on the Ratio. Nowadays there’s a lot of focus on the percentage of female employees or engineers at a company. I think this potentially paints a misleading image. I tend to look at the company’s leadership. How many women are executives, VPs, etc… I know it’s an easy decision to hire entry-level women because I’ve been one, but at the point of my career I’m at, I aspire to have more responsibility. Seeing women in the leadership at a company gives me physical evidence that upward mobility is possible, as well the potential for mentorship and advice. The healthiest thing to see is women at all levels in a company. This can be hard to identify at startups that have a flat hierarchy, which is why speaking directly to a woman is so important in the interview process. Sometimes when I say this it gets misinterpreted as “since I’m a woman, if I interview at your company, you should throw a woman in the interview process to reassure me”. No, I think that if you have technical women at your company, I would hope that at least one is involved in evaluating both male and female candidates. So in being interviewed by another woman I am reassured that women play a role in hiring decisions and building teams, and I am able to get a personal account of her responsibilities and trajectory within the company.

I wish I looked for these signs when interviewing earlier in my career and generally focused more on longevity and the potential to grow with a company. It might not be the worst thing to take an entry-level job in a glass-ceiling situation if your intention is to gain a certain amount of experience and move on. Though I’d still want “young me” to be fully aware of what she’s getting into.

Vanessa Tan, engineering manager

What do women in tech wish they knew early on? That your gender expression will be heavily scrutinized, but no matter how much easier it seems to just conform, it’s well worth your effort to stand by who you are.

Being pressured to fit into “brogrammer” stereotypes? Absolutely, and I was warned that this was coming. But there’s also discourse like this:

Now I find myself having to waste time talking about my gender rather than my technology…otherwise, there are lectures:

  • The “you didn’t have a woman on the panel” lecture. I’m on the panel, but I’m told I don’t count because of the way I dress: T-shirt, jeans, boots, no make-up.
  • The “you desexualize yourself to fit in; you’re oppressed!” lecture. I’m told that deep in my female heart I must really love make-up and fashion. It’s not that I’m a geek who doesn’t much care how she looks.
  • The “you aren’t representing women; you’d be a better role model for girls if you looked the part” lecture. Funny, the rest of the world seems very busy telling girls to look fashionable (just pick up a magazine or walk down the girls’ toy aisle). I don’t think someone as bad at fashion as I am should worry about it.

“I’m told I don’t count.” Sometimes I don’t count as an engineer (“why are you wearing a dress?”), but I also don’t count as a woman (“can’t you just wear makeup?”). And defending my desire to wear t-shirts (or not) is exhausting.

I wish I knew early on to be more vocal about gender issues like this, because it matters.

Xin Lu, old engineer & fat mom (answered Mar 29, 2014)

Ask for more money – Yes, women do get paid less for the same roles, but women also don’t usually ask for more money either. I didn’t know this and didn’t negotiate my job offers in the beginning. I only learned because I found out what everyone else was paid at one of my first jobs and figured out that women were REALLY paid less. Now I always ask for more money in job offer negotiations. If you are not happy about what you are being paid you need to speak up. Companies will always try to shell out as little as possible, but you should know what the market rates are and value yourself as much as men.

Don’t be afraid of offending people – It’s okay to speak your mind and be a bit loud. I’ve gotten louder over the years. You don’t always have to be the “nice girl”. Sure, some people might think you’re a “bitch”, but you need to fight for what you believe in.

Don’t get too offended – Men just interact with each other differently. They can be kind of immature. What can I say?: 90 percent of the time they are not trying to be mean, but sometimes they can be. However, the good thing about men is that they are usually fairly direct and if you are offended it’s easy to tell them. Some people are just jackasses, and there’s not much you can do about that.

Find a job that challenges you and continue to learn – My last job wasn’t terrible. I had a bunch of great smart female engineer coworkers but the job got too easy and if I stayed there I would have been stuck there. You have to keep on learning new stuff to survive in tech. All of this mobile tech stuff (android/ios) didn’t even exist when I went to Berkeley in the early 2000s. Sometimes it is easier to just stay at one place forever and do the same thing forever, but it’s probably not the best path.

Think about having kids early – Some women may not want kids, but I did want at least one kid. This is something you need to plan out and think about early on in your career because usually women have to give up much more to have kids. I had my son when I was 26, and the hardest thing to deal with was childcare especially if you live in the Silicon Valley where EVERYTHING is more expensive. If you work full time you may have to give up a ton of your take home pay to childcare. Even with a tech salary this can be a lot of money. In fact I paid more for my son’s childcare in the last 4 years than I paid for my 4 years of college. However, I am happy now that my son is 4 and I don’t have to worry about him as much and can once again focus on my career. If you are further along in your career it would be even harder to even take a break. So if you want kids you need to think about it and prepare for it. Once you have a kid or two the dynamics at work will also change. Basically, it’s a huge deal. Think about it and plan for it early.

Maintain your personal networkI’m basically in my 10th year of working in the Silicon Valley now, and I’ve found that it really does matter who you know in this place. Yes, I have gotten job leads and recommendations from former coworkers, and multiple former coworkers have tried to recruit me. If you are not from Berkeley/MIT/Caltech/Stanford/other top tech schools then you’ll have a slightly harder time in the beginning, but try to break into that network professionally and make sure people remember you. Social circles are really really small here even though it seems like a big place. It can be a meritocracy, but it’s much easier when you have worked with someone at the top in the past.

Detours are OK – A lot of Berkeley EECS women that I graduated with did not end up working in tech at all. Again, this is a personal decision. A lot of them went on to great things such as finance or medicine or lawyering but they decided that tech is not for them. So I’m basically saying that it’s OK to switch gears. I took a break to do something else, too, and it has been financially rewarding. Basically don’t be locked down into a tech career just because you got a degree in it and you feel like you got something to prove. Do what makes you excited and challenge yourself. Even in tech eventually you got to decide whether you want to go into management and give up being an engineer or in big company parlance an individual contributor. I haven’t gone that route myself just because I don’t really want to deal with office politics and reviewing people and all that crap, but it might not be so bad.

Jennifer Apacible, software engineer

Be active in meeting other women in tech. Women organizations or networking events have become a constant source of fresh perspectives, strong friendships, and fun memories.

Find a woman mentor. In my experience, it’s relatively easy to find experienced men who can give advice about personal growth or career choices. However, women can give a different perspective, like experiences as women in tech, advice about running into sexism, women in tech resources, or advice on work-life balance (including motherhood).

Don’t feel pressured to fit the stereotypical mold. Chances are, you’ll feel compelled to change parts of your lifestyle at some point: wardrobe, hobbies, conversational topics, and how you spend your spare time. The tech industry is only part of your life. If you have to change yourself just to fit in, it’s not worth it.

Learn to be confident and assertive, but always keep an open mind. I can capture attention when I speak with conviction. However, I am respected when I listen to others and take their feedback into consideration.

People can be immature. This goes for both men and women. Never have my knowledge and skills been scrutinized simply because I’m a woman until now. It’s exhausting to constantly think about proving myself in a setting that keeps pushing me down.

Detach yourself from this environment as soon as possible. Work with people who value you for your knowledge, skills, and perspective. Surround yourself with people who care and want to help you grow.

Claire Callahan, violist, orchestra player, chamber music player, software engineer

There’s a book published in the late 1980s which talks about this subject in the broader sense of all jobs where women are working alongside men: “Games Mother Never Taught You” by Betty Lehan Harragan (Amazon.com).

It’s dated, because part of the premise is that the old-guard white male senior managers at the time had all either served in World War II or in Vietnam, and the military is NOT a meritocracy. Women go into the workforce thinking that doing a good job will be rewarded. They don’t understand that sometimes, allowing others to fail, not doing their work for them, and making it clear that you have boundaries and will not cover their asses, is the way to get ahead. Also, announcing your own accomplishments. Making sure that the upper brass

Also, announcing your own accomplishments. Making sure that the upper brass know that something was your idea, and not being bashful or “demure” or “humble” about it —  these are some of the games mother didn’t teach us, at least in 1989. A lot of the things in this book are relevant now because, face it, things haven’t changed that much. While there are more middle-level women managers there are still few females at the head table.

I worked in HRIS (Human Resources Information Systems) for about 15 years. Large companies are required to file complex reports beyond the basic racial and sexual distribution of their workforce. They also have to show the government overseers reports on the distribution of applicants, and also, internal “movement” – such as promotions/demotions/lateral transfers.

I worked writing the code which produced a lot of these custom reports for large public companies. The results are just plain discouraging and sad. In particular, black males, Hispanic males, and all females are discriminated against in promotions, over and over again.

Keeping this in mind, each man and woman has an opportunity to rise to the level he/she is comfortable with. For example, I was paid more, and was much happier, as an “individual contributor” (and even more as a contractor — which is a great option for women — be your own boss) than as a manager or project manager. Men whose technical skills are not wonderful or who feel it is a ladder to power will always take those management jobs, and good for them! I like being responsible for my own work product and not 30 other peoples’.

Technical skills are the key to high pay without the stress of managing people, who vary greatly in their skill and ability to do their assigned job. Honing your technical skills so that you are in big demand, was my personal route to financial success and job happiness. I think a lot of women shy away from honing their technical skills, thinking there will always be a 25-year-old male who can do it as well as you can, for less. This simply is not true. Our frontal lobes don’t mature completely until age 25. It takes many years, and a variety of assignments, to be able to solve any problem which comes along.

So:

Don’t be afraid of younger, techie-looking males. They don’t have any real advantage over you.
Get yourself assigned to the hardest technical assignments, and then stay late testing and getting it right.
Make sure others know of your accomplishments – it’s not bragging, it’s informing.
Only go for management jobs if you really want to – technical jobs/leads make more money, and it’s less stressful dealing with machines than with people!

This question, “What do women in tech wish they knew early on?” originally appeared on Quora, the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

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