And if you think women of color in tech don’t face additional discrimination, you may not be aware of the facts.
According to a recent study from Lean In and McKinsey, only 23% of women—and, not much better, only 37% of men—feel that their managers “address gender-biased language and behavior when it happens.”
That means that very few workers see people in leadership actively working to improve women’s workplace experiences by shutting down inappropriate behavior in a timely manner.
On the flip side of that coin, that means that 23% of women have managers that demonstrate their concern for women’s experiences and ensure that their coworkers know it’s never okay to make them feel uncomfortable.
To get a better look at the two sides of this situation, I reached out to women in tech for their stories. I heard from many women who have supportive bosses and feel like they are equals at work. I also heard from women who have stories about unpleasant interactions with both men and women at work.
Below, we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly stories from women in tech jobs. And we’ll also hear their thoughts on what they’ve learned from these experiences and what they think still needs to be done in the tech world to make it a more supportive place for women.
Despite some of the horror stories coming out of Silicon Valley on what seems like a daily basis, many women have had positive experiences in their tech careers. And even women who shared negative experiences often had positive experiences to share, as well.
Laura Forczyk, owner of space consulting firm Astralytical, points out that we can help improve women’s experiences in the tech industry before they even become professionals, saying, “I was especially positively encouraged as a student.”
And Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications and document remediation specialist at Accessibility Partners, says she was pointed towards her career in tech when “lamenting [her] job-finding crisis” to Dana Marlowe, the founder of Accessibility Partners.
Although Rosenblatt majored in English, Marlowe saw promise in her and “helped [her] break into the field of accessibility [in tech].”
While the conferences I attend still seem mostly male, I’d say accessibility has bucked the trend of being fully male-dominated, and it’s a great field for developers or coders who have a different type of client experience. Working in the field of accessibility has only made me want to stay in technology, and I’m glad my job became my passion.
Because of direct support from another woman in tech, Rosenblatt says:
I went from not really knowing how someone who is blind uses the Internet to speaking at conferences on ways people can code to make websites more accessible, and other development suggestions on a more technical level. Dana has made me realize you can still keep a people focus in technology when you can focus on the end user’s experience, and not just be a cog in web design.
In fact, many women who had positive experiences to share about their time in tech cited support from their direct supervisors, who were both men and women.
Image source: GIPHY
Tara Griesbach, director of global talent acquisition for application platform Mendix, says:
Both my current boss, Veronica, and my former boss, Jeremy [at athenahealth], encouraged me to develop my own relationships with my hiring partners and other leaders within the organization. They have both made me feel like an equal part of the team by giving me autonomy and accountability for my own projects and results, supporting me when things haven’t always gone as planned and trusting in my work ethic and the belief that even after rough patches, the tides will turn and success will come again.
Being supportive of employees and listening to their concerns is probably the best thing a boss can do. Julie Howell, SEO director at Postali, cites the support and trust she’s received from her bosses as one of the best things about the company:
At Postali, every single role is valued regardless of who fills it and change is embraced by the business as a way to stay ahead of the competition. Sexism simply has no place.
Finally, Mary Beth Westmoreland, CTO for Blackbaud, who has been in tech since the 1980s, points out that sometimes you can feel supported by the actual work you’re doing. She says, “I pursued a career in tech because I love it—and I’m passionate about the ways that software can change the world for the better.”
I’m inspired every day by how technology enables an ecosystem of good for our customers—all of whom work on addressing challenges in the social good space, from education, to healthcare, to advocacy and more. These are the kinds of transformations I’ve always wanted to be a part of, and why I got into the field in the first place.
I think that seeing women who can do good and transform the world through the work they do is a pretty positive experience.
But as we know from aforementioned news stories and reports, the tech world isn’t always sunshine and rainbows for women.
Howell, of Postali, cites one example that she’ll “never forget” where she researched and organized a project that had the potential to double the revenue of her ex-employer’s website. When she presented the work to her department lead, who was also a woman, the department lead told her that, despite Howell’s confident presentation capabilities, the company “should probably hire an agency and use an older male to deliver the recommendations. Someone who can ‘hold their own’ and ‘speak their language.'”
Howell walked away thinking, “But shouldn’t she be encouraging me to ‘hold my own’ rather than do all the work in the background and leave the tough part to a man?”
Image source: GIPHY
While Howell admits that her former department lead’s intentions weren’t bad, she thinks the suggestion to hire a man was fueled by “sexism, ageism, and the influence of a culture where proposing change was inherently difficult under almost any circumstance.”
Ludmilla Sivanathan, release manager for Clearbridge Mobile, points out that many issues that arise due to sexism are likely related to “an issue of numbers—there are simply not enough women working in technology.”
Howell’s former coworkers were mostly men, so she and her boss had few other women to look up to internally. And as Sivanathan points out:
Young women who excel in sciences and are curious about working in tech see an industry largely dominated by men. It’s difficult for young women to imagine themselves fitting into tech roles.
And Helen Lee, co-founder and COO of insurance matching site JOANY, points out that sometimes the inability of women to imagine themselves in certain roles can create internal, rather than external struggles. She says that when she and JOANY co-founder Christine Carrillo were raising capital, they didn’t encounter or perceive sexism from the venture capitalists (VCs) and angel investors they talked to.
Instead, Lee says that:
Anytime us being women comes up it is always between us personally. Sometimes we second guess ourselves and then we look at our male counterparts who just say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ and they don’t have that tendency to second guess. In that way it almost feels like sometimes we put the female stigma on ourselves. When that happens we just need to get out of our heads and trust our instincts.
So while we should all do our best to fight against external societal hindrances to women making it in tech, it’s important to remember that there are internal battles we all have to fight as well.
While the stories in the previous section point out some of the ways in which the tech industry fails women, the stories below are about women who received nasty comments and downright cruel remarks specifically because of their gender.
For example, Jen O’Neal, founder and CEO of Tripping.com, talked about one of her first pitch meetings with two male venture capitalists. She had prepped all night and was excited to talk to them about her business idea. While she described one VC as “polite and attentive, asking good questions and taking notes,” the other was “leaning back in his chair, scanning the room and barely listening.”
When a waitress dropped off drinks at their table, the inattentive VC said, “Check out her a**,” as the waitress walked away.
O’Neal’s response: “I did what many women in male-dominated industries do many times over, every single day. I ignored it and moved on.”
But her internal reaction was one of confusion. O’Neal asked herself:
What am I supposed to do? Tap him on the arm and ask him to pay attention? Agree that our waitress is nicely proportioned, just to find common ground with him? Roll my eyes and laugh it off, as if to say, bros will be bros? Calling him a jerk didn’t seem like a good idea, either. I had a real responsibility to my employees and feared that we’d never get funding if VCs saw me as a troublemaker.
O’Neal also cites an instance where a VC “said he wanted to fund [her] Series A and then texted me his hotel room number” and another pitch where a VC “only addressed [her] male co-founder.”
This behavior is unacceptable and yet it’s tolerated… because VCs hold all the cards. Without capital, most ideas die on the vine. So when you’re a new entrepreneur, you desperately need someone to believe in you, to fund you, to help you bring your idea to life.
O’Neal goes on to say:
I’ve watched too many female founders put up with a little harassment here and a few unwanted advances there, so that they can afford to pay their employees and push their vision one step further. It’s not a fair trade-off but, with VCs in control of the purse strings, sometimes it seems like the only option.
However, O’Neal says that the real problem is that VCs’ “attitudes and actions cascade through their portfolio companies and into their portfolio companies’ cultures,” creating an environment of trickle-down disrespect where sexism and inappropriate behavior is tolerated.
Image source: GIPHY
While O’Neal managed to become a successful CEO despite these negative experiences, sexist behavior can discourage women from pursuing their goals or rising in their companies.
Laura Forczyk, of Astralytical, says of one particular inappropriate advance:
[It] led me to stop pursuing what I considered at the time to be a perfect job for me. The CEO was, on one hand, speaking as if he was about to give me an offer, and, on the other hand, asking me why I hadn’t yet found ‘Mr. Right’ and inviting me to dinner.
Although Forczyk still works in the field she loves, she admits to feeling “isolated” after the incident:
The CEO was powerful and influential, and I really did want to work for his company. I felt that I couldn’t speak out at the time because I was young, and I didn’t want to hurt my reputation. Looking back, I have no doubt that if I had spoken out about his inappropriate comments, I would have had a very hard time getting my first full-time job and making a name for myself in the industry. I only felt comfortable speaking out a few years later when I grew in my career and learned that he made inappropriate comments toward other young women as well.
It’s important to remember that Forczyk isn’t the only one who’s felt isolated by this type of uncomfortable situation. Many women don’t feel safe reporting these instances and, as Forczyk stated, only know that it’s okay to speak out after others have already done so. This often means that harassers have the opportunity to victimize multiple people before they see any consequences—if they ever do.
For our final account, Lexi Montgomery, owner of Darling Web Design, has a different story to tell about inappropriate behavior in a professional setting. Although it’s an ugly one, it’s also the most inspirational.
When talking about her experience in tech, Montgomery bluntly stated, “At [a networking] event, I was told I should become an escort because they make good money.”
While some people might have flown into a rage or shrunken in embarrassment after than, Montgomery says:
That was the worst insult I’ve ever received, and I let that be the catalyst for my company’s branding and unique customer experience.
Montgomery’s web design site is “branded like a high-end escort service” and touts a 30% average conversion rate for its customers. Using an inappropriate comment to her advantage, Montgomery found a way to be successful in the field she wanted to work in and prove her lewd commentator wrong.
Wisdom from women in tech jobs
Looking at the experiences of women in tech jobs collectively, we can all learn a thing or two about what works in tech and what needs to change.
1. Make sure you’re well-rounded
A practical piece of advice for anyone entering any industry is to make time for your hobbies and develop yourself as a person, as your “extracurricular experiences” can help you stand above others in your field and offer you more opportunities.
Danni Lin, founder and CEO of GREAT WINE, worked as a data scientist at Microsoft before starting her own business that combined her interests in wine and tech. She says, “I think the most important thing is what else you can offer to an industry besides technical skills.”
With a strong financial background, analytical expertise, knowledge of advanced technology, and professional knowledge of wine, I am taking my business to the next level of growth and expansion worldwide.
Take it from this former English teacher, software saleswoman, and market researcher who’s pretty sure her screenwriting and sketch comedy skills got her a job writing for an IT management blog: Sometimes you have to show up with all your experience and say, “I dare you not to hire me.”
2. Look for companies that appreciate your work
Even if you’re the most qualified person in the world, Julie Howell, of Postali, suggests that, as in any industry, finding a place where you can do your best work often necessitates finding a place that fosters an open and respectful culture:
Forward-thinking companies that invest their time in creating innovative and open cultures will value you by the quality of your work, rather than your gender, age, or years of experience in the field. For women in tech who are discouraged or feel they don’t have equal opportunity to advance their career, I really encourage them to understand that leaving the field may not be the answer. If you love what you do, find somewhere that will allow you to do what you love.
Howell admits that “culture can be very difficult to gauge when you’re interviewing for a position at a tech company (or any company, for that matter).”
Howell suggests that:
Learning more about the turnover rate and the history of the role you’re interviewing for can be helpful in giving you an idea of what the culture is like.
Use tools such as LinkedIn to see “if people seem to fill roles for a year and move to a different company” or whether “the role is open due to the person being promoted internally.”
She also says that it never hurts to reach out to former employees to see why they might have left a particular company or role, as they’ll be able to tell you firsthand whether the company promotes a positive or a toxic culture.
3. Don’t let the people at the top get away with bad behavior or silence
As Jen O’Neal, of Tripping.com, mentioned, it’s often (mostly male) VCs who invest in (mostly male) tech companies that can, even inadvertently, encourage a culture of sexism and disrespect. As such, she says, ” VCs should be the first and most prominent ones to push for change and demand discipline, behavioral as well as financial.”
She goes on to say that, “until these big money players step up, this cycle of dysfunction will continue.”
She points to people such as Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, and entrepreneur Mitch Kapor, who have spoken out against and condemned sexual harassment in Silicon Valley as good role models for top-down reform, as well as women who have “stepped forward to change the status quo.”
4. Listen to other women
As a company that collects data on women’s workplace experiences, Fairygodboss is uniquely positioned to listen to feedback directly from women. As director of business development and partnerships Mary Pharris points out:
We receive so much feedback from women in tech and other industries, and have been able to identify things in the workplace that are important to women like work/life balance and seeing women in leadership. We are a small team, but our co-founders definitely take our findings from other women into account when creating our own workplace policies.
5. Support (and allow yourself to be supported by) other women in tech
Mary Beth Westmoreland, of Blackbaud, points out that:
Every day I am surrounded by incredible women leaders who are thriving in tech—and this community makes it clear that there’s no ‘one’ way to succeed as a woman in technology. So, no matter who you are, or what drives your passion, go for it. Know there’s a place for you.
Look to the women who have come before you in tech and learn from what they’ve done. And if no one is doing what you want to do, follow one of Westmoreland’s rules to live by: “Be brave. Find your voice and take risks.”
For women who might already feel established or safe in their tech careers, Westmoreland offers this piece of advice:
When I first began my career, I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘woman engineer,’ and while I established myself and gained the respect of my peers, in retrospect, by not participating in women-focused events, I wasn’t acting as a role model or mentor to other women. So to all you women in tech, get out there and mentor! There’s a woman who can benefit from your voice and experience waiting to hear from you.
Ludmilla Sivanathan, Clearbridge Mobile, supports the idea of mentorship, citing the need for a “sisterhood of support” and pointing out that “the more we support each other, the easier it will be for young girls to imagine themselves occupying leadership roles in the field.”
6. Remind yourself that you deserve everything you have worked for
Laura Forczyk, of Astralytical, says her “passion for the field” helped her stick with her STEM career, despite its challenges, in addition to “so many other supportive people who encouraged [her] along the way.”
Although she says that giving advice to other young women is difficult “because each person’s circumstances are different,” she had this thought to offer:
I think if I could go back in time to talk to myself during those challenging times, it would be to say, ‘You are worthy to be here.’ During those times when I’d wonder if I was only getting attention in my field because I was a young woman, or when my opinions were ignored because I was a woman, or when I was overlooked or dismissed, I felt unworthy to be where I was in my career. But I was worthy. I earned it.
What’s your story?
I feel so privileged to have heard from so many successful women in tech who told me their stories, good and bad, and helped me compile advice for other women. I’d love to hear from more of you in the comments below, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @CapterraKelsie.
In the meantime, go fight the man or debug some software or create your own app!
Image source: GIPHY