What can women who want to get into tech do to break into the field? Here are seven tips from two women who have been there.
Let’s start this article with a little experiment. When you read the following words, pay attention to the very first image that pops into your head: tech worker. Chances are your brain surfaced a pretty stereotypical, Mark Zuckerberg-type image, right? A young man, probably white, maybe he’s wearing a hoodie and sneakers?
That’s the image that media has assigned to the tech worker. And, unfortunately, they’re not too far off: According to research done by Deloitte, the tech industry is about 33% women, a number that drops down to 24% when you look only at technical roles. And according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, only 20% of executives in “high tech” are women.”
While the researchers from Deloitte note a small but significant yearly increase in the percentage of women in tech, with a prediction of 34% for 2022, that 24% in technical roles has remained fairly steady over the past 10 years, not rising higher than 25%.
That’s important for three reasons. One, tech is one of the highest-paid industries in the world — and technical positions tend to make the most of any in the field. Two, tech is increasingly a part of our everyday lives and a deficit of women creating the products we all use means that the needs of women are less likely to be considered. And, three, the industry itself suffers when it only listens to a limited range of perspectives.
So what can women who want to get into tech do to break into the field? Here are seven tips from two women who have been there.
One of the big impediments to having more women in tech is what’s commonly referred to as a “pipeline problem.” Some research suggests that only around 20% of engineering and computer science majors are women. In other words: Girls are dropping out before they even get to the workforce.
But not Lada Hospodkova, a machine learning researcher at Avast, grew up in Czech Republic and was interested in math and physics from a very young age. She chose to go to a technical secondary school and specialize in math, physics, and IT — and that was the first time she got pushback for her interest in tech.
“Already at this early stage of my career journey, people did not understand why I went to technical secondary school and some found me weird for enjoying studying Match and Physics,” Lada says. “Fortunately, I have parents who supported me with my decision and I could continue to study computer science at the university.”
Even at technical school, where she was one of only a few girls, one of her teachers made comments about how girls should not be studying math and science but instead should be learning cooking. Rather than letting those comments get to her, however, Lada decided to ignore the teacher and keep doing her best at school. She ended up winning multiple contests and going on to continue studying STEM in university.
While studying STEM is a great way to get into tech, it’s definitely not the only way. Fiona Cliffe, Director of Product Management at Avast, says that she actually “fell into tech.”
“Being in tech never crossed my mind,” Fiona says. “Everyone in uni doing a career in computer science were men.”
Because her path to a career in tech wasn’t as straight as, say, Lada’s, Fiona knows that it’s absolutely possible to change your career, no matter where along the process you are.
“People forget that you can change your career,” Fiona says. “You can decide what you want to do later. It’s not the be all and end all if you end university and don’t fall into this amazing career. There are different ways to get into tech, rather than just the ‘normal’ route.”
It's not the be-all and end-all if you don’t get the job right away.
Mentors are extremely helpful to anyone looking to advance their career, but they’re especially helpful to women in tech. Fiona says that not only have other women in tech been essential in her own career advancement, but she also mentors other women who are coming up in their own careers.
“I’m a big advocate of having more than one mentor because everyone is different,” Fiona says. “Everyone approaches things in different ways. It’s quite important to have a cross section of advice.”
Growth is never comfortable — and that holds true for everything from growing pains as a child to advancing in your career. For Lada, one important element of her career advancement involved getting out of her comfort zone. In this case, quite literally, when she studied abroad in Norway and the Netherlands.
“I had my boyfriend in the Czech Republic and I had to learn how to depend only on myself,” Lada says. “I met a lot of different people from all over the world who helped me to learn about different cultures. I find out that I have comparable knowledge with a student from different countries. I could see blonde girls repairing the pavement and men caring about the kids. It is quite an unusual view in the Czech Republic but quite common in Norway.”
Those experiences helped Lada not only see that different lifestyles were possible, but also exposed her to the practices and ideas of different cultures.
“We can learn from different people who have different experiences and different ways of thinking,” Lada says. “We can take what we want and maybe we can find something new and positive that we’re not use to in our culture."
Women are socialized to make ourselves smaller; to apologize for things that don’t need any apology. And while it’s not our fault that we’re taught to behave this way, we can become aware of it and make changes.
For Fiona, expressing that confidence in the workplace has a lot to do with the little things. She encourages other women — and herself — to become aware of all of the ways that we are communicating a lack of confidence. For example, phrases like “I hope this makes sense” and “This might be a stupid question” put down your knowledge before you even start.
Fiona sees this lack of confidence even in her own mentees.
“One of the girls I mentor is brilliant,” she says. “I think she’s so good at what she does. But she has this fear about getting up and speaking in front of everyone. She’s really struggled with it, so we’ve practiced that and tried to figure out what exactly it is that frightens her.”
The word “assertive” sometimes makes Fiona cringe, but only because it’s been used against her in the past. She’s been told she’s “too assertive” — and therefore rude — in workplaces in the past.
“That’s absolute nonsense,” Fiona says. “Being assertive, having opinions, is something men have been doing for decades and we need to make people realize it’s not a negative thing.”
Her own fear of speaking up has led Fiona to leave companies thinking she was “not very good,” when really she just hadn’t yet built the confidence to make sure she was heard. Although, to be fair, sometimes she was in environments that weren’t interested in giving her that opportunity.
“There’s been plenty of times in my career where I’ve been in a meeting room full of men and I always kind of liken it to people who have swallowed a management manual and just want to look really intelligent in front of other people,” Fiona says. “So they’re spouting all these big words and all this business speak and I’ve sat back and realized I’m lost. It’s just about people shouting the loudest.”
The solution to both of those problems? “Practice speaking up. Not for the sake of just saying anything, but to not be afraid,” Fiona says.”
Both Lada and Fiona’s experiences underline the fact that growth isn’t easy. But they knew that they could do it — and that others can, too.
“It’s not always easy and I think you always have to expect to have some difficulties,” Lada says. “You just have to stick with those people who are supportive and ignore the ones who are not.”
And remember: Change happens slowly, but it doesn’t happen magically. It happens as the result of human action.
“The world around is so slow at changing; isn’t going to change so much,” Fiona says. “We have to be the change we want to see.”
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