A Decade as a Woman in the Tech Industry
Falling in Love (with Technology)
I grew up on a small dairy farm in Pennsylvania. When friends were celebrating at 4th of July picnics, I was unloading wagon loads of hay. I knew early that farming was not going to be my career of choice, but it gave me a strong work ethic, for which I’m grateful.
Later I attended Penn State University, earning degrees in education and psychology. At one point, I was working three jobs to pay my way through, one of which was working for the Information Technology department in a campus computer lab. The team was predominantly male, but to me, it didn’t matter; I was just a member of the crew like everyone else.
We were trained on how to support programs ranging from engineering and graphic design software, to productivity programs. I dove into the labs and had the opportunity to observe and assist a huge range of students, faculty and staff. I witnessed the impact these programs made on people’s abilities to be successful and fulfilled in their respective industries, and I found the correlation absolutely fascinating. It was then that I fell in love with technology and the software industry.
Encountering the Gap
My first real job was at Verizon Wireless. Part of my time was spent training employees across the Midwest on how to set up smartphone software — at that time, Blackberrys and Palm Pilots. I noticed there were far more men than women in the training program. Since this was my second experience working in the tech industry with a predominantly male group, I realized there was an underlying cultural problem I hadn’t noticed before. Women weren’t pursuing careers in technology. I started chatting with coworkers and friends about my observation, and uncovered a deeply rooted bizarre stigma. Technology jobs “were for men.” I found idea ridiculous and continued to focus on progressing my career.
I discovered that I enjoyed software training and decided to pursue it as a full time job, transitioning to a small startup (that grew extremely rapidly) as a software trainer. I traveled all over the US and met a huge range of people, gaining insight on how users interacted with our software, the challenges they faced, and how we could improve.
I was often asked if it was “scary being a young woman, traveling all over the country alone.” It was such an odd question. My response was always that it was no scarier than being a young man traveling all over the country alone.
Eventually I was able to take the insight I gained training customers, and apply it to a role in our software design department doing formal UX research, content strategy and eventually interaction design. I had incredible, supportive mentors who pushed me every day to become the best I could be.
Our team was made up of 5 women and 4 men. We worked together, united, kicking out project after project like a well-oiled machine.
What’s your problem?
A few years into my design career, my team attended a conference. Our crew of 5 women was surrounded by a sea of about 150 men. As our group moved through the crowd, we were gawked at like zoo animals. Every single speaker at the conference was male.
While there, I had my first encounter with blatant sexism. When I picked up an information pamphlet, a representative grinned and said, “Are you waiting for your husband to get out of his conference session?” I grinned back and said, “No, I don’t have, nor do I want one of those. Are you here keeping that seat warm for your wife? I’d love to chat with her about this product when she gets back.” His grin faded and I moved on to the next vendor table.
Stepping Forward Professionally
At that point, I realized my happy little predominantly female design team wasn’t even remotely close to being the norm in the tech industry. We were unique, and it was frustrating. Right around this time, I started blogging after some prompting from my team.
One night I was working on a project, when my then 8-year-old daughter snuck up behind me. I’ve been a single mother since my daughter was an infant, and she’s always been very curious and interested in my work. She asked what the difference was between UX and UI. I drew a doodle to help explain it, and she immediately got the concept.
I tweeted it thinking it may help other designer parents explain the difference to their kids.
The doodle went viral, and just like that, my career took off.
A Turning Point
I started noticing a positive, encouraging shift in the design industry about a year later. I attended another design conference, and discovered that there was about a 75/25 split between men and women speakers. The industry landscape was starting to change.
At that point, I started speaking at conferences too. The gender gap wasn’t going to close itself, and I had gained experience that could be valuable to others in the industry. My team, as always, was incredibly supportive.
At another conference a year later, the speaker split (of which I was a part) was closer to 65/35. Each time I speak at a conference, I see the gap narrow. But there’s still work to be done.
Both men and women in the design industry have started to push hard for gender equality and diversity. Out of the thousands of designers I’ve met and interacted with during the last 4 years, I feel fortunate to have only run into 2 negative gender related situations.
I know others in our community have had vastly different career experiences, but as a whole, I believe our industry is promoting equality, and it’s thrilling to witness. There are still instances of sexism and gender discrimination, but the number of opportunities for women in the design industry has drastically expanded, and continues to expand every day.
A Community United
It’s not just single individuals making the effort. More and more organizations like Girls Who Code, Girls Design The World, Black Girls Code, Women of Color in Tech, AIGA Women Lead, Ladies That UX, Women Who Code, and the First Lady’s initiative Women in STEM are breaking down gender barriers in the tech industry every day.
I’m incredibly fortunate to work for a company that focuses on gender equality both from a hiring perspective and a wage perspective. InVision is, in my opinion, a leading advocate for gender equality in the design software industry. Three of our VP’s — Clair Byrd, Jessica Meher and Lea Hickman — are strong, brilliant, talented women. I have the utmost respect for them, and feel fortunate to work alongside them.
They and women like them inspire me every day to keep reaching, remain vigilant, and push the industry to make sure that the future my daughter lives in is one that respects and accepts women of all backgrounds in every segment of the tech industry.
I want my daughter to see that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to and can conquer any career she chooses. And, I want her to know that when she hits a wall, she should feel empowered to knock it down.
At the end of the day, the only person who can truly get in the way of your career progress is you. Keep pushing forward regardless of what you’re up against. You may not see immediate, drastic results, but your efforts are still making a difference. The work you do will directly impact the future of our next generation of women.
Be The Change
We can overcome the obstacles currently in our way if we continue to support one another as a unified community of women worldwide. We’ve made huge strides toward gender equality in the technology industry over the course of the last decade — we have the opportunity to keep that momentum going by creating a better future for our daughters.
Please use your voice to combat gender inequality issues; to speak at conferences, to share your knowledge with your industry, and to express your opinions — because they matter. Every time you stand up and make your voice heard, the gender equality gap gets a little smaller. Let’s continue to work together as a community, until we’ve slammed that gap shut.
This post was written in honor of the the United State of Women Summit taking place June 14, 2016 in Washington DC. Learn more at www.theunitedstateofwomen.org/