Women in Tech: Don’t Be a Unicorn!

I was one, and here’s what I learned from the experience.

As I write this, the premier conference for nonprofit technologists, the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference, is just about to start and I am wrapping up the finishing touches on two sessions I will co-present this week. One of them is Female Technologists: Leading Technology, Leading Ourselves with Tracy Kronzak and Dahna Goldstein, and it represents a fruitful nine-month collaboration with two incredibly smart, dedicated, fun nonprofit tech professionals I greatly admire.

I’m especially looking forward to this session on women in technology because it represents a topic near and dear to my heart. And, seeing as we just celebrated International Women’s Day, I thought it a perfect moment to write a post on the subject.

A few months ago I had dinner with a good friend who, as an astrophysicist, also cares deeply about the participation of women in STEM fields. She asked me a question that surprised me: “When you were getting started in your career, did you ever think you couldn’t become a technologist because you are a woman?” The thought had never occurred to me. I had not really been exposed to limiting attitudes about women and technology, luckily having grown up right next to Mount Holyoke College, one of the oldest and most enduring institutions of higher education for women in the United States. What I encountered instead was the Unicorn Effect of frequently being the only woman in the room.

This phenomenon can cut both ways. Sometimes it creates a positive dynamic in which women and men learn from and appreciate their respective differences. But it also isolates you and makes you wonder where the other women are. As an English language teacher in Japan, I remember being very excited to visit my high school’s computer club only to be a bit startled to find the room populated exclusively with boys. Not a single girl in sight. Now you could argue that was due to the gendered environment in that country, but that wasn’t much different from my computer science classes at Oberlin College, a very left-wing and progressive American institution, where I was at most one of just two women in the room.

When you are a girl wondering where the others are, it makes an impression on you. The lack of available role models may even impact your decision to pursue that field. And as a woman looking to make a career, that isolation presents a seemingly invisible yet very real hurdle to professional advancement that women and men must address together. When women do not have ready access to the types of mentorship and professional advancement opportunities that men do, they must define and seek out the ones they need in order to address that gap. Fortunately, those opportunities can come in a variety of combinations and flavors and in some respects, there are more of them available than ever before. (For example, when I was starting out as a young female IT director in 2001 we did not yet have the breadth and depth of sessions, resources and coverage on developing women in STEM as we do now—NTEN had not yet offered a session on this either, to my knowledge.)

There’s a debate right now about women in tech. Some women believe it’s important to explore and really understand why there are so few of us and why we leave the profession in such great numbers at the midpoint of our careers (a phenomenon I will also discuss during our session at this week’s conference). Others have had enough of this conversation and want to progress to the action phase where we stop wringing our hands about the current state of affairs and instead focus our energies on making a positive difference. I can appreciate both viewpoints and fully respect them.

My personal view is that a mix of both approaches is necessary at this point. I still believe there is a significant amount of consciousness raising left to do—for women and for men. We are nowhere near where we need to be. The problems we are dealing with still run the gamut from casual, subconscious bias onward to actual physical assault—situations where it is literally not safe for women to be present in the professional arena. When you have women being sexually assaulted at tech conferences and men presenting apps like TitStare at major tech startup industry events, it’s clear we are not in the evolved, post-feminist era that we wish we were. I should note, of course, that the most virulent examples of misogyny I see are primarily in the startup world, where Silicon Valley as a whole continues to fail miserably on issues of both gender and ethnic diversity—so much so that it outright refuses to release data on the participation of women and ethnic minorities in its workforce. (The nonprofit technology arena is quite different. While it is not common to find women in senior technical positions, I’d argue that the environment is far more welcoming to women.)

This is the current situation women face when pursuing careers in STEM. I say STEM rather than just technology because women pursuing careers in science, engineering and mathematics can also encounter incredible hostility and sexual harassment when trying to advance their careers. In one particularly shocking case of both racism and sexism, a scientist was recently called an ‘urban whore’ for turning down an opportunity to contribute to a prestigious blog without pay. Because of that, it’s important for women and men to consistently call out such behavior and challenge this unprofessional culture.

At the same time, women also have the power to make a positive impact for ourselves and others, and that will be the focus of our session at the NTEN conference-. We can and must assume primary agency in our own careers, acknowledging the mentorship gap and then taking specific steps to address it. And many women are. Women in technology are building their own networks to bypass these obstacles, according to this article quoting my co-presenter Dahna Goldstein. But a lot of us, when the time comes to reach out for guidance, still have difficulty making the ask. Here’s a statistic that leapt out at me as I was preparing my notes: 95% of the users of a site specifically devoted to mentorship opportunities for women, when asked if they had requested a mentor at work, said that they had not. On the other hand, 97% of the women surveyed said that they would agree to be a mentor if asked. So, as much as some women might scratch their heads at the fact this is still an issue, it very much is.

Accordingly, we will discuss and present strategies to identify and ask for mentorship opportunities. We will also emphasize the importance of leading by example, acting to draw other women into positions of leadership and authority and support their development along the way. When I was starting out in nonprofit IT, I didn’t have a woman in the field who I could look to as a role model. But every time a young woman joined my nonprofit (most often as a member of the program staff) and her supervisor brought her around to make introductions to the staff, she told me she found it tremendously inspiring to see me, a woman, in a senior IT leadership position. I was honored to hear that, but I always felt a small tinge of sadness. After all, I see no reason why we should be so rare in the field. But as I will mention in my presentation, women who lack available role models in STEM can create their own professional development opportunities and, in turn, be the role model to others that they never had themselves. That is both a privilege and a blessing.

On that note, it has been both an honor and a privilege to work with Dahna and Tracy on this upcoming session. Each of these brilliant, talented women has, by collaborating with me on this presentation, been a mentor from whom I have learned a great deal. I hope that what the three of us have created will benefit and inspire women who either want to enter a STEM field or need the support to stay in it. If I had one message to give them, it would be that you are not alone. There are many other women here to join you and support your growth. The tech sector needs you and we cannot change the culture without you.

So don’t be a Unicorn—join us this Friday at the NTEN conference! If you cannot make it to the conference, you can comment on this post and share your thoughts on women in technology, follow along with us on Twitter at #14NTCFemTech, view the collaborative session notes where we’ll be sharing resources for women in nonprofit tech, or browse my Pinterest board of articles on the subject.

Rose de Fremery is a social media strategist and writer based in Astoria, Queens. She’s passionate about the transformative experience of writing, women in technology, craft beer, and Red Sox baseball. Find her on the web at www.rosedefremery.com, or on Twitter: @rosedefremery.