What it Feels Like to Work in a Supportive Environment for Female Engineers

Sep 29, 2017 · 8 min read

By Christina Thompson, Engineer at Artsy

With the often overwhelming and downright discouraging reality that the tech industry isn’t a diverse and inclusive environment, I felt compelled to share what a productive, empathetic, and nurturing environment for female and female-identifying engineers looks like.

In October 2014, I graduated from the first cohort of Ada Developers Academy, an intensive software development training program for women and gender diverse people in Seattle. Before Ada, I worked in marketing, primarily for sports organizations. I got my first taste of coding while building a personal branding website, and that’s where the love story began. However, while making the transition into development and securing my first engineering gig, I experienced what many female engineers experience: feeling inferior, lacking a sense of belonging, and encountering discrimination that this industry has become well-known for, especially lately.

My first engineering job was at a midsize tech education company that had been one of the first to support Ada as a sponsor and host to one of its students as an engineering intern — me. Though the company was supportive and wanted to contribute to closing the gender gap in the tech industry, the environment wasn’t exactly conducive to making me feel welcomed, valued, or included. I recall one of my leads addressing the group as “gentlemen.” I remember the frustration of being talked over and many instances where my ideas were dismissed, but later acknowledged as worthy when expressed by my male coworkers. The list went on. This isn’t a new problem or specific to this particular company, but one that is reflective of the industry as a whole. As a black female engineer working in an industry that has consistently made me feel undervalued, I’m compelled to proclaim that while many companies are talking about diversity and inclusion, at Artsy, I am living it.

Measuring Up

I’ve spent some time recently thinking about why Artsy has been successful in making me feel included and valued. We don’t have a quota to maintain a certain percentage of “diverse” hires. There is no internal women’s engineering support group, and we aren’t sponsoring diversity scholarships at tech conferences or universities in the name of inclusion. However, working at Artsy is the first time in my career I don’t feel like I am a female engineer. I am simply an engineer. Beyond not feeling like an “other,” the behavior and actions of my peers reaffirm that I’m valued and my voice matters.

Company Values

Artsy has five guiding values: Art x Science, People are Paramount, Quality Worthy of Art, Positive Energy, and Openness. If you notice, the words “diversity” and “inclusion” aren’t mentioned in our values. When People are Paramount, their experiences within your company and community matter. By committing to Positive Energy, you not only hire people that contribute positivity, but you are constantly revisiting the company’s climate to see where improvements can be made. This might not seem related to creating diverse, inclusive, and productive engineering teams, but values like these mean the difference between mansplaining and disempowering experiences versus constructive and empowering feedback. Openness contributes to an environment where white males aren’t the only ones experiencing success. It’s a culture where you don’t have to hide your imposter syndrome, but can be transparent about it and receive support in working through these feelings. My first theory as to why Artsy is such a positive environment for women engineers is that Artsy isn’t spinning its wheels treating the symptoms of diversity issues, but has built a culture on top of values where diverse people (or all kinds of people) feel included and are valued. Pulled straight from our internal playbooks, “The question for someone considering joining Artsy’s team is whether they are excited to commit themselves professionally to Artsy’s values and vision.”

Christina (third from left) with other Artsy engineers at the JSConf EU in Berlin.

Our Hiring

We also tend to source candidates from non-traditional backgrounds of Computer Science or Ivy leagues, preferring those from creative fields, especially career changers with an interest in fine art. This is, by design, a diverse pool, called T-Shaped people, with a broad set of interests and narrow specialties. As an engineer at Artsy, my background in marketing isn’t completely abandoned. It enables me to collaborate with stakeholders and inspire a passion and connection to the end-user.

A Culture of Empathy

In addition, in the two years that I’ve worked at Artsy, I have had three different engineering leads. Each one of the leads that I’ve worked under, whether an experienced manager or not, has possessed high emotional IQ. The point is, this has cultivated psychological safety for me and contributed to a significant amount of growth personally and professionally. It has allowed me to express my ideas and concerns, be transparent about my challenges, and feel supported in working through them. As a result, I’ve spent less energy recovering from microaggressions and been able to focus on growing as an engineer and teammate.

Early on at Artsy, I had a hard time asking questions in our group Slack channels and generally defaulted to private messaging my questions to my lead. My current lead would answer them but encouraged me to repost to the group. He explained why it was more helpful for me and others to ask my questions in the open and reassured me that questions were okay no matter how trivial, naive, or silly I thought they were.

The opportunity for growth and ability to make meaningful contributions is foundational to feeling valued. I can recall being assigned projects or features that I initially thought were outside of my comfort zone and skill level, thinking in the back of my mind, “Are you sure you want me to work on that?” In hindsight, each time I’ve been able to rise to the challenge and learned so much along the way. Today I even feel safe contributing small improvements to such popular open-source projects as Ruby Rake, which ships with every new Mac. The space, trust, and support have built confidence, helped me grow, and enabled me to make even bigger contributions.

Artsy engineering on the publishing team, Eve Essex, performing a live DJ set at Artsy Salon, Artsy’s annual art exhibition for team members.

Art x Science

The Competitive Advantage

Members of the Artsy engineering team decked out in costume at the 2017 company offsite.


Read more about Artsy engineering at Artsy’s engineering blog here.


If you enjoyed this read, you might be a good fit for our team. Check out open jobs at Artsy here.

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