Lessons I Learned Being a Woman in Technology
It’s hard being a minority. But it’s even harder if we don’t participate at all
Being a minority anywhere is hard. There’s a persistent pushback of the tide. You are constantly pushing to even out the odds. For the same amount of effort, at a certain point, you come to expect a certain level of inequality. After years, you say to yourself, this is how it is. Looking back at my time as a female technologist on Wall Street, I always coped with my circumstances. Often, I traded my boundaries to cope with the circumstances simply because I had to.
As a minority woman in technology, the odds were always against me. But I’m an eternally optimistic person. I learned very early on that there’s always a way out of situations. There’s even a possibility in the impossible. As a minority who was grateful for the opportunities, I worked hard.
I look back on my experiences (both good and bad) with hope. Even now, for me, at the end of forgiveness, I’m still pushing against the tide. This time, it’s already easier than the last time. This time, I know what to do.
You Are Not the Only One
There are other women in technology. You might be the only woman in your startup. You might be the only woman on your immediate team. You might be the only woman with your level of expertise in your field. But other women are struggling with the same issues elsewhere. You are not alone. Reach out on social media. Reach out by joining organizations that will connect you with women in the same industry.
Reach out so that you don’t feel alone.
In 2018, 20% of all jobs in technology were held by women. Here are the top five organizations that help women in technology. They celebrate and empower women in technology. These organizations help women by providing mentorship, networking opportunities, and other resources.
You Can Be a Star Coder. You Can Be Analytical. You Can Do Math
I wasn’t even a computer science major in college. I was the only new graduate in my class who didn’t have a master’s degree in computer science. I didn’t come from an Ivy League school. Yet I learned to code in multiple languages. In time, I learned to do optimizations. After a few years, I learned all about math, probability, and statistics. Over time, I even learned to implement an algorithm, such as the SVM, from scratch for fun.
Along the way, I never felt like I was worthy. I never felt like I was ever “good enough.” I always felt the “fakeness” of my Imposter Syndrome. When I wallowed in other people’s stereotypes of me, I looked up to the many female role models in science, mathematics, and engineering for motivation. With each skill I picked up, I learned to be more confident of my analytical mind. In time, I learned that gender doesn’t define your “soft” skills or your “hard” skills.
You Can Play the Victim. But It’s Better If You Are Empowered
The failure of the #metoo movement just tells you how normal harassment is in the workplace. Even in technology, it’s an accepted part of the industry. In every industry where there’s fierce competition, there are bound to be doubters, haters, and angry people around. You get used to dealing with difficult people. You learn quickly that being “passive” is not the way to go. You need to be empowered enough to draw firm boundaries.
You need to listen to your instincts and trust yourself. Setting firm boundaries often means making difficult choices. Sometimes, difficult people make your life so difficult that you want to quit not just your job but also your career. Just know that in any situation, there’s always a way out that doesn’t involve ending your career. Even if you need to take a time out, as I did for a few years, you can make your way back again.
You Are Not More Emotional
I’m not more emotional because I’m a female. I’ve kept my cool under “emergency” and “extreme” circumstances when most of my male colleagues had to leave the scene. By the way, you can be empathetic and not be emotional. You can care for people and still maintain your objectivity. You can certainly be calm when your insides are screaming.
The one thing that always kept me going was the fact that I had mechanisms of emotional release. I cried at home when I needed to. I laughed frequently at work. I dealt with my demons with a therapist on my own time. I had a regular yoga and meditation practice. Emotional release outside of work helps you to maintain your calm in situations where you need to maintain your objectivity.
You Don’t Have to Go for After-Work Drinks
When your coworkers tell you that since you are the only female on the team, you have to go out with all the other male colleagues after work, you can say no. You are so much more than just being the “wingwoman” in your coworkers’ after-work entertainment. Once in a while, it’s good to go out with your coworkers for team building or networking. But, after work, for rest and relief, go out with your girlfriends instead.
You Can Deal With Harassment
I hate to say this, but harassment is commonplace. Our culture has not progressed enough to eliminate harassment in the workplace. By the way, men deal with harassment too. Always, I stress, keep your eyes open. Get a second opinion in a work situation that you are not comfortable with. Often, your friends who’ve been through it are the ones who can help you see a difficult situation more clearly. Listen to your instincts. Save yourself from wallowing in your trauma. You can always get another job. But sanity, that’s difficult to get back once you lose it.
You Don’t Have to Play the Support Role
All women, at some time in their career, feel the need to play the support role. That is okay. Just know that you don’t have to. You can shine by being the star. You earn it every day by working hard. You might not be able to shine without a lot of haters knocking on your door. But you can shine very brightly nevertheless. Sometimes, the quickest way to success is to dash through the “troll” swamp that’s littered with hate and envy. When offered a support role that you don’t want to take, decline politely. It is still a well-intentioned opportunity someone just offered you.
You Can Have a Male Mentor
There’s nothing that says women must have female mentors in the workplace. There are plenty of women who’ve found success in having male mentors. The personality match in mentorship is more important than gender. Having a male mentor does not mean that he won’t understand work-life balance. In fact, from my experience, I encountered far more men who can leave work at work and not take it home. They are often the fathers who fully participate in raising their children. A good mentorship means keeping the communication channel open. Mutual respect, genuine kindness, and relatability are the keys to good mentorship.
You Can Have a Family
I used to believe that working in technology means working long hours. I spent many years believing that I could not have children if I worked 12- to 15-hour days. I was right in that children need time with their mothers. They need more than just two hours a day.
Particularly in the early years, many women give up their technology careers to raise a family. Even if you decide that this scenario is the best for you, it doesn’t mean the end of your career as a technologist. Taking the time out and learning new skills may give you fresh perspectives on working in technology when you decide to go back again.
When you decide to get back to your job full time, you will be in a much better position to decide what is the right work-life balance for you. Taking time out isn’t the only way to have a family.
A good support system of people to be the backup care for your children in case your main childcare (nanny, daycare) falls through is another way to strike a work-life balance in technology. You can negotiate alternative work schedules with your managers that include working from home. You can also practice and plan these types of alternatives before you plan on having a family.
You Can Negotiate
This is probably the hardest point to internalize for a lot of women who grew up in a paternalistic culture. I constantly feel the need to learn to negotiate better. Negotiating for a better salary, work-life balance, job opportunities, and project schedules is important. Negotiating personal boundaries, emotional boundaries, sensory boundaries, and communication boundaries is also very important. Trust is at the center of negotiating boundaries. You also negotiate your boundaries to maintain that sense of trust. It’s easier to negotiate with someone open to negotiation. Otherwise, it’s not because you are a woman that your counterpart doesn’t want to negotiate with you. It’s because they know they will get their way without negotiating. That is when you must change the situation or the game.
You Don’t Have to Be a Work Martyr
For a long time, like a lot of women, I leaned into inequality by working harder. It’s as if I was expected to work twice as hard just to receive the same pay. Work martyrs are not respected in the workplace. It’s the same as a micromanager; a work martyr reflects a person with low self-esteem. When you have low self-esteem, it’s often because of issues that have nothing to do with your workplace. Although toxic workplaces and gender inequality can amplify your low self-esteem, they are not the cause.
If you feel the need to be a work martyr to stay in your current job, it just means that it’s a sign for you to interview for another job elsewhere. No healthy workplace will ever demand you to work twice as much for the same amount of pay.
You Can Have Hobbies
Hobbies are the savior of a technologist’s sanity in any technical profession. For a woman in technology, your hobby does not have to be gaming, puzzling, and watching Indie movies. I find sewing, scrapbooking, drawing, photography, hiking, and running to be amazing hobbies for myself. There’s no such thing as “male” and “female” hobbies. Like the stock market, diversifying your portfolio of hobbies is the key to having fun in life away from work. You will unleash more creativity from a variety of hobbies to bring back to work.
You Can Be a Woman
I used to wear pants to work all the time. I wore loafers for comfort. At work, I was mostly in this “androgynous” uniform to avoid looking remotely suggestive or sexy. I wore heels to work the first two years of my career, then I replaced all the heels with sensible loafers for the next ten years.
The thing is, wearing a skirt to work doesn’t qualify you to be harassed. Wearing a skirt to work does not mean that men won’t respect you. Wearing a skirt to work does not mean that you can’t perform your job function. So be a woman. Use your wardrobe to empower and inspire yourself.
You can be both a woman and project authority at the same time. The trick is to carry yourself with confidence. If you speak clearly and articulately about subjects that you know, people will respect you for that.
You Can Deal With Network and Infrastructure
I used to work in a team where even the men avoided dealing with people from network and infrastructure. If it wasn’t for the projects where we needed to performance tune the infrastructure or maintain applications where network latency was an issue, as developers, we simply avoided venturing into that side of things.
Dealing with network and infrastructure takes unique expertise. I remember on this one project, we worked with a female DBA. She was not only a DBA but was also a low-level manager on that team. She had over ten years of experience working in a male-dominated team. She knew how to maintain the infrastructure. She knew how to run an infrastructure project. She knew all the various issues we could encounter with the infrastructure. She was an expert. She also worked remotely out of her home with a screaming toddler at her feet. It turns out that she was by far one of the best DBAs we had helping us with our project.
You Can Speak Up and Be Heard
Early in my career, while working in a male-dominated culture, I was not only passive, I blamed my passivity on my shyness. It was a lie. I am an extroverted person who has a take-no-prisoners working style. I’m a go-getter. Lying to myself simply made me bottle up angst.
One day, one of my managers suggested that I pitch to one of the clients a prototype that I was working on. For the first time, I did a presentation in front of a client. I spoke up. Even though there were only three people in that conference room, it was a successful pitch nevertheless. This was the turning point of speaking for myself in meetings.
Eventually, I learned to run conference calls with our global teams, debate issues with male developers, and even speak my mind to managers who simply did not want to listen. I found that if I was persistent and had evidence supporting my arguments, colleagues usually appreciated that I spoke up even when they disagreed.
So, speak up! Make sure to back up your arguments with logic and evidence. You will be heard.
You Can Brand Yourself by Your Hard Skillsets
I’ve met plenty of female technologists who talked down their hard skillsets. They don’t gloat as male colleagues do. They often quietly pursued projects of interest outside of work to perfect their expertise. Then they waited to be acknowledged at work.
One time, I met a developer who was the C++ expert on her development team. Yet she didn’t brand herself that way. Even when developers asked her questions, she routinely deferred those developers to someone else. Finally, one day, there was this bug inside the system that only she was able to discover and fix. That incident finally branded her as the C++ expert on her team. She went on to become a technical team leader who mentored other developers. Eventually, she was in line to become the technical manager of her team.
Nowadays, some female developers run tutorials, teach computer science, and groom the next generation of developers. At the very least, for whatever technical expertise you have, highlight those on your resume. You don’t have to know everything there is to know about a subject matter. But when you know enough to garner other people’s attention, you should highlight that expertise.
Good luck with your career in technology. I have every confidence that you will be successful. I hope to run into you someday in conferences, in companies, and most of all, in organizations that champion women in technology.