I recently had the honor of attending the Women of Silicon Valley (#WinTechSeries) conference in San Francisco (which by the way, if you are a woman in tech, you should attend no matter where you live).
If you’ve never heard of this conference, it’s a two-day global tour that brings brilliant, innovative, creative, and powerful women together to learn and to teach each other about culture, work-life balance, and navigating a field dominated by men to bring us all together to work cohesively, regardless of gender.
As I was sitting through the first day of really powerful talks from some of the most amazing women in the industry (like Arianna Huffington), it suddenly dawned on me that I had, for so many years, never understood or appreciated my place in the sisterhood of women technologists.
I was emotionally overwhelmed as I stared at this sea of women; mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, all coming together because they love technology and wanting to share their stories and network with others like them.
I then found myself doing some serious mental analysis: Why, after studying computer science for six years and working in technology for 12, did I never realize that so many women struggle to exist as a minority in this field? Why aren’t there more women in technology? Why does there have to be a special conference just for women and why don’t more women attend other tech conferences?
I finally came up with an answer: I was lucky, but there are so many others who are not.
My parents are both in science. My mother is a scientist. She got her Ph.D in cell biology and taught medical and nursing students anatomy. My father is a pharmacist. I would often go to work with him and watch what he did (because watching my mother dissect cadavers was not really something I was interested in). I was exposed to science from a young age, enjoyed it, and had parents who supported me and could teach me more about science.
When I figured out I wanted to study computer science — sure, I was one of 3 females in my undergrad classes — I was never discouraged from pursuing a career in tech from my male peers or my male professors. I had even received the Clare Boothe Luce scholarship midway through college, which was given to encourage women to pursue math and sciences. I also received the Computer Science Award at graduation. Even then, it still hadn’t dawned on me that being a woman doing math and science was a pretty big deal.
I was fortunate enough to get a job in technology and never felt that I was discouraged from being successful or treated any differently than my male colleagues.
As I moved on to other jobs, the story was basically the same: I had peers and colleagues who respected me, had patience with me, taught me, encouraged me. I never felt like I was struggling as a woman to make it in a man’s world because I was typically surrounded by men who embraced me and my abilities (metaphorically speaking). I also had brilliant and strong female managers and mentors who led teams of men, and so there was nothing that said to me that I was any different from my male counterparts.
As I left this mental analysis and came back to reality sitting in my chair at this conference, my first thought was: You are a disgrace to your gender. My entire career I was walking around, oblivious, thinking that I was no different from any of my male colleagues, that every other woman in technology was treated with the same respect and equality that I had been fortunate enough to encounter in the workplace.
Sadly, other women are not as fortunate as I am.
Women are not always treated with similar respect and equality. Female engineers in many places are often looked down upon or feel they have to work harder to prove that they belong in the same space as men. Women have to overcome certain biases that men do not. Women who are assertive and powerful are sometimes seen as aggressive or bossy, while a man is seen as confident.
I then realized why being a woman in technology is so important:
- We are a minority in a male dominated environment.
- We need to encourage our sisters, daughters, nieces, and all our young minds that math and science are important and fun.
- We need to level the playing field and encourage other women to take their rightful place at the table.
- We need to be bold, brave, confident, and never doubt ourselves or our abilities.
- We need to work together, both men and women, to break down gender barriers and biases and focus on building and creating awesome technology.
I have never been more grateful for my personal experience, humbled by the stories and struggles of other women, and so proud to be part of this amazing sisterhood.
It is important for us to work together with our male counterparts, but we should not lose our identities as women in the process. We as women, no matter how fortunate we may have been, still have work to do to be seen as equals. We are just as good, we work just as hard, and we can do anything we set our minds to.
Be confident and never doubt your abilities. You don’t need to act like you have something to prove all the time — you’re here. You’re a woman in technology; you’ve already done it.