For women software engineers who want to advance their career, being the only woman in the room can be isolating. In order to support gender equality at GumGum, our women engineers founded “Women Who Lunch,” a speaker series spotlighting women tech talent and how they have taken reins in their careers. So far, the group has featured 10 speakers, including Tricia Lee, svp of product and development at Sony DADC New Media Solutions, and Natascha French, CMO of VNTANA, an interactive hologram company.
We spoke with Michele Larson, the group’s co-founder and director of engineering for GumGum’s advertising sector, about the group’s mission and how GumGum is supporting career advancement for women in technology.
What inspired you and your co-founder to start this group?
Myself and my counterpart in Product, Merrill Bajana, often discuss different challenges and issues in the industry. We were brainstorming one day about what we could do at GumGum. Women leaders in engineering are not very common, so we wanted to explore different ways we could support each other. We thought of bringing in people who inspire us, to learn from their career path and ask questions and advice. Our CTO [Ken Weiner] is a member of a local CTO meetup, and he’s been very helpful in introducing us to potential speakers.
What have you heard at these meetings that has been particularly helpful?
Our first speaker [Tricia Lee] said that you should ask yourself where you want to be in five years, and what skills you need to get there and focus on that. It really resonated because sometimes you get caught up in the day-to-day and forget to think about your own career and goals.
How does GumGum support women engineers outside of this group?
We have a “Women of GumGum” group, and they plan company-wide initiatives for women across departments. For example, during the pandemic, they created a book club and “Monthly Inspiration Sessions” to watch a podcast or video and talk about it. They’ve also set up events and done volunteer opportunities. Most recently, we raised donations for organizations including Girls Who Code.
What advice would you give women pursuing a job in engineering?
First, having people you can rely on for support and help is crucial. They can help you with the practical, like reviewing a resume or practicing for an interview, to the emotional, like giving advice on how to respond to a message or commiserating about a particularly hard day. Besides having a support network, you can seek out one specific to engineering. There are many engineering groups and Slack workspaces that give helpful advice and can be good leads for jobs and interviews. Such groups specifically for women are also great for getting support, because you learn that you’re not the only one experiencing something or feeling a certain way. You can also tap into their whisper network — a place to ask what companies are really like to work for.
Also, typically, women are less likely to negotiate when they are offered a position, which leads to wage gaps. If a company has made you an offer, they want you — so you should always make a counter offer! Lastly, be aware of imposter syndrome and how it can affect your mental health. The interview process for tech is intense, and will likely impact you.
What questions should women ask when they’re being recruited for an engineering position at any technology company, not just GumGum?
First, ask what the current team makeup is: both the team you’re interviewing for and the larger engineering org. What representation is there among leadership? It’s generally positive if there is representation across the engineering org, especially in leadership roles, because it shows that it’s possible to get promoted. Diversity can impact your day-to-day and how included you feel (or not). If the company is not very diverse, you can ask followup questions, such as what the team’s thoughts are on diverse teams, and if they are doing anything to address this.
Second, ask how the code review process works. Since it’s been shown that women have a harder time getting code merged due to biases about their technical abilities, this answer can tell you if there’s a defined, fair process in place. For example, a company might use tools like Prettier and ESLint that remove debates about code style and focus more on the core issue. Or they may have code review guides and training on how to give good code reviews.
Third, ask about what the engineering culture is like, and what the team’s values are. Look for what is said as well as what is not said. Is collaboration valued? Are people punished or encouraged to learn from their mistakes? What is the culture outside of work? Are there a lot of drinking events? Does the company have any budget for continuous learning? What is their promotion policy? Is there a defined rubric in place to mitigate biases?
What do women need to do more of in order to advance their engineering careers?
Women need to take a more active role in their careers. For example, women are typically thought of as being less technical, so they need to go above and beyond to prove they have met the technical requirements for a promotion. I recommend trying to find a sponsor: someone who will support you, give you opportunities, and talk about your accomplishments to the people who can promote you.
What have you personally learned from running “Women Who Lunch”?
The best thing is that every speaker has been completely different, comes from a different background, and has had different experiences, and we were able to learn something from each of them. Sometimes if you don’t see people who look like you, it’s harder to picture yourself in those roles. It’s motivating to see other people like you doing things that you might not even know about, or you didn’t think was possible.