Women In Tech: How An Evolving Support Network Is The Key To Success
Why are there so few women in the tech and telecommunications industry? It’s an important question, followed by another equally important one–what is the solution?
While the situation with gender diversity in tech is bad, telecommunications is particularly problematic. Only 12% of executives in leading telecom companies are female, compared to 23% in tech.
And although women make up half of the US workforce, only 20% of tech jobs are held by women. Girls become interested in tech careers at age 11, but often lose interest soon after.
For those who are employed in the male-dominated industry, it is often difficult to build confidence, refine skills, and develop strategic communication skills while navigating the evolving landscape.
The picture is even worse within more niche technical communities. Github collected responses from 5,500 users in the open source community to gather insights in development practices and communities. The results revealed an uninspiring imbalance.
Out of the respondents, 95% were men; just 3% women and 1% non-binary. The article also said “women are more likely than men to encounter language or content that makes them feel unwelcome (25% vs 15%) as well as stereotyping (12% vs 2%) and unsolicited sexual advances (6% vs 3%).”
But to get better, we must understand the root of the problem. Gender stereotypes still exist, regardless of new schemes being put in place designed to encourage women into tech; employers are more inclined to hire people they relate to, and due to the fact most senior roles are filled by men, this perpetuates male dominance; and young women, or those early in their careers, often have few role models.
Some women are thriving in leadership positions at large tech companies, and are no doubt shaking up an environment otherwise dominated by beards, but it’s important to remember that these are often not women with hard technical backgrounds–a distinction which must be made.
Breanden Beneschott, COO and Founder of Toptal, wrote: “Many companies in the tech industry cite that they employ between 25% and 30% women. This number, however, can be misleading. Most of these larger numbers–yes, they are the larger ones–include both technical and non-technical roles.”
Toptal is a global freelancing platform that connects businesses with software developers, designers, and business consultants.
“As you begin to examine the percentage of female employees in technical roles, the numbers drop even lower,” he added.
Taking only technical roles into consideration, a female workforce of around 15% to 20% is more realistic.
As statistics are appropriately adjusted, the picture appears even bleaker. What’s more, the tech industry is not only struggling to attract women, but also to retain them.
Retaining women in tech
Retaining women in tech is a large problem, with the lack of long-standing technical females being noticed at all levels. In fact, women leave the industry at a 45% higher rate than men.
Lily Chen, a medical professional turned software dev, wrote about her experience shifting into the tech industry.
“A few months ago, I was interviewing for a new job. I met a female software engineer in her mid-30s during one of my interviews. She’s been in this industry for over a decade now and has both extensive engineering and product experience. I thought she was extremely sharp, someone I would want to become.
“That’s when it hit me, she was the only female software engineer I’ve met with over a decade of experience.”
However, times are changing. Tech and telecoms have grown rapidly in previous years, with the importance of both never being greater than today. Potential employees look at telecoms, perhaps now better known as the digital economy, as a desirable industry.
With this in mind, it’s absolutely critical that experiences of women are looked at, critiqued and used to drive business decisions within the industry, so that telco, and more generally tech, appeals to everyone.
No matter what they have encountered, whether it’s pure discrimination in a job interview or frequently being mistaken as a receptionist, women in telco today are committed to positive messages and encouraging more young women to get involved.
Dealing with imposter syndrome
Annabelle Davidson is founder of Social Playground, home to Australia’s first Instagram printer–‘technology that nobody in Australia had ever seen before’.
She said: “There have definitely been times where I have walked into a presentation or meeting and felt that the person I am meeting with is there to try and catch me out. Sometimes it’s been a male but just as often it’s been a female.
“I felt this significantly more in my 20s as perhaps my expertise and authority was questioned. However as both my business and I have matured, I feel I am taken more seriously and feel less intimidated. I think that simply building those years of experience gives you confidence that you can tackle any situation or client.”
Davidson is not the only woman who has felt like this.
Victoria Lamberth, Chief Revenue Officer of ZenFi Networks said: “A lot of women struggle with an imposter syndrome where they think, I’m here but I’m not supposed to be.
“You need to recognize this and tell yourself to just leave that at the door. You are meant to be here. Keep telling yourself: I should be in this room, I should be in this meeting. I should be part of this team, I have something to say. I have positive ideas.
“Promoting that positive self-talk and making sure that you truly believe that you deserve to be in the position that you’re in. Because if you don’t believe in it, why would anyone else?”
However, for some, imposter syndrome is more than a feeling of self-doubt. Shara Evans, futurist keynote speaker with a hard technical background, reflected on one particular job interview from when she was starting out in the 80s.
“The owner of a microcomputer company interviewed me and I knew all of the answers to his questions. But at the end, he said the job would require me to demonstrate the product and that this would be a problem because I wouldn’t be able to lift or carry the microcomputers to client sites,” she said.
At that time, microcomputers would have been a similar size to the original iMac, and were quite bulky.
“What he didn’t realize was that my hobby at that time was weightlifting. I was strong, really strong. So, I got up and just lifted one up with ease, and said something to the effect of ‘that won’t be a problem for me!’ Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. It was pretty obvious that he just did not want a woman to be in that role,” Evans said.
“That really woke me up to the fact people were going to be watching and waiting for me to fail because I’m a woman, not because of anything to do with others being better, but because of my gender.
“This made me realize very early on that I was paving the way for other women who wanted to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.”
Role models are key
Entering the tech space in the 80s, Evans didn’t have a female role model or a mentor – although she was fortunate to have had numerous male mentors, but this lack of gender diversity made her more determined than ever to succeed in an industry which otherwise excluded women.
“I was a groundbreaker in a lot of ways because I don’t think many women were really interested in computer science at that time. For example, I was the only woman in my graduate computer science classes.
“I didn’t know about Ada Lovelace and everything she did, or the brilliant women “computers” in NASA and the role women had in the Apollo program until much later. You just never heard about the women involved in science and technology, so I didn’t know the history of female pioneers. I had no role model at that age.”
While this encouraged Evans and made her more driven, it is not often the case.
Microsoft found that the number of girls interested in STEM across Europe almost doubles when they have a role model to inspire them. Girls with role models are also shown to have more self confidence and belief in themselves, evaluating themselves as higher performers across STEM subjects.
Thus the need for role models is evident. And while there has been progress in female recognition, more must be done. Women currently in tech and telecoms must also celebrate their achievements to inspire future generations.
Your mentor doesn’t need to be a woman
Although a relatable role model is critical in early stage development, when coming to enter the industry, the importance of an experienced mentor to support you on a day-to-day basis should not be overlooked.
Mentorship, from either a male or female superior, can thus have a profound effect on achievement.
Margie Warrell, a leadership consultant, writes: “In male-dominated professions, where women often face even greater challenges building networks and embracing feminine leadership strengths, mentoring has proven even more paramount.”
Shara Evans and Victoria Lamberth alike warn against clouded judgement: you don’t need a female mentor to succeed, just one that supports you and encourages you.
“In the early days there were many times when I was doing the job of a man, but at a lower pay rate and lower title. For instance, I was doing exactly the same tasks as a Director but would have a Senior Manager title when men doing the same job would have the Director title. This was particularly true when I was working in a big corporation, where my male colleagues had a higher pay grade than I had. I really had to prove myself time and time again.” Evans said.
“There were some leaders, although not always my bosses - but who were executives within the companies I worked for, that really believed in me and wanted me to take on more responsibility. Responsibility that no woman had ever had before.”
Evans’ mentors, despite being male managers, pushed her to volunteer for industry organizations and to be proactive. Young women should put themselves out there, not just to network but to show value to the industry and differentiate themselves from others in a meaningful way.
“I realized two things very early in my career: the value of having fantastic bosses and mentors that you can get advice from, especially those who are older and more experienced to help guide you, and the value of volunteer work, especially in industry organizations. This volunteer work helped accelerate my career,” she added.
Lamberth, with a similar experience, offers this advice: “I have had the good fortune of having very strong male mentors who have taken me under their wing and taken me to meetings. While I totally agree with women supporting women, which we hear a lot of across all industries, there just are more men in senior leadership roles and I wouldn’t ignore that.”
“So if you’re a man or a woman, if there’s a man in a leadership role that wants to take you under their wing I wouldn’t turn that down - take advantage of it. The more you’re exposed to meetings and conferences with senior leadership people, the better that’s going to help you when you do get into those positions.”
It’s important to reach out and find the right mentors very early on, because research suggests that if women don’t establish a critical threshold early enough in their career, they stop looking for support. For organizations, this means channelling great effort into mentor schemes.
However, perhaps the fact that there were no female leaders to mentor both Evans and Lamberth is problematic. But as more women are guided by supportive men, the more there are to guide women in the future.
Find people you relate to
As well as people to look up to and supportive senior colleagues, it’s also important to have a sense of comradery.
This is inherently more difficult for women in male dominant environments because men have different experiences and pain points throughout their personal and professional life. However, this will become less noticeable over time as colleagues grow together.
“The thing that I have missed most is the comradery that comes from having people around you in the same stage of life as you are,” Lamberth said. “You miss having that opportunity to build friendships around common life experiences.”
The problem is not exclusive to telco. Women make up less than a quarter (23%) of STEM professionals, so the challenges faced by women in any male-dominated environment are often the same.
That’s why Lamberth now attends cross-industry networking groups once a month.
“Look at other industries and see how they’re handling thing like recruitment and retainment. How do other people look to increase conversation, move up the ladder, and tackle problems within their organization?” she said. “I get a lot of value from my counterparts in other environments.”
Allow experiences to influence leadership
Although women establishing themselves within the tech or telecoms industry have a harder time of it than their male counterparts, there is great opportunity to make meaningful changes within organizations.
For Evans, that translates to helping as many people as she can.
“Throughout my time in senior roles and within my own businesses, there have always been people, of both genders, that I take under my wing and help them along. Whenever I can, I do my best to help people, even if it’s just a quick email giving someone some short advice.”
Lamberth looks for the women in ZenFi and tries to put them in a position where they can grow both personally and professionally.
“I recently had a vacancy and put the ad out everywhere–we even hired recruiters. But I think I got only one resume for a woman. That was really disheartening because I didn’t even have candidates that I could interview,” she added.
“This is a big problem in our industry, I’ve heard it from both my female and male colleagues across the board. We do want more diverse talent entering our industry, and we’re looking for our next generation of leaders. We’ve started to focus on that now but still have a long way to go.”
So what is the solution?
Evans finalized: “It’s about grassroots outreach. Today, everything revolves around digital literacy. It’s critical that women are taught technical skills starting at a young age and throughout their education, and be encouraged to consider careers in the technology industry.”
This brings us full circle; while women in power can continue to drive change and encourage progression within the industry, girls must be inspired from a young age and encouraged to pursue a career in tech or telecoms.
It is clear that multi-tiered, distributed support network can help women succeed in tech and telecoms, as well as other male-dominated environments. Having a person who inspires you from a young age is critical in developing initial interest, while strong peer support and mentors are paramount in achievement and retention later in life.
Other bites of advice from the experts
- You can’t change the world but you can definitely set a good example within your organization.
- Point out some things so that people are aware of them when they happen, but overall pick your battles.
- There are lots of great men that want to see women grow so just partner with your male colleagues too.
- Establish a strong network of mentors and peers.
- You can have a wonderful career even if you are a smaller subset of the group. It’s really important that people know that. The tech and telecoms industry is changing and it will continue to get better.
- Do things for yourself. Find industry organizations that you’re interested in and volunteer to be part of this organization. Believe me, you’ll get out 10x what you put into it.
- Network. And leverage your network's contacts. It's a very quick way to build your reputation, especially if you’re young.
- No matter where you’re at in your career, always respect the people you work with. Especially if you’re in a position with a young person working with or for you, you should be a mentor to them and encourage them to be the best that they can be.
- Be prepared. Simple but so effective. Some situations require rational facts, like if you’re asking for a pay rise, addressing a performance issue or standing up for yourself.
- Being honest in feedback. Sugar coating doesn’t benefit anyone. The problems persist and resentment manifests. Have the tough conversations.