It’s no secret that the tech industry has problems with gender parity and equity. According to a 2020 study by the AnitaB.org Institute, women account for just 28.8% of the tech workforce—an improvement over years past, but a paltry number nonetheless.
The disparity becomes more pervasive as you move up the ladder of responsibility, too—according to a 2019 McKinsey report, women are less likely to be promoted to a first-level managerial role, and that can often persist all the way up to executive level positions. Entelo’s study, “Quantifying the Gender Gap,” found that women account for only 16% of senior level tech jobs and 10% of executive positions.
At Systematic’s annual conference, Biz Systems Magic, we were joined by leaders from across the tech industry to get advice on how best support women in tech and how to make the field a more hospitable and equitable place.
The role of a network
One of the most important and effective ways to advocate for women in the workplace is to be a consistent ally. John Herson, Director of Engineering at Rapid7, explained that an ally is anyone that’s advocating on behalf of another.
He encouraged leaders in a given organization to expand their conceptions of what a useful skill is, and to not only recognize talented women in their organization but also advocate on behalf of that talent. Kyla Longe, the Director of GTM Business Systems at Fastly, emphasized the fact that women should recognize their ability to be an ally as well, even though they may not think so. “You might be an ally—even if you look like the person you’re advocating for,” she said.
The defining trait of an ally is the ability to speak up on behalf of a person who is unable to do so themself. Longe pointed out a few specific examples where one could speak up for those not in the room, including pointing out when a job description is worded in an impenetrable or biased way, or when pay is not equitable across all spectrums.
An ally can also often be a mentor or a sponsor—similar, but distinct, roles that involve an interest in and advocacy for a worker. Eli Potter, the Senior Director of Enterprise Applications and Architecture at Coinbase, said that both are important, explaining that mentorship is a partnership that bubbles up in smaller, lower-level moments of advice and feedback, and is usually initiated by the employee that is seeking to be mentored. Sponsorship, meanwhile, is a more proactive act, initiated by the sponsor of their own volition, and involves higher-level advocacy focused on opening doors to higher career paths.
How to market yourself on your career journey
Being an ally, mentor, or sponsor is an important part of making the tech industry a more equitable and inclusive place, but it’s still important for women to know how to best market themselves in the corporate world. This ability enables them to not only find advocates, but also to open up employment opportunities both within and outside their companies.
Urmi Majithia, Head of Outbound Product Management and Product Management Lead at Edcast, said it’s important to have some broad, base-level knowledge of company-wide business goals and how they tie into your team goals. Being passionate about problem solving and the impact you can create through your solutions is another essential step, and when you marry that passion to an ability to envision impact at the team and company levels, you will find it much easier to find a seat at the table.
Conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and the ability to clarify intent and prescribe action— these are all leadership qualities that come from intertwining passionate problem solving and vision of business impact.
After ensuring that you have the proper mindset and vision for marketing yourself for promotion, you can begin looking for allies and advocates. Being authentic in your questioning is essential, Majithia said: When you need help, ask for it, and internalize whatever feedback and advice you receive. By taking your mentor or sponsor’s advice to heart and illustrating the impact that their words have had on you, you can build that relationship and strengthen it moving forward.
Majithia recommended developing a “sounding board” of sorts—not just including higher-up mentors and sponsors in your network, but also forming relationships with people at all levels of the company so that you can remain well-rounded and in touch with both high-level ideation and on-the-ground realities.
When looking to advance up the corporate ladder, it’s also important to try to obtain a balance of technical and people-focused skills. “Many women that decide they want to be general managers leave the technical scene far too soon,” Potter said. “The technical piece is important because credibility comes from knowledge.” She recommended gaining a complete understanding of the technical side before applying that skillset to managerial roles, so that you can have the ability to ask provocative and intelligent questions while maintaining a wider business goal perspective.
Recognizing your own leadership potential
Being a leader, according to Longe, is being a force multiplier: If you are technically focused, that means your role is ensuring that the success of your developers or architected systems are multiplied across systems, while being a people manager means multiplying the impact that proper communication and management can have across teams.
“There are so many ways to multiply the force of your business systems, so find your niche,” Longe said. “It’s about finding balance of strengths and passion.” In finding that balance, Longe encourages women to focus not on weaknesses, but to double down on the innate skills that they possess. While you may always have blind spots within your skillset, Longe says that she and many others have found success by sharpening and advertising the innate strengths you do have.
The importance of work culture
You can advocate and develop careers all you want, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a company culture that fosters retention.
This often means making space for a healthy work-life balance. On the company’s side, balance can look like recharge days or weeks, as Potter’s teams at Coinbase do, as well as a general ecosystem of support, where labor is divided and individuals and teams are encouraged to pay kindness forward.
For the individual, balance comes from being upfront about your personal needs. “I’m never going to compromise on my projects or teams, but I also won’t compromise on myself and my family,” Majithia said. “Be upfront, let your managers know.” Overall, understanding, empathy, and recognition of boundaries are surefire ways to retain women across all levels of business.