On Being Female in Tech

women in tech

By Melissa Gartland

Gender bias in the world of technology. Hardly a shocking new insight, but it blatantly exists and is often shrugged off with “why should I care?” At this stage, few are surprised by the cold, hard statistics that time and time again support that men have an advantage when it comes to moving up the traditional ladder of success in tech. Women have been in the industry since the beginning but few of us can breach the shores of the upper corporate tiers without gaining some pretty massive scars along the way.

All success, no matter who you are, comes with sacrifice. However, physical and mental safety shouldn’t be considered fair game, nor should sexualizing a coworker be commonplace. And yet, according to a 2017 Women Who Tech survey of 950 people in industry, 65% of all female start-up founders that answered reported being sexually harassed by stakeholders. What was the percentage of male founders that were harassed, you ask? 0%. That’s right, zero. None of the male start up founders who answered the survey experienced sexual harassment from stakeholders. Is anyone surprised at such disproportionate experiences? … I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the crickets. 

Tech and Startup Culture Survey 2017, Women Who Tech and Lincoln Park Strategies

All snark aside, the purpose of that statistic isn’t to call out the frequency at which women experience harassment, but to display the disproportionate experiences between men and women during a common business transaction on the path to successfully running a self-made company. I can feel it through the computer screen, some of the readers thinking, “getting funding is hard for all of us, why does this make anyone special?” Yes. I know convincing someone to hand over money because you think your tech start-up is the greatest thing ever is no easy feat, no matter who you are. Convincing someone else to believe in your dream without thinking that you’re crazy is hard, no matter who you are. No one has it easy, but it is still worth acknowledging that there are some who face additional obstacles, such as male bias (from blatant sexism to the most subtle of microaggressions) towards the potential of women in positions of corporate power. Think of it this way: if I have a bad experience with a stakeholder(s), such that I am left feeling degraded, dismissed, or even harassed, how likely am I to continue on? If I march forward like the good soldier I am, how likely am I to bring my full self to that next pitch? How genuine will I be if I don’t trust the people across from me because those before them left me feeling like dirt? Let’s say I do give up and go the other path. Not only do I dash any chances for myself, but I also kill any chance for any other female that I could have lifted up with my success. 

Despite reports of grueling workplace environments with unrealistic expectations at industry giants or the downright disturbing experiences of women trying to pave their own way with a startup in the tech industry, there are good companies that are putting in the work to change their behavior and their culture to be more cognizant of how an environment that, at one point, was very nurturing to men needs to change. These corporations and enterprises have realized that it is not just the occasional invitation or inclusion, but a true paradigm shift that enables the rest of us. Such a shift engenders a diverse, innovative environment where the organization as a whole can succeed at moving forward.

My name is Melissa Gartland, and welcome to my TED talk.

No, wait…Seriously, where are these mythical, unicorn-esque “good companies” that make efforts to foster the best environments for their people?
  • They are the organizations with diverse talent acquisition teams.
  • They are the organizations that, in a very timely manner, publicly make statements supporting their people in social movements.
  • They are enterprises with strong support and mentorship programs.

Take IBM for example, a massively successful corporation that has taken the introspective look in the mirror, realized its blatant shortcomings in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, then decided on changing for the better. The tech giant releases a yearly “Responsibility Report,” that outlines everything on their agenda from leadership accountability initiatives to solid examples of outreach and advocacy. While it is a couple pages deep on their website, the company’s plan of action and proof of steps taken are available to the public. Even without the report, you can see plainly from IBM’s LinkedIn page that there is a culture of enterprise support for IBMers, as they dub themselves. The company proudly posts links ranging from support of Pride Month to interviews with IBM Executive Chairman, Ginni Rometty. IBM has been in the game for over a century. If the oldest company in tech can be inclusive, caring, and empathetic towards its people while remaining profitable, then its younger counterparts have no excuse. It’s not Amazon, but IBM is still nothing to scoff at. With a net worth of about $115 billion today, and 2019 revenue coming in at about $77 billion, IBM proves that a diverse and equitable culture is a profitable culture.  

At the heart of any successful diversity and inclusion effort, corporate or otherwise, lies empathy. Lisa Van Ess, VP of People and Culture at Magic Hat Consulting, eloquently states that it is necessary to acknowledge “how the world shows up to different people and to talk about it.” It will not be sunshine and roses simply because a team of people in the company put up a sign that says something about including everyone or makes a group of men sit through a day’s worth of training classes. Empathy towards women, towards people of color, towards anyone else, in corporate tech looks like having a real support system. Access to mentors and experienced superiors that are willing to support the next generation, regardless of who they are, provide the foundational support for an empathetic environment. The ability to feel safe expressing a point of view, the ability to have more than just one or two colleagues that might listen sometimes, the ability to let off steam without fear of repercussion is more valuable than gold. With that pressure out of the way, grievances aired, and distractions cleared, individuals and teams alike are able to craft their best work because they are able to put their whole selves into the task at hand. Again, it is not that blunders won’t happen because people are not perfect, and quite frankly, prone to idiocy. However, when things like microaggressions or implicit bias do happen in cultures where employees feel respected and valued for who they are, people feel safe enough to speak up about how the incident has affected them and why others should be mindful not to do it again. 

It is quite easy to spot these organizations either before or during the interview process.

Most organizations are so proud of their efforts that it is published in some way – either on social media or on their own website, or in the case of IBM, both. In job searching on IBM’s site, before the applicant gets far enough down the page to find either the job search or available postings, they are met with the core values of the company, links to Glassdoor data, and small testimonial blurbs (with pictures!) from current employees. Those blatant, upfront examples show that IBM is a company that is proud of their people, proud of what they stand for, and worthy of the time and hard work you would give to them as an employee. During the interview process with any company that isn’t IBM, if the interviewers haven’t already mentioned it, ask about what the enterprise is doing in terms of diversity and inclusion. If the brand genuinely takes those initiatives to heart, the interviewer will most likely not want to shut up about it – both outward facing and internal initiatives. Those initiatives will also not be just aimed at gender, but mentoring and supporting disability awareness, anti-racism, and the LGBTQ+ community. 

I am a data engineer. I have an M.S. in information systems. Lastly, I work for a materials engineering and manufacturing company that does everything I have listed previously, and has from its very beginning. At the singular employee level, every associate (CEO included) has a Sponsor; a mentor to guide you in anything and everything it means to be a person. At a company level, we are encouraged “to bring our whole selves to work,” running the gamut from how tired one feels that day to how one expresses their true existential self. In the enterprise, it is felt that the freedom to be one’s whole self is one of the key foundations to moving forward, to keep innovating. DEI has a seat on our Enterprise Leadership Team. There is an entire team of passionate associates dedicated to maintaining and improving DEI. Internal DEI groups have a presence from onboarding through to seasoned associate experiences.  We had a female CEO for 13 years. Our current CIO is a woman. My leader (translation, my boss) is a woman. While all these things are great, we know we need to keep pushing the line, and we do not rest. We are able to feel safe in that our enterprise is not complacent in fairness. We are able to do our best work because we are valued, and are reminded of that daily.

Lastly, I leave you with one of the resources that helped me start on the path to where I am today. Women In Tech is an international organization that seeks to provide technical education to girls and women in addition to bolstering social education for bridging the gender gap in industry.

Melissa Gartland (she/her/hers) works as a data engineer supporting engineers and R&D scientists at W.L. Gore & Associates. She holds an MS in Information Systems & Technology Management from the University of Delaware and a BA in Biological Anthropology from Temple University.

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