Women in Tech: The Struggle to Stay Technical

Jul 9, 2015 in Engineering, Startups

I’m a woman in tech. It’s not welcoming. It’s not a place where I have felt secure. Like so many others, I have experienced the burden of sexism in this field. I was following the recent Silicon Valley gender bias case involving a venture capital firm and Ellen Pao. In light of the verdict, I have decided to share my own experience working in the male-dominated tech world.

I have loved working in the “tech” industry for the past two years. I am a developer, but I come from a different background than many other engineers. I don’t have a Computer Science (CS) degree. I didn’t go to a coding bootcamp and I haven’t worked with computers since I was seven. I grew up playing with Barbie dolls and dancing ballet. Programming still feels like a foreign and unnatural thing to me. Every day, I fight to learn a completely new way of thinking, but I’ve found my place.

Last year, I came to a crossroad in my career. I was hired into what I thought was a technical position. I soon found out it included more operational duties. It was partially my fault, because I gravitated towards things that weren’t technical, but I constantly voiced that my goal was to be an engineer. I am good at doing organizational things though, because that’s all anyone ever thought I was good at, myself included. I knew I could be good at engineering too, but I needed others to give me a chance.

The company was making some changes and they offered me an awesome job with a high-paying salary. It was not a technical position, and the alternative was leaving. The decision stressed me out and I went back and forth too many times to count. My boss at the time was a senior female developer. She was encouraging me to take the position and give up writing code. I kept thinking, “I must not be good at this if my mentor is encouraging me to give it up.”

The fact that my female mentor didn’t believe in me made the decision extremely difficult. It was also a tough choice because I constantly heard questions like, “Are you sure this is what you really want? You have so much more to offer than sitting behind a desk writing code all day. Why don’t you play to your strengths?” Of course, this is what the voice inside my head sometimes says. But it’s what keeps me striving to do better, and the reason I gravitate towards a field where the odds are against me.

Quitting my job without another one lined up was terrifying, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

It seems as if every day there is another article talking about the horrible things happening to women in the tech industry. There is always a new piece discouraging young women from entering the field. I finish each article with a feeling of hopelessness and heartbreak for my fellow comrades having these awful experiences. I want to hear more positive stories, because I know they are out there.

Yes, the statistics are terrible and look bleak. Women make up only 4 percent of startups, 20 percent of software engineers and 4 to 7 percent of startup founders. Fifty-seven percent of women end up leaving their careers in tech for reasons that range from a hostile macho culture to extreme work pressure. I fall into the percentage of women who have experienced sexual harassment at a conference, have been inappropriately hit on, been singled out because of gender and felt the constant pull of taking on a non-technical role. But there is hope. I’m here, I’m doing it and I’m not going to stop.

I feel fortunate because I have been working as a software engineer at a Denver startup called GoSpotCheck. Working here has empowered me to finally take myself seriously as a developer. I write code all day, every day. I am the only woman among over a dozen strong male personalities, but they still respect my differences and I feel like a part of the team. They have invested in my learning by teaching me the skills I need to truly be a great engineer. I can call myself a feminist and work alongside my co-workers to create and maintain a diverse workplace.

I am empowered to pursue other things I am passionate about because I have an amazing work life balance. I spend my free time as a board member to BridgeFoundry. I co-founded a non-profit, Kubmo. We work with women’s empowerment programs around the world to teach and build digital literacy programs. I love that the company I work for empowers me to pursue my passions, and constantly pushes me to become a great developer and be myself.

I can, now, officially call myself a software engineer, and no one can take that away from me. To everyone out there who has been told they couldn’t do this, that they don’t belong, that the tech industry isn’t ready for them yet—it’s about time we shut our naysayers up. It is possible, if you want it. I am proof of that. There are companies out there that will support you and take a risk on you. You may still be a minority (i.e. the only female, or the only person of color), but you won’t have to deal with the nonsense we hear about every day.

We have a long way to go until we have a dominant voice in the industry, but until then, play by your own rules, work hard and go after your dream. It won’t be easy or painless, and there will probably be a lot of tears but it will be worth it. One day you will sit down in front of that beautiful Thunderbolt monitor with your company-provided breakfast, write some code, have an amazing and empowering career and do something you never thought was possible.