One of the few girls in the room: How do we accelerate equality in tech?

By Angela, October 19, 2016

I’ve been wanting to write on the topic of gender for a long time now, but haven’t been able to find the words. And admittedly, I’m still trying to find my position in all this. It’s a tricky subject for me to navigate: on one hand, sharing challenges might paint me as weak, a victim, or a radical feminist (even the word “feminist” seems to have a negative connotation). But on the other hand, not talking about the challenges – or even sharing positive experiences – can mean that I don’t recognize the real struggle and don’t support other women.

I’m sure I’m not the only woman who feels this way.

Most of my life, I have been one of the few girls in the room. I was my grandparents’ only granddaughter, growing up with my brother and three male cousins. For me then, being the only girl was a badge of honor. I gravitated toward STEM as a child, which led me to pursue degrees in engineering. I moved to the SF Bay Area where the ratio of men to women is 121:100, entered the entrepreneurial world, and then joined VC.

Throughout this time, I never thought about how being a woman could be a barrier. I let my work speak for itself. And while my experiences have been far from perfect, they thankfully, have been far from awful.

I know this is not the case for everyone. Like you, I’ve read the stories. And like you, I want to work at making sure that everyone is judged on his/her merit. That no one feels discouraged or intimidated to pursue a certain career path. That no one stops speaking because they feel their voice has been ignored one too many times.

I know we have a lot of conscious and subconscious biases in the workplace and society at large. We still have a lot of work to do to get to gender equality, but I am optimistic that we are moving in the right direction. The discussion that I’d like to have today is how we can get to the right place faster.

Last week, I attended a Women in Tech night. This event was special in that it was the first Women in Tech night that I’ve attended where men were included in the room and where we talked about actions we all can take to make the tech world more inclusive. The experiences shared were powerful, as were the compassionate, positive, and action-oriented responses that filled the room that night. The nature of Women in Tech nights means that we keep all stories and anecdotes confidential. But, I can share some of the high level points…

Building yourself up: negotiate, build your network, and don’t be naive

Yes, there are many factors contributing to gender inequity in the workplace. However, women often don’t get what they deserve because they never ask for it. Studies have shown that women are less likely than men to negotiate for what they want. And unfortunately, it’s not enough to just put your head down, work hard, and expect to be rewarded. You need to advocate for yourself.  

Some of the best advice I have ever received in this area is to build a case for myself. Dedicate a couple of minutes at the end of each week to compile a list of all the things you have done and the impact you have made. This will give you the confidence you need to negotiate. If you’re uncomfortable talking about yourself, you can always lean on these facts.

Also remember that you don’t have to go it alone. I am fortunate enough to have an incredible group of people surrounding me. Who’s in your network? Are they positive influences? Do they elevate you? Are there people you can trust to stick by you when the going gets tough? Who are your best advocates and who can help you fight the good fight when you feel mistreated? It’s important to build your network (your foundation) so they can help lift you up.

My last piece of advice around building yourself up is to not be naïve. I know, this is an incredibly controversial thing to say, because I am putting the onus on women to protect ourselves from being mistreated or discriminated against. However, at this stage, I see this to be an important solution. For example, I have a rule not to hear pitches after 5 pm over drinks because I don’t want it to be misconstrued as anything more than business. Maybe I’ll miss a deal or two, but I don’t think there’s anything that can’t be done during business hours. Similarly, I know other women have rules like “don’t ever serve the coffee.”

Feel free to stay true to yourself, but be aware that we still live and work in a world where we have to take charge of where we are and what is happening around us.

Bringing others up: making our voices heard

Have you ever been in this situation? You make a pretty good comment in a meeting or on Slack; you’re ignored. Five minutes later, someone else makes the same comment and the whole room thinks it’s the greatest idea. If you’re a woman working in a male-dominated field, I’m guessing you know exactly what I’m talking about.

To help ensure that their voices are heard, female staffers in Obama’s White House adopted a practice called amplification. From The Washington Post: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

Amplification is a great example where women can band together to improve the condition for everyone. We can’t bring about meaningful change on our own; we need to advocate for others.

It’s important to speak out and reach out when you see someone being mistreated, disrespected, or discriminated against in the workplace. Sometimes, just a small gesture as letting your colleague know that you saw what happened and understand how they must feel can mean the world of difference. Empowerment wanes when someone hurting wonders if they are just “imagining things” and don’t have the backing of others.

Championing for the future

We’ve made tremendous strides over generations, but it will still take time. My grandmother, who was one of the few women who went to university before the Chinese revolution, inspired my mother. And my mother, who was a refugee of the Vietnam war and worked everyday of her life when she set foot on Canadian soil for 35 years, inspired me. And likewise, we need to set the example for the young women of the future.

What can you do? Tell young girls that they are smart. Compliment them on their accomplishments and not just their appearance. Reiterate that they are capable of anything. Encourage girls to pursue STEM, as well as embrace their creative side, which is why I’m super excited to see initiatives like Canada Can Code. Lastly, we need to empower our girls with tips on how they can advocate for themselves and others.

We need to keep paying it forward. As my “champions” did this for me, I hope to be a champion for my nieces, Cassidy, Katelyn, Cayley and Charlotte. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I am optimistic we can get there.

 

  • Thanks for writing this! To a former classmate who also posted the WaPo piece, I wrote:

    It’s been a little disappointing that some people sharing the earlier amplification piece have missed the chance to call on men to also amplify women’s ideas! But otherwise it’s awesome.

    Her reply was:

    I was just thinking that this could be a great way for male allies to help out! Great point. Although I know some women who are reluctant to ask their male colleagues to help in similar ways, and I understand that also. I think it takes a high level of trust. But certainly a great thing for men to do, whether someone has asked them to help or not.

  • atkingyens

    Thanks, Paul 🙂 The key with tools like amplification is that they are actionable! Am hoping that the more of these we come up with for women *and* men, the more advocacy becomes second nature because it’s just another one of those things we subconsciously do.

  • Tanja

    Hi Angela, this is one of the few articles on gender equality that I agree with. I have frequently been “one of the few girls in the room” but haven’t had any awful experiences, so couldn’t relate to many of the hardline feminist views.
    I believe in not asking to be judged on anything other than your skills and abilities. This is a little controversial, but I think the more we talk about feminism and gender equality, the more we are asking for ‘concessions’ because we are women. Personally, acting like there are no gender-based differences has worked for me.

  • Tobias Lütke

    Wonderful essay. Thank you so much for sharing. This is very helpful.

  • atkingyens

    Thank you Tobi 🙂

  • atkingyens

    So glad that this resonates with you, Tanja. And your comment on acting like there are no gender-based differences has worked for me has well: I’ve been firmly against being a part of a panel when someone invites me to be there as the token female…

  • It is important to talk about gender and diversity within the tech world, rather than hoping things will change.

  • Fantastic post. Thanks for sharing this Ange!

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  • Lisa Shiller

    It’s so important that women (and everyone, really) feel they are in an environment where they can express their ideas. Great article on how we can all take responsibility for this because it benefits everyone. Another Canadian initiative is Ladies Learning Code. I’ve taken their courses before and they’re great. They also incorporate men, which I agree is an important factor.

  • bwertz

    The Ladies Learning Code team is actually behind the Canada Learning Code initiative (http://versionone.vc/announcing-canada-learning-code-supporting-bottom-innovation/)

  • Lisa Shiller

    Ah, did not know that. Thanks!

  • This is an issue I have been thinking about (in tech specifically) for a while. I helped form a committee in Quebec to study the genesis of this. Not surprisingly – it’s complicated, and the factors behind the lack of women in tech begin early during school, informing the education choices people make.

    There are so many examples of bias. Even the language used in job descriptions. Do women identify themselves as ‘rockstar’ developers? Are they really excited by the fooz ball table? Perhaps. But often the language we use is biased towards males.

    When I was hiring an analyst for SurePath a friend had me run our job description through a tool that screens for gender issues. Even after consciously trying to create an open document, I had to make edits.

    And on that hire, I stated publicly that I was looking for female candidates, because the world is not made up of white guys in khakis (unlike the VC profession). I caught some flack for bias and affirmative action. But, the only way you can change the ratio in the short term is to deliberately decide to change. If that means, bias, then so be it.

    We have 3 permanent team members, 1/3 of whom is white male. Including our 1st co-op student, we are 1/4 white male. But, we should still be 50/50 male / female.

    It’s only through continuously bringing this issue up and deliberately bringing about change that we can move things forward.

  • The equalist debate is one way of preserving patriarchy, whereas feminism seeks to give power to women on their own terms – not mens. This is why I am a feminist, not an equalist. Equality is harmful to women and most men, as they are required to replicate behaviours that are degrading and dehumanising.

  • Thank you so much Angela. I’m a female founder and I run into the problems you confront on a daily basis. I decided early on that I would have to take a different route – and prove the validity of my idea through great traction rather than macho bravado. We brought in our first $500,000 without any fundraising and it’s definitely worked to get the attention we need from advisors and potential investors. That said, I think that despite the obstacles, this is a great time to be a woman in tech. A lot of VC’s are waking up to the reality that women have been left out of the equation and people like you, take an extra opportunity to hear a woman’s idea because they want to support more of these voices. And even from the perspective of pure greed, I think that investors are realizing they’ve missed out on some big opportunities because they didn’t take a tiny woman seriously. So woman can use that to their advantage as well and shouldn’t hesitate to benefit from this leverage.

  • Garry Beirne
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