Tips, tactics and strategies for climbing the ladder from five successful women in tech
5 July 2019
In a sector where gender imbalance is rife, it can be a daunting prospect finding your first role, let alone rising to the top. We asked four successful women in tech for their advice on navigating the industry.
Technology is an ever-changing landscape — what’s cutting edge today will be old news tomorrow. Jobs in the sector require a similar commitment to staying up to date — pushing yourself and learning new things are vital if you want to get ahead.
But it’s not quite the same exciting experience for everyone: women are far outnumbered by men in the industry. Research from consultancy firm PwC found that 78% of students couldn’t name a single woman working in technology, and only 16% of girls had had a career in tech suggested to them compared to 33% of boys.
The problem goes right to the top: only 5% of senior leadership positions in technology are held by women, and two thirds of boards in technology have no women on them at all.
“Until that number gets to 50%, there’s a tremendous amount of room for growth,” says Maria Raga, CEO of the peer-to-peer social shopping app Depop.
So what’s it really like to be a woman in tech, and what skills do you need to thrive in a male-dominated environment? Talentful spoke to Maria and four other women who have faced these challenges, and who successfully found roles and built businesses they love.
- Get involved (even if it’s just on Slack)
Anne-Marie Imafidon loves her job. “I was being paid to work in tech and play with cool stuff!” she says. “I thought it was ridiculous I was in a shrinking minority as a woman in the sector.”
This inspired her to set up STEMettes, a programme designed to get the next generation of young women and non-binary people into tech. The group’s remit is huge: after-school clubs, networking events, hackathons, panel events, work experience. There are also opportunities to see inside companies like British Gas and Just Eat.
Maria Raga, has some pretty simple advice: just “do it”. She recommends seeking out programmes geared towards helping young women enter tech. “There are plenty out there, including some free ones, that can help in pursuing a career or gaining practical skills like learning to code.”
Sonita Uijt de Haag also emphasises the importance of getting involved while favouring networking of the digital variety. After a long career, she now works at Scoutbee, an AI powered SaaS company in Berlin, as their director of people.
She urges women to join Facebook or Slack groups to gain support and learn more about your industry. “There are amazing resources out there,” she says. This can be particularly useful for those juggling a busy career with parenting. “It can be a really hard, and often very vulnerable thing,” she says. “It’s so important to find your tribe of people who you can be honest with and who want to help each other.”
- Get a mentor and find an advocate
Research has shown that relationships where mentors and mentees have a good rapport can be invaluable to someone’s career. Other studies have made similar findings: mentees tend to perform better than people without mentors.
Finding someone like this is an “incredibly important” step, Imafidon says. “As a young woman, there are so many influences in your life — from your peers to your teachers to your parents,” she says. “Having a third party who can bring something different and fresh is incredibly empowering.”
Uijt de Haag stresses that you should find someone you “really trust” — this could be a third-party coach, she suggests. App developer Charlotte Maslen’s own advice echoes this: she works with a coach she found online.
Maslen now runs a business helping people create their own apps. But just seven years ago, she was the one starting a new career, developing a hypnobirthing app for pregnant women despite having no experience in the field whatsoever.
“A mentor or a coach is absolutely key,” she says. “When I started out, I didn’t have anyone, and it took a lot longer to figure things out. I did it, but it would have been a much easier process if I’d had someone to guide me.”
“It’s our job to lay the path for the next generation,” Raga says. She notes that only 6.6% of Fortune 500 leaders are women.
“Find someone you admire at work, whose approach to business resonates with you, and ask them out for coffee. Be honest about your goals! If you click, they’ll most likely be happy to offer you advice.”
Lora Haddock, CEO of sex tech company Lora DiCarlo, also stresses the importance of having an ally in the room with you.
“Getting a mentor is great, but having an advocate at work who understands where you’re coming from is one of the best steps you can take,” she explains.
“Find those people and let them advocate for you. They will fight for you.”
- Read, listen and click around your subject
Understanding the industry, and your options within it, is vital — and learning more about your subject, from podcasts to Instagram accounts to books, is a great way in.
“The key is to learn the fundamentals of the industry,” Raga says. “Read about how Google or Facebook got started, and industry reports like the annual one Mary Meeker, ‘Queen of the Internet’, writes.”
“Explore what you like and find thought leaders in those fields to follow. The platform on which you do it matters less nowadays than the people whose perspectives resonate with you.”
Uijt de Haag recommends Brené Brown’s work on perfectionism and vulnerability, as well as the book Feminist Fight Club. And Maslen suggests following Instagram accounts focused on business and technology: she believes constant exposure to positive thinking can help “challenge your mindset.”
- Build your confidence. Challenge your thoughts
Confidence is a subject that kept coming up: Raga, Maslen, Imafidon and Haddock all identify it as the key trait that will help you get ahead.
“It’s self-belief that women really need,” Maslen says. “When you sit in a meeting and your belief or your idea is questioned, you think, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not right after all.’”
Building confidence takes time. But there are some tools that will help you along the way.
Maslen recommends talking to someone else about your goals — whether that’s a professional coach or a friend, she believes it’s important to have someone “challenge your thoughts and self-belief.”
For Raga having the confidence to move on from a set-back is vital. “Everyone references the need to develop a ‘thick skin,’ or the ability to handle rejection and criticism. Sometimes it will be warranted. Sometimes it won’t. But ultimately dwelling on problems gets us nowhere,” she says.
Imafidon and Haddock are both proponents of doing your homework — reading up about your topic and making sure you know what you’re talking about. Imafidon adds that you should actively practice these skills — in fact, it’s one of the main tips she gives to women enrolled in STEMettes.
“If you’re being talked over in a meeting, for example, you’re going to have a lack of confidence,” she says. “But if you’ve talked through the scenario with someone else, then you’re going into it with the support of another person.”
- Make learning your primary target
Technology is always evolving; even six months can be a time of complete reinvention and change in the industry.
Embracing that is key.
“Information is always useful,” says Raga, and that also covers the subject of pay. “Men have been discussing their salaries forever. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t, too!”
Imafidon also shares a passion for the pursuit of knowledge: “Not just about job roles, but about technology itself; what’s new and what’s coming up. You need to have a growth mindset about it.”
Maslen agrees. “Persevere — grit is a real thing. And learn as much as you can. When I started out, I made sure I knew absolutely every element of the business: I taught myself every single aspect so I could be confident in conversations. It’s about being informed: it makes you feel more confident, and that breeds self-belief as well.”
“It’s not about being the best programmer, it’s about you continually learning and getting better,” Imafidon concludes. “And if you have that as a target? You’ll do really well.”