by Sarah Isaac Aug 15, 2017

One woman's perspective on how to improve the culture in tech to become more inclusive, especially for women.

Pursuing a career in Software Development has been one of the most empowering decisions I’ve made in my life so far. As with anything that pushes you out of your comfort zone, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to work hard. It has provided experiences that would have terrified the high-school me but have been amazing opportunities for growth. Choosing to go into a technical field, or any difficult field that requires hard work and dedication, is something I highly recommend. Of course, I’m a little biased towards Computer Science because working as a Software Developer has been unbelievably enjoyable. 

Unfortunately, not every woman in a tech field would tell you the same. About 41% of women leave careers in technical fields compared to 17% of men who leave. [1] Although reasons vary in each case, many women leave due to the unfriendly culture common in technical fields. Excluding extreme cases, such as harassment or blatant sexism, fixing this problem requires breaking subtle vicious cycles within tech culture. 

Mentors

Although 74% of girls express interest in Computer Science in middle school, less than 1% decide to major in Computer Science. [2] Lingering stigmas about technical fields, like Computer Science, deter many girls from choosing this career path. The effects of these stigmas include being intimidated by the male-dominated culture in technical fields or believing that technical skills don’t come naturally to girls. Unfortunately, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As more girls choose not to go into tech, these stigmas appear to be correct. In fact, the percent of female Computer Science graduates have decreased from 37% to 18% over the last 30 years. [3] 

Providing girls with female mentors in technical fields can reduce the effect of these stereotypes and encourage more girls to pursue their interest in these fields. Although famous female computer scientists serve as excellent inspiration, mentors provide invaluable support and advice as girls move through school and eventually into the professional world. Mentors help girls realize that success in technical fields can be a reality for them too and prove stigmas about technical fields irrelevant. Organizations such as Girls Who Code provide opportunities for girls to interact with women in Computer Science and receive hands-on training. These experiences give girls the necessary support and information to transition into the tech community. 

Team-Oriented Environment

It’s easy for women to feel lost and a little isolated in the dominantly male tech community. And once you feel like you don’t belong, it’s even easier to further isolate yourself. I experienced this in my first few computer science classes. But as class assignments became group projects, I realized succeeding in Computer Science would be hard unless I made some changes. I decided to break this cycle by trying to talk more with other students in my classes. I stopped trying to fit in and focused on developing my unique strengths instead. Eventually I no longer felt isolated, not only because I had more friends, but because I realized that fitting in wasn’t a requirement for belonging and contributing to my team.

Although women often leave tech because of feeling lonely or isolated, this can be a problem for anyone. Tech companies can help alleviate these feelings by providing opportunities to build team unity and appropriate friendships between team members. These opportunities can include anything from Slack channels for sharing random YouTube videos to occasional company lunches. Receiving constructive criticism and positive feedback help team members feel like essential members of their team. Cultures within tech companies, and eventually tech fields, can become more welcoming as team members make these positive interactions a habit. 

Attitude of Learning

Despite being as well-qualified as their male counterparts, women often leave technical fields due to feelings of inadequacy and lack of growth. When I first began Computer Science, I avoided asking questions for fear of appearing inadequate. As a result, I remained confused about topics I didn’t fully understand. This made me feel more inadequate and even less likely to ask for help. I worked hard but felt like I was far behind my peers. Constantly trying to prove I was smart enough to belong was discouraging and impeded my ability to learn. Fortunately, I began talking with other students and soon realized they were in the exact same boat. This was a turning point for me. My confidence grew and my skills improved faster as I received and provided help alongside my classmates. Programming started feeling like a team event instead of a solo competition. 

I’ve been lucky to have the same experience here at Lightning Kite. The learning-oriented environment helps me recognize that facing new problems improves my capacity to tackle bigger challenges. This mindset helps deflect feelings of inadequacy when I don’t know everything. The challenge to learn and apply new technology has become the most rewarding part of being a Software Developer. As tech companies encourage an attitude of learning, team members can be empowered, not discouraged, by challenges and make meaningful progress. 

Software Development, and other technical fields, offer incredible opportunities and experiences. As negative cycles are broken and positive culture is fostered, these opportunities can be available to more people in the tech community, as well as those looking to join. It’s more than just fixing issues for women; it’s about fixing it for everyone.

[1] https://medium.com/tech-diversity-files/the-real-reason-women-quit-tech-and-how-to-address-it-6dfb606929fd

[2]  https://techcrunch.com/2016/04/14/women-in-tech-whats-the-real-problem/

[3] https://girlswhocode.com/about-us/#the-problem