Being Authentic in the Culture of Tech

A Happy business woman with other colleagues in the backgroundBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

Women in technology should be themselves, without apology: they should wear what they want to wear, act how they want to act, and feel no pressure to conform or act like “one of the guys.”  This is according to Google’s vice president of location and local services, Marissa Mayer, and Hunch and Flickr co-founder, Caterina Fake. Both women recently spoke at the CES Women in Tech panel, saying, among other things, that the industry is different and the old pressures to conform no longer apply.

Though the advice was obviously well-intentioned, it’s important to note that these are very senior women who likely don’t feel the same pressures to conform as less-established women.

In fact, recent research suggests that the industry isn’t really that different; it’s just gotten better at hiding its biases. According to the 2011report Tilted Playing Field: Hidden Bias in Information Technology Workplaces, hidden biases in the tech workplace produce unequal opportunities for women and people of color. The data, collected from a sample of IT engineers and managers in large companies and small startups nationwide, revealed that women and underrepresented people of color encounter negative workplace experiences at significantly higher rates than their male and white counterparts.

How can women in the technology be their authentic selves in what still remains a male-dominated industry? To start with, confidence is key – and having female colleagues and role models doesn’t hurt, either.

The Importance of Female Leaders

Kristi Elizondo, executive director for Connect, HP’s largest user community, is proof that when a company has female role models in place, more women rise to the top. HP, of course, is the company that hired former eBay president and CEO Meg Whitman as its CEO and president in 2011.

When Elizondo first began in the tech industry she did conform to a stereotypical image; she felt taking on more characteristically male traits was the only way she’d be heard in the ultra-competitive, male-dominated industry. Thirty years into her successful career she believes the culture has changed – and it’s thanks to more women joining the ranks.

“There has a been a significant improvement in how women are treated in the tech industry over the past 30 years and a large part of it is due to the sheer volume of female employees and managers today,” Elizondo said. “Inside Connect I don’t feel pressure to conform because of the strong presence of female colleagues. However, my job involves liaising with several male-dominated stakeholders in the technology industry and in those interactions I do feel pressure to conform to a more male-driven character. It really depends on the corporation’s culture. If an organization has a history of female leadership, there would certainly be less pressure to conform. Connect has had a strong history of women leaders, with four consecutive female presidents from 2006 to 2010 and when I was president, it was certainly reassuring to have that foundation to build upon.”

External & Internal Pressures

Michelle Wyatt is a senior developer at Docstoc, a Santa Monica, CA start-up that helps people find and share professional documents. When she was hired as a junior developer in 2008, she was just 23-years-old and the only female employee in the company, but that didn’t concern her.

“My mother is a software engineer and growing up I knew that she worked almost exclusively with men, so I knew that engineers were mostly men, but I didn’t think the culture was any different from other fields,” Wyatt said. “When I attended Caltech as a computer science major I became aware that the tech industry was male-dominated and understood what that entailed; my undergrad class at Caltech was two-thirds male.”

In her specific workplace, Wyatt never felt an external pressure to conform, but in hindsight realizes she pressured herself to conform to a professional ideal that she’d built up in her own head. She became hyper-aware of how her co-workers might perceive her and agonized over details, like whether it was a good idea to avoid skirts and dresses and if that would lead to being taken more seriously as she hoped.

Wyatt contends that Mayer and Fake’s advice is incredibly difficult to follow. But she also says it’s worth it if you want to make it to the level that both women have worked hard to achieve.

“To succeed in this industry you have to be confident. Web developers are expected to be entrepreneurs within their companies. You have to take a leadership role; you have to argue for your ideas; and you have to be able to tell people when they are wrong. If you are trying to hide who you are, you will not be willing to speak up when it is needed. If you are trying to fit into a mold, you will not think outside the box. Diverse teams innovate better. I have spent a lot of time in my professional life worrying about how others perceive me, but when I started focusing on how I perceive myself, my confidence skyrocketed and I became a better developer,” Wyatt said.

As Wyatt’s confidence grew she felt more comfortable in her professional role, but it wasn’t until last year when Docstoc hired several female employees in non-technical roles that she felt comfortable enough to fully relax and be herself. It’s an important distinction to make because in the male dominated tech world, women often have few female colleagues in technical roles and even fewer female role models. Part of the problem as to why more women don’t climb the ladder, according to Wyatt, is because their potential isn’t recognized when they don’t fit into the stereotypical image often associated with the potential to succeed.

“The tech industry takes too much pride in the sleepless, socially awkward hacker image, like that from the Social Network,” Wyatt said. “We see a young male in jeans and a hoodie and we see all of his potential, but when someone comes in who does not fit the mold, we focus less on potential and more on concrete skills. It discourages diversity. If we can keep women in the industry by increasing their confidence and encouraging them to push themselves and to fight for what they want, they will rise to leadership positions and they’ll become role models and mentors themselves.”

Women In Technology International

When you are the underrepresented group in an industry, joining a professional organization can be career changing and one of the reasons Carolyn Leighton founded Women In Technology International (WITI) in 1989 was to connect women in an industry where they seemed too few and far between.

“I was running a consulting company in 1984 and I encountered other women from client companies who were miserable and frustrated by their work climates in the technology industry. At the time, it was a really tough climate for women; they were ignored, their opinions were dismissed, and there was very little awareness about the benefits of a diverse workforce,” Leighton said. “Whenever one group is in power or is more predominant, other groups feel as if they have to conform and in many ways, this still happens to women in the industry.”

Michele Weisblatt, WITI’s EVP, says that Fake and Mayer’s advice to always be yourself may be too simplified. Rather than concerning yourself with fitting in with the guys, Weisblatt said, the real concern should be understanding the culture of the company you’re working for.

Weisblatt was hired at Apple shortly after she graduated from college and though she’s mostly had positive experiences as a woman in the tech industry, she did see the “cultural divide” between men and women. Out of 20 or so engineers, there were only two women.

“When you’re young, you don’t really understand the politics of working at a large company,” Weisblatt said. “There’s a lot to learn, especially in the tech industry where some companies operate totally different than what’s the norm. In the culture of a specific company, it might not just be acceptable, but normal to wear jeans and wearing a suit or skirt would make you stand out in a bad way. There are a lot of factors to consider and those are the types of things that should dictate your behavior, not whether your male colleagues feel like you can hang with them. One client at previous job told me that I shouldn’t wear suits to meetings, though I had to at 90 percent of my other meetings. Understanding company culture is key; you have to know how to read the situation.”

How do you come to understand the company’s culture? Leighton recommends doing your research ahead of time. Read as much information about the company as you can and find a trusted person within the organization and ask as many questions as you need to in order to have a firm understanding of what to expect.

Where You are Able to be Authentic

The issue, of course, is that a trusted person isn’t always available and your chance of having a high-ranking female mentor is even slimmer. This is why organizations like WITI can be so crucial. Not only does WITI partner with companies to teach them how to diversify, but the organization also offers an invaluable resource to women in the tech industry, allowing them to network and learn how to navigate the industry from each other, while also sharing insights and strategies.

Sometimes, however, all the research and networking in the world won’t make a company in the tech industry more inviting of women. In these instances, Leighton says some soul searching might need to be done.

“At the end of the day, the company you work with has to align with your values and if you’re a woman working at a company that isn’t willing to change or diversify so that it’s more accepting of women, you may have to walk away,” Leighton said. “It’s important to work in an environment that you feel comfortable in, a place where you can bring your authentic self to work each day. If you’re working somewhere where that’s not possible, you have to decide if changing the way you behave in order to fit in is too high a price to pay.”