Understanding the nuances of what it means to be a woman in tech.

By Rebekah Iliff (Chief Strategy Officer, AirPR)

This story originally appeared on Inc.com.

“Women in tech” is a hot topic. Whether it’s trying to figure out how to get girls engaged with science and math early on, or narrowing the gender gaps at huge tech companies, the following question lingers eerily in the clouds. Or is it the cloud?

Why aren’t more women in tech?

This six-word question seems to be the big business mystery of the post-industrial, technologically driven era.

The answer, however, is about as simple as the technological infrastructure we’ve built to prop up our modern lives. It’s multi-faceted, full of glitches, and lacks a one-size-fits-all answer.

But what fun is there in solving simple problems? For that matter: is it a problem at all?

Last week, NPR published an article about marketing’s role in the technology sector, citing how important the qualitative side of the equation is to the industry’s overall success.

One Notable Excerpt:

But in a world in which many tech startups are fighting for recognition in crowded markets, more investors like Deborah Jackson want marketing and PR built in from the ground up.

“It’s absolutely mission critical,” she says, “just as important as the technology. You really need both pieces in order for a company to be successful.”

Though Jackson and many women would like to see more diversity among the people who actually program and make the tech, they’d also like to see credit given to the contributions women are already making in the tech sector.

Arguably, if you include the C-Suite (think non-engineer Sheryl Sandberg), marketing, communications and sales, then there is a fairly high number of women working in, or at least in tandem with, technology. I can’t name one female CMO or VP of Marketing I know who doesn’t make tech-related decisions on a daily basis, nor one who isn’t familiar with tech trends that affect their business.

Likewise, nearly every female marketer or PR pro on the planet who is any good at what they do, is required to be somewhat data literate: they must have a basic aptitude for technology which in order to make clear cut decisions regarding marketing and communications strategies. This includes everything from SEO strategy to A/B testing email-marketing headlines.

We Are a Data-Driven Economy

So why isn’t it enough for women in marketing or communications or PR (who happen to work at technology companies) to be considered women in tech? How many female engineers do we need really to make it feel “fair,” assuming that is the aim?

Do we assume an understanding of computer science and math is more fundamentally important than affective labor skills? Or do we (as a society) assume that male-driven sectors are in some way inherently sexist? Which is, as any feminist will tell you, a cause for serious concern and impending course correction.

In an extremely poetic moment, I sat down with one of our female engineers (Gloria DeMartelaere), who holds her own daily among her male colleagues, to attempt to understand this women-in-tech-thing a little better. If we are really going to support female engineers (which I would consider a sizable piece of the women in tech pie), where do we start?

As a small company, how do you support a culture in which engineering is considered a gender agnostic job? How do the needs of female engineers differ from that of male engineers?

A la Gloria DeMartelaere, the 3 Main Issues Affecting Female Engineering

  1. Peer-to-peer support is lackluster at best
  2. One is often, and constantly, fighting a feeling of “imposter syndrome”
  3. Unfortunately, sexism in the workplace (latent and blatant) does exist

“In my experience, if female engineers had a bigger support group and more peer-to-peer interaction, facing the challenges of being a minority wouldn’t seem so daunting,” she remarks.

When it comes to feeling like an impostor in a mostly male environment, Gloria has adopted an interesting philosophy: “When it comes to asking questions, I’ve decided it’s better to appear ‘stupid’ and get it done, then not get it done or do it wrong.”

This level of self-coaching, which Gloria considers fundamental to her job, may not come easy to some female engineers. The fear of appearing incompetent or imperfect can be crippling, without some level of peer support.

At a small company, often the only other females reside in the marketing or sales departments. “In a startup environment, sometimes just having other females–whether its in leadership positions or in the marketing department–is a great proxy for having female engineering peers.”

When prompted about the role early socialization plays in whether or not girls choose science and math, she had this to say:

“Liking science and math is not just a natural ability. The best programmers, like the best writers, are the ones who practice consistently. Sure, you might need a natural inclination toward science or math, but if given the opportunities to hone your skills early on, along with encouragement and support, you would likely be more interested in studying computer sciences instead of liberal arts.”

According to Gloria, plenty of peer groups exist outside the walls of a startup or established company–which are the best bet for finding the support you need since most internal engineering teams remain predominantly male.

Organizations like Women 2.0, Femgineer, and Women in Tech are active in most major cities, and even offer ample resources and community building opportunities online.

Crossing the Women in the Tech Chasm

Gloria’s insights are likely true for the majority of female engineers who do not yet hold executive-level positions. I would also hold that her sentiments are not engineering specific, but perhaps also felt by any female in a position where males are the majority.

As collective women in tech — which includes both non-technical and technical roles — we should make an ardent effort to eliminate silos.

Ultimately, being a woman in tech is less about getting credit for building a successful product (if we are an engineer) or breathing life into the product story (if we are a marketer), and more about understanding the challenges we face so that we can support each other and empower ourselves to build awe-inspiring careers.

That alone will lead more girls and more women to want to be a woman in tech — and no PR campaign, education program or political mandate has that kind of power.

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