I earned my computer science degree and entered the tech industry nearly two decades ago. Here’s what I’d tell women engineers in the class of 2018.
BY JOY BAER
I was a teenager, back in the ’80s, when it first occurred to me that I might be different from some of my friends. It wasn’t long before I found myself spending nights and weekends hovering over text-based adventure games on my family’s Apple IIc computer. I knew that my interest in computers was not the “coolest” hobby to have, but I was captivated by technology.
I still am. I couldn’t yet foresee that my interest in computers would later expand into programming–let alone lead me into engineering roles and eventually become the president of a technology company. But I certainly knew what it was like to question whether computer science was the right interest to pursue professionally.
Nineteen years after earning my computer science degree, I still meet many young women with the same set of interests and the same set of worries–largely because women remain so underrepresented in the tech sector in general and in engineering roles in particular. Estimates vary, but researchers believe women earn about 20% of computer science degrees in the U.S. and occupy an even smaller share of full-time engineering roles–thought to be closer to around 13%.
Throughout my career, I’ve found that I’ve often been able to come to the table with a unique perspective than most of the other engineers in the room–not strictly due to my gender, but thanks to a different life experience and the perspective that comes with it. I’m confident that opportunities for other women who can contribute their own points of view to tech-driven challenges will only continue to rise. Here are my best pieces of advice for the women in the class of 2018 who will soon be nabbing engineering degrees.
DON’T UNDERSELL YOURSELF, NOW OR EVER
Keep this in mind for those inevitable times when you may begin to doubt yourself: You can do everything and anything your male counterparts can do, and plenty of things they can’t. I often see women approach projects and negotiations less confidently than they should. Many women who take a different approach than their male peers tend to get overshadowed as a result. Don’t feel intimidated. No matter what type of job you’re pursuing, you need a compelling, confident communication style right from the get-go. It’s crucial to know your own worth and empower yourself to approach business situations like the trained, capable problem solver you are.
EMBRACE YOUR DIFFERENCES
Especially if you work on a mostly male team, your perspective will often be different due to your life experiences. I spend a lot of my free time designing websites for friends and family, using a series of third-party tools and subscription-based applications to accomplish the work. In the process, I sometimes notice weird quirks in how these programs present options to users–things that a possibly homogeneous group of developers and UX designers might not have thought of.
I’ve learned to embrace my point of view and speak up about it with product teams. My organization has benefitted as a result. It’s so important that everyone feels supported and comfortable sharing their own perspectives, particularly in tech fields–where diverse points of view are frequently hard to come by.
KEEP A THICK SKIN
The best skill I’ve developed in my 20 years working in a male-dominated industry is learning how, when, and when not to take things personally. Developers may not always be as emotionally intelligent as their colleagues in other departments, like sales and marketing. Keeping this in mind can save a lot of frustration–and help you distinguish genuine sexism from just clumsy people skills. The added benefit, if you’re a highly capable developer with a high EQ, is that it puts you in a great position to manage teams and create new opportunities for yourself.
Our society needs to do a better job of empowering women to choose any career path they want to pursue. Organizations are missing out on tremendous opportunities to grow through a more diverse base of employees. So to all the women engineers in the class of 2018, know that your skills are needed and your input is in hot demand. Find an organization that values both, and you will thrive.
Joy Baer is president of Freewheel Advertisers and has 25 years of enterprise-software and management-consulting expertise with Fortune 500 and large national media companies. She earned her bachelor of science in Information Systems from Drake University and is a member of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) and the Economic Club of Chicago.