It's never easy being the only woman in the room.
It's even harder being the only woman in most rooms. Shamefully, that's still the case for many women working in tech—women hold only 25% of professional computing occupations in the U.S. and just 28% of STEM jobs in general.
And, from our annual survey on women's representation in the tech industry, Techopedia learned one of the major things pros think holds women back from the field is education—or lack thereof. In other words, many of our respondents said they believe schools and universities don't sufficiently promote tech-related career paths to women. (Also read: Why Is There Still a Gender Gap in Tech?)
There's no better way to learn how to get a job in tech than to look to those who've done it. So, we asked trailblazing women in the industry to share their advice for those just getting their feet in the door. These women haven't just "gotten a job" in tech—they've built careers, companies and cachet.
Here's who we talked to:
- Sheekha Singh, author of "The IT Girl" and QA Automation Lead at Artisan Studios.
- Ximena Alemàn, co-founder and co-CEO of Prometeo OpenBanking.
- Nicola Buckley, executive vice-president at Park Place Technologies.
Our conversations centered around each of these women's individual journeys breaking into the field and their advice for young women who dream in binary code. When we asked them what they wished they could tell their past selves, when they were just starting their first tech jobs, four common themes emerged.
Here's what successful women in tech want students to know:
1. Mentorship is Major
We said it already: It's never easy being the only woman in the room.
So, said Buckley, "I quickly realized developing networks and seeking mentors would be important to my success." She continued, "I would volunteer to work in different groups to learn more and build those relationships."
Alemàn also underscored the importance of finding female role models, saying, "…for women to found a company and start the entrepreneurial journey, it's important to work on their emotional skills and inner strength. I also think that mentorships and coaching activities are very important."
Furthering this sentiment, Alemàn noted how mentorships can help acknowledge, address and work to unlearn unconscious biases when they rear their heads. After all, it's hard to speak up when you're outnumbered. (Also read: 5 Ways to Support Women in Your Tech Company.)
"I think the important thing is to generate instances where we can open the space for uncomfortable conversations that allow us to reformulate the biases that exist in the work space—to create more open cultures."
2. Classes Can't Teach You Everything
"The core capabilities [needed to succeed in tech] aren’t learned in school or in the workplace," Alemàn said. "And that’s hard because you’ll have to learn them from yourself. For me, core capabilities are self-esteem, self-care and resilience. That’s what it takes to envision a better future for you and those who surround you, to challenge yourself to the maximum and to question your preconceived notions of who you are and what you are expected and entitled to do."
Singh added to this, stressing the need for more awareness about non-technical roles in the field:
"Everything right now in the market is all about coding and bootcamps for women and, for someone who is new to this field, it tends to be overwhelming (and difficult obviously!)…Young girls, especially, need to know that tech is an amazing field to get into and it does not always have to be technical." (Also read: Top Career Tips for Women Working in Technology.)
And, for Buckley, this ties into why transferable skills learned in other industries are so important for those wanting to break into tech:
"The customer experience is key. From sales to support, ensuring the customer is getting the best experience is a sought-after skill."
3. Your Skills from Other Jobs Will Help You
"There’s this business myth that you should have a tech background if you want to be a tech entrepreneur," said Alemàn. "This isn’t really true."
In fact, many soft skills commonly developed in industries like food service and retail can prove invaluable when breaking into the tech world.
"In order to succeed, no matter where you come from, [you need] emotional, or inner, skills: self-esteem, self-care and self-awareness," Alemàn continued. "This is key because if you’re able to take care of yourself, value yourself properly and understand your own thoughts and behavior, you’ll be able to understand others' thoughts and behaviors—but even more important than that is that you won’t get carried away by the value that others place on you. For me that’s core." (Also read: The Women Who Shaped the Tech World.)
Buckley corroborated this sentiment, offering that "public speaking, teamwork, collaboration and accountability are all crucial skills to have—especially at a company like Park Place that works with tens of thousands of different companies all around the world. You have to be able to think on your feet and trust your colleagues to support you as you learn and advance your career."
Which tech jobs are ideal for those with a customer service background? Singh had some suggestions:
"…scrum master, social media manager, client support specialist, client manager, technical writer or marketing and sales," said Singh. "These roles rely heavily on communication skills and the ability to relay information across teams in an organization." (Also read: The Best Paying Jobs in Tech for Women.)
4. Tech Isn't That Scary
Working in the tech industry is often portrayed in one of two ways: either you're hunched behind a desk doing boring, repetitive tasks all day or you're navigating a high-resolution frat house full of men who only speak in jargon.
And, the latter can be a barrier—tech's "bro" culture is widely cited as one of the major things preventing women from advancing in the industry. (Also read: 5 Key Things Holding Women in Tech Back – and What Can Be Done.)
However, Singh and Buckley underscored that removing the veil of intimidation from the tech industry could inspire more young women to go into the field.
"I was scared to speak up initially; but I realized pretty soon that everybody is in the same boat and that tech is not as difficult or boring as I thought it would be," said Singh. "I made some amazing friends and found some great mentors and I just wished all other young women would get the chance like I did—which is why my first book was about why we need more women in tech."
Buckley drew attention to the obfuscation often plaguing careers in tech:
"Looking at the perception of STEM through the eyes of young girls, the concept is just as intimidating as a child learning what’s required to become an engineer, a scientist, a surgeon, an astronaut or a mathematician. At a high level, I like to describe STEM as 'creative problem-solving,' which sounds like a lot more fun to me and simplifies complex ideas to a young, curious mind that’s up for a challenge."
We still have a long way to go to rectify the gender gap in tech—but it's worth it: Diverse talent pools are effective talent pools. And for women looking to break into the field, Alemàn has one final note:
"…make mistakes, terrible mistakes, learn from them and use them to create a better version of yourself. This is a permanent, iterative work in progress."
*These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.*