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What 7 combined decades in tech taught us about perseverance and reinvention

·6-min read

Women in the workplace have historically been undervalued and underrepresented. That’s no secret, but it rings especially true in tech. In the United States alone, women make up less than 40% of the global workforce and only fill 25% of professional computing jobs. Furthermore, a new report found that 45% of surveyed women in tech said men outnumber them at work at ratios of 4-to-1 or greater.

Between the two of us, we possess nearly 70 years of experience working in tech(!), and if you ask us to recount our journeys, we’re likely to recall both great and not-so-great memories. For instance, one of us distinctly remembers being told by an eighth grade math teacher that she wasn’t good enough to take algebra. But in a fortuitous act of youthful defiance, she elected to major in math before landing her first post-grad job as a programmer for a NASA contractor. This would go on to launch a thriving, 50+ year career in tech.

A few decades later, the other remembers serving as the only woman on her company’s leadership team, often feeling isolated and alone. Again, defying the status quo, she instead used this as a catalyst to build a platform focusing on advancing women in the workplace, helping to identify and bring more female leaders to the table.

What these stories illustrate — and what the two of us agree about — is this: While many organizations and allies are making a more concentrated effort to help women progress in their careers and thrive in a male-dominated tech world, much of the onus on driving change and making improvements rests squarely on our shoulders as women. Women are resilient, and they are showing a fresh perspective, energy and dedication to ensure they rebound and regain influence, power and capital after being disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Whether you’re a woman considering a career in tech or a seasoned professional, we all share in this mission and have a role to play in mitigating the gender gap and supporting one another.

Here are a few things that have worked for us over the years:

Acknowledge the challenges and face them head-on

If you like country music, you’ve likely heard the song, “Same Boat,” with the chorus singing, “We’re all in the same boat, fishing in the same hole … ” Well, we may be fishing in the same hole — or, in the case of the past two years, riding out the same storm — but we’re still in very different boats.

Hiring women returning from a career break can bolster existing talent pools, and these "returners" are often highly motivated, educated and more than qualified to take on a variety of roles.

Skillsoft’s 2021 Women in Tech report shows that women, particularly those in technical fields, continue to face many of the challenges in the workplace that have long existed. The largest percentage cites their biggest issue as lack of equity in pay, followed by work and life balance, lack of opportunities and lack of training.

Additionally, in the United States during the pandemic, 34% of men working remotely with children at home received a promotion compared to 9% of women in the same situation, and 26% of men received a pay raise compared to just 13% of women, according to a study by Qualtrics and The Boardlist.

Yes, the gender gap faced by women has shown slight signs of improvement in recent years, but this is a reminder that the road to equality is long and winding. It’s essential to remain persistent and not lose sight of your aspirations in the face of adversity. Even if you were an average student, you may soon find yourself in a meeting and realize you’re one of the smartest people there.

Learn from your mistakes, and when things are not going your way, find a way that works. This held true in the 1960s, and it still does today.

Don’t be afraid of reinvention

Life throws curve balls. For many women, taking a hiatus from work to have and care for children (or others, like aging parents) is inevitable. From personal experience, it can be difficult finding an employer willing to take a chance on women returning to the workforce. That’s why being persistent and willing to reinvent yourself is so important.

Maintain a mindset of curiosity throughout your career. That’s critical to ensure you’re able to adapt and pivot in any given situation. Perhaps after leaving the workforce, your previous position in product marketing is no longer there, or maybe you’ve reached a certain point in your career and no longer enjoy the work. Are your existing skillsets transferable to another role? Are there skills you’ve learned along the way — or could acquire — that allow you to shift to another path, such as development?

While pivoting and reinventing your career can be daunting, it can also pay major dividends in the long term.

For organizations, embracing this approach is good business. Hiring women returning from a career break can bolster existing talent pools, and these "returners" are often highly motivated, educated and more than qualified to take on a variety of roles. They want to put their best foot forward and bring mature and diverse perspectives, many of which they may have gained during their hiatus.

At a time when the tech workforce has a dire need for more skilled individuals — especially women — now is the time to enlist and empower this motivated group.

Master the most important skill of all: Flexibility

Change can be disruptive, but embracing and adapting to change can open a new world of possibilities. In order to come out ahead, it’s important to not just survive organizational change, but understand and learn how to thrive in it.

For example, several years ago one of us led a team that was bringing a new product to market that was tremendously exciting. Her company, however, decided to go a different route and bought a business that was already successful in this space. She could have worried about her job (and did, briefly), but instead, realized that the company needed help moving customers from the existing product to the acquired one. So she raised her hand, let them know that she could help and was subsequently assigned to the new team.

She’s now been with this company for nearly 20 years.

On the flip side, if an organization is asking such a drastic change of an employee, they must also provide the tools and resources needed for them to be successful in their new role. Here’s where creating a culture of learning, in which every employee is given the opportunity to develop new skills and capabilities, comes into play.

We all aspire to something bigger, to finding our place in — and contributing to — the world. Women's careers are journeys made up of diverse and interwoven learning experiences that build leadership, power, influence, grit and resilience. We’ve made some good choices and faced some tough challenges during our combined 70-plus years in the tech workforce.

What have we learned? What you do with those learning lessons and how you build your story of perseverance, resilience and success as a female in technology is what matters most.

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