When I began my first real office job a week after graduating college, I was still young and figuring out who I was. That job eventually helped me learn a lot about myself, though not in the way I might have originally hoped. I was a brand-spanking-new adult awkwardly navigating a full-time job and the post-college world — and instead of providing a nurturing environment to help me grow, they fired me. Not only did they fire me, but they blindsided me at the end of the workday and locked me out of my accounts before I had even signed the papers.
Being fired (and how I was treated in that moment) drastically affected how I perceived myself as an employee and as a person. I questioned my worth as a human being. And of course I did — my entire life, I was taught to be critical of who a woman should be, how she should act, what she should look like, and how her worth should be determined. I’m not alone in this either. New research suggests that gender stereotypes hold women back in the workplace and can lead women to question their abilities.
It’s been a long journey to truly understanding my value and being able to hold my own in the male-dominated tech space. And I’m sorry to say that getting fired hasn’t been my only negative experience as a woman in the tech industry. Yet along the way I’ve learned many incredibly valuable lessons and become so much more confident in my worth and abilities. Here are a few personal takeaways that have been particularly impactful as I’ve encountered adversity as a woman working within the tech industry.
1. Your voice is valuable — and not just because you’re one of the only women in the room
I’ve often found it difficult to speak my mind at work, especially when I was just beginning my career. I was surrounded by men who had been trained to believe their voices were powerful and that their opinions were worth something. Meanwhile, as a woman I had to fight against the stigma that I was just a pretty face with nothing going on in my head. It’s an awful and unfair stereotype, but it’s something us women continue to encounter in the tech world.
One could argue that women’s voices are actually more valuable because we’re underrepresented in the tech industry. However, our perspectives are also worth sharing not because of our gender but because we are competent, intelligent individuals with ideas of merit that can improve projects and processes. Seeing fellow female colleagues speak up — women who are brilliant, thoughtful, creative, and resilient — was a huge motivator for me as I struggled to find my voice. Still, it took me years to learn how to be more assertive — a trait that seems to come naturally (maybe a little too naturally) to a lot of men. I won’t pretend the journey is over, though; at times I still question whether my input is valuable enough.
2. Take credit for your work, or someone else will
Some of the tech companies I’ve worked at have been chaotic, politically charged environments where management often has little to no knowledge of who is doing actual work. At many companies, you must prove your value to protect your job and your projects in the event of budget cuts, corporate merges, or team reorganizations. This is especially true if you’re a woman in the tech industry. In fact, 79 percent of women in male-dominated workplaces constantly feel the need to prove themselves.
Many of my male colleagues have already adapted to this structure by becoming well-versed in self-promotion and publicly staking their claims on successful projects. For instance, I had a male coworker who excelled at not-so-humble brags. He would send out company-wide emails promoting projects he was involved in, regardless of how much work he contributed. It was savvy in the sense that he looked incredibly valuable to the company, although in my interactions with him he appeared to do the smallest amount of work possible.
I eventually came to realize that the way I could get coworkers to recognize my value was to take a page from that male colleague’s playbook. So I started sending out emails announcing the content I had created and sharing progress updates, and then more people bothered to learn who I was and what I did. After years of seeing others — often male managers — take credit for my work (even something as silly as a slide in a presentation), I finally came to terms with the fact that the only person who fully had my back was me.
3. Your job isn’t to fit female stereotypes
It’s an ugly (albeit well-known) truth that many women in the tech industry are treated differently than their male counterparts. Women in male-dominated industries like tech report difficulties succeeding at work, being treated unfairly in personnel matters, and experiencing higher rates of gender discrimination. As a young woman at the start of my career, I learned the hard way that fancy salaries, impressive titles, and innovative products in no way guarantee a progressive or forward-thinking culture.
Far too many men in the tech industry have outdated preconceptions about women in the workplace. We’re expected to always be positive and friendly, to smile often and help people feel at ease. We’re not supposed to be dominant or assertive, or to push back against men’s opinions. I once had a female colleague who was eventually forced out of the company by our team leader because she had “attitude problems”, when in reality she was simply a passionate person who fought for her ideas. This woman was incredibly talented and a true asset to the team, but she became the target of a smear campaign because one man disliked her outspoken nature.
At the end of the day, we need to realize this problem is something men must deal with themselves — it’s not our burden to apologize for or bend to fit other people’s misconceptions. I’m a woman who doesn’t smile all the time and has no desire to be typecast as the party planner or note taker. I have strong opinions about the projects I’m involved with, and I want to share those thoughts. I’m also an excellent employee: I’m dedicated, driven, and a team player. And ultimately I was hired for my set of skills, not to fulfill whatever clichéd vision of appropriate female behavior colleagues may have.
4. Always weigh the job against the cost to your health and happiness
Women are conditioned to grin and bear it (whatever it is); if we speak up, we might be labeled as too emotional or sensitive. Yet many of us who work in tech are the recipients of mistreatment and discrimination, if not outright harassment. (Just look at Susan Fowler and her colleagues at Uber, and how Susan was treated for speaking out about her situation.) I’ve been in the position where I was made to feel incompetent or the culture was so negative that I got stuck in a gloomy headspace. In one role, I decided that leaving was my only option to improve my mindset and escape bad behaviors in the workplace.
Sometimes we love our jobs and it’s worth enduring a bit of micromanaging here or mansplaining there. However, we should also set boundaries for ourselves on the type of treatment we deserve at work. Tech culture can be cutthroat, and bosses and executive teams don’t always have our best interests in mind. Sometimes they’re too busy caring about their bottom line or wondering where their next round of funding will come from (or they’re simply choosing to ignore how women are being treated). Regardless of the reason, if your boss or company isn’t addressing the treatment of women, you have the right to leave if it begins to affect your well-being or your state of mind. You can leave even if it doesn’t escalate to that point — it’s about whether you feel comfortable or not.
Being a woman in the tech industry can be challenging, but it’s more manageable once you know your worth and set limits for what treatment or behaviors you will and won’t accept. If the environment or culture gets too toxic or discriminatory, you’ll know it’s time to look for another job. Life is too short and too precious to spend it around people who don’t value you.
This post, as part of LiquidPlanner’s Women in Tech Week, is meant to highlight the talent, innovation, and creativity women bring to the technology community. This week, we’ll cover a range of topics by women authors in project management and technology roles to share their stories, perspectives, and tips on how to succeed in your career, know your worth, and help eliminate gender bias.