Illustration by Irina Strelnikova/Shutterstock

Challenges for Women Working in Tech

Last year I, along with a few colleagues from the Urban Institute’s Technology and Data Science team, participated in a Data@Urban digital discussion about women in tech. Though the topic was obviously broad, we felt that our perspective — as women working in technology at a nonprofit institution — was unique and could help continue an important dialogue. We discussed the inclusionary and exclusionary aspects of tech as they relate to women, unequal pay, gender bias, and more.

A few months before this event, on International Women’s Day, I was part of a similar conversation with women leaders in tech, hosted by the Urban Institute. We discussed the hurdles that women and girls face, such as access to free and fair education, gender stereotyping, and work-life balance. Many of these challenges resonated with me personally; I had read about them and even faced them to varying degrees. Below are three takeaways from these two events:

The pipeline problem

When I was growing up in India, parents actively encouraged their kids to pursue two fields: medicine and engineering or computer science. These fields were seen as pathways to success, but they were promoted very differently. Engineering and computer science was for men; medicine was for women. The Indian labor force mirrored this gender imbalance.

In the US, women make up only 26 percent of the computer and mathematical operation workforce. This disparity is often explained by the “pipeline problem,” that there are not enough women in STEM fields. In 2016, only 19 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women; this low share is even more remarkable when we consider that it has declined from 27 percent in 1997. This gender imbalance in STEM jobs does not hold true across all fields: in 2016, women received a majority of psychology and biological sciences degrees.

At both events, women discussed multiple factors that contribute to the pipeline problem — sexism, lack of mentors, gender norms, and unequal pay, to name a few. In our roundtable discussion, the most-discussed topic was the entry-level problem: not enough girls pursue computer science. “One way to solve for the entry-level problem is to get girls involved in tech at an early age” suggested Khuloud Odeh, chief information officer of the Urban Institute. Engaging girls at an early age by teaching them how to code in school, through after-school programs like competitions, coding camps, and more can help get them excited about having a career in technology. It is equally important to educate girls about different career options by introducing them to women actively working in technology fields. It is far easier for girls to envision a career in STEM if they see successful women in STEM, particularly successful women that look like them. “You can’t be what you can’t see. Don’t underestimate what being a woman in tech means as a role model for young girls,” Odeh noted.

Self-branding and promotion

Taking credit for my work or promoting myself has never been my cup of tea. Growing up, I was taught that if I work hard, my work will do all the talking. That is what my mom believed and what I grew up believing. To be fair, it did work for me. Until it didn’t.

A few years into my career, I realized that people who promote themselves — by explicitly demonstrating their value to managers, volunteering to speak at conferences, or sharing their accomplishments on social media — got better responsibilities, pay, and promotions, regardless of their actual work.

At the roundtable discussion, hearing the experiences of two entrepreneurs — Veni Kunche and Priyanka Komala, both women of color and both immigrants — who feel the same way was a bittersweet validation. The belief that if you work hard, things will happen works only for people whose background matches the demographics of their industry. In the case of technology, that tends to be white men.

Women are now increasingly encouraged to take credit and talk about their achievements. Research shows that people who self-promote do better in terms of getting hired, promoted, and getting a raise or a bonus. “You have to self-advocate. No one gave me the opportunity to be a leader. And because of that I thought I wasn’t a leader,” Kunche said while discussing her experience.

Self-promotion might seem like a win-win solution, but a study from Carnegie Mellon found that women who self-promote are more likely to be perceived negatively. This perspective can be attributed to typical gender norms: women should be modest and not tout their achievements. This, of course, leads to a catch-22. Women who are vilified for talking about their achievements will eventually stop doing so; this, in turn, means they will not be recognized for their achievements, receive fewer promotions, and propagate wage inequality. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

Work and family

Many women have been bitten by the superwoman syndrome at least once in their lifetime. We believe we can do it all — have successful careers, network effortlessly, speak at multiple conferences, and have a social life, all while raising a family and looking chic. While some women might be able to do it all, for many the superwoman expectation inevitably leads to stress and unhappiness.

Asked about how they manage successful startups while raising toddlers, both Veni Kunche and Priyanka Komala talked about how they had initially thought they would be able to do it all, the way their moms had done it all. But they soon had to reevaluate their strategy. As Kunche said, “I can’t do everything. I’m going to focus on a few main things, and that’s all I’m going to do. It’s very uncomfortable and hard to say no, but it’s necessary. And it’s been better for business, made me a better mom.”

Studies show that women are still overwhelmingly saddled with managing their homes and providing child care. A survey conducted last year shows that even though both men and women having been doing more household work since the COVID-19 lockdowns, women are still doing more than their partners: “Seventy percent of women say they’re fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown, and 66 percent say so for child care — roughly the same shares as in typical times.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

The challenges that women face in the tech world are far and many. To those of us who feel overwhelmed, I offer this advice from Priyanka Komala “My motto is: My happiness comes first. And following that has made me a better mom, wife, daughter-in-law.”

- Sybil Mendonca

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