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Women in software development: 8 success stories, 5 tips for advancement

Beth Stackpole Freelance Writer, Beth Stackpole, Sole Practitioner

With a resume stacked with achievements including a degree in applied math and computer science from the University of Washington, product development positions at eBay and Microsoft, and experience founding a pair of software startups, Natalia Burina has the pedigree of a high-tech superstar.

Yet Burina's road to success as a woman in software development has not been without its share of bumps, many of which are related to the fact that she works in a male-dominated world. While women have made inroads in software development organizations as leaders in DevOps, their numbers are far lower compared with men—and their challenges are far greater.

Feeling like an outsider

Throughout college and during her first years on the job, Burina says she often felt like an outsider. She was frequently questioned about her qualifications and peppered with comments on her appearance and demeanor, and she was even quizzed during a venture capital pitch about her future plans for family and children.

While such experiences came as an initial shock, Burina says she became less sensitive over time as she gained confidence in her skills. She quickly learned how to rise above the obstacles and align herself with strong champions, both men and women, who helped to promote her accomplishments and pave a path to success.

"It feels like no matter how much you accomplish, you come to the table and are constantly questioned," says Burina, now entrepreneur in residence at Samsung. "Men can simply look the part. Women cannot. You can be very senior and have done all this stuff, but you still feel like you have to keep proving yourself."

Why women leave

Burina was motivated to keep pushing forward, but many women in software development simply move elsewhere. The lack of women in tech roles has been well publicized: According to the best available estimates, only about 15% of staff in high-tech companies are female. A public Google spreadsheet, created by a female software engineer at Pinterest to track women specifically writing or architecting software on a full-time basis, dials up the number to approximately 19% across the 84 companies charted.

Not only are the number of female programmers low to start, but an alarmingly high number of women opt out of the field after working in it for a period of time. Women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and especially in high tech, are far more likely to leave their jobs than are women in other professions. Many say they left midcareer because they felt they hit a glass ceiling, were underpaid, had been treated unfairly, or were far less likely to be noticed and fast-tracked compared with their male counterparts.

"It's been well established that women in technology roles have a harder time," says Anna Beniger, director of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit committed to expanding opportunities for women in business, and co-author of the study High Potentials In Tech-Intensive Industries—The Gender Division in Business Roles. "It's not just a technical issue—it's impacting women in this industry across the board. The onus needs to be on fixing the organizations, not on fixing the women."

The Catalyst study found women working in business roles in tech-intensive industries were just as likely to face barriers to advancement as their female technical colleagues. Issues included an absence of female role models and vague evaluation criteria. Women who took a business role in the high-tech industry were far more likely than men (53% compared with 31%) to leave and take a position in another industry, the research found.

Beniger says the problem boils down to a toxic culture at tech companies that live up to their reputation as boys' clubs. These companies do far too little to cultivate environments that are inclusive to women. "Women feel like outsiders from the start," Beniger says. "They feel like they have to act like one of the guys to have a shot at being successful, and they have to outperform men to get the same amount of respect to get ahead."

Still, women in software development are rising to the top of their field, but they're doing so by drawing from a different playbook. To confront the gender gap head on, successful women software engineers and industry experts offer the following recommendations:

Concentrate on confidence

The way most women are socialized—combined with the scarcity of female role models and women colleagues in general—sets the stage for a crisis in confidence, says Katie Lefevre, an instructor at Hackbright Academy, an engineering school that caters to women. "If you're one of a few women in an environment, you tend to feel the need to represent every woman," she explains. "So if you don't know something, you feel like you are somehow letting everyone down by being a bad developer."

Sara Gottlieb went through the Hackbright program as part her mission to build her credentials, skills, and confidence after a career switch into software development. Gottlieb taught herself code using websites like Codecademy, but she felt she needed more experience, especially on projects keyed to real-world applications. "Hackbright fosters a great environment of inspired confidence," Gottlieb says. "When you sit around for 10 weeks with people who call you smart, it tends to rub off on you." She called on the experience to go after—and land—an engineering management position at SurveyMonkey shortly into her tenure.

Joyce Jang, engineering manager at Hearsay, is equally adamant about not letting internal doubts sidetrack her career. After second-guessing whether she should pursue a management track, Jang was encouraged by colleagues, both male and female, and drew inspiration from her company's female CEO to go for what she wanted. "You can learn a lot by what other women have gone through," she says. "Having a woman CEO definitely helps. The environment is really supportive, and it sets the tone to male population as well."

Don't be afraid to ask for what you want

Standing out in a sea of male voices is intimidating, but females need to speak up—and speak often. Caroline Tsay, vice president and general manager at HP Software, says public speaking was critical to helping her develop a style and tone that made sure she was heard. "Making sure you can articulate an idea clearly and you have voice and presence is so important for others to have a good understanding of who you are," she says.

Being open and direct about what you want is also essential for success. Tsay took that lesson to heart when she stepped up for an opportunity to build a new team and work on a new product area. "I could have stayed in my current level and role, but since it was a strategic area and an opportunity to build a new product that would impact the company, I asked for a promotion and salary that was commensurate with the expanded role," she says. "Asking for raises and promotions doesn't come as easily for women as some men ... but you have to be very open and direct when it comes to something you want."

Joyce Stack, developer advocate at Mendeley, says the best piece of advice she could give female up-and-comers is to ask for something they believe they deserve. Stack did just that to land one of her first significant jobs in software testing. "After the interview, they asked if I had any more questions, and I asked for the job," she recalls. "No one is going to give you something because you're thinking about it. You have to open your mouth and ask."

Know your prospective employer

Not every software company perpetuates the "brogrammer" atmosphere, so it's important to take the time to learn about the culture in addition to the job. With some companies, a male-oriented culture becomes apparent as early on as the recruitment process, when the language used to describe a role is riddled with such masculine terms such as demanding and competitive environment, Beniger says. Companies that have programs in place to encourage sponsorship of women are open to flexible work arrangements, and those that use quantifiable goals in performance reviews, not vague criteria, are less likely to be cultures that are unfriendly to females, she adds.

"A lot of women take jobs without paying attention to the red flags," Beniger says. "Understanding the reality is huge because it enables you to be strategic from day one."

Find a mentor or a sponsor

Women looking to successfully climb the ladder from programming ranks to management, even to executive positions, need to be aligned with male and female mentors and sponsors they can emulate and lean on—and most important, who can serve as their champions.

Burina recognized the importance of having a mentor early on and continued to seek them out over the course of her career, including in her programmer roles at a eBay and Microsoft. She also found mentors as an entrepreneur founding mobile social media platform Flockish (sold to eBay's StubHub) and Parable, a creative photo network recently purchased by Samsung.

However, don't settle for just anyone as a mentor, she adds. "You have to find someone that appreciates you and your skills and that is in a position to support you," she explains. "That person has to be well respected and senior, and their opinions need to carry a lot of weight. That's the trick to getting out of a spot where coming to work is a minefield."

Be yourself

Resist the urge to blend in, and don't be afraid to ask questions when you don't know something, says Sumana Pingali, a quality assurance engineer at HP Software. "Women tend to put the needs of others in front of [their own], and when we have an opinion about something, we look at others to see what they might think," she says. "Over time, I've learned not to worry about how it sounds or what people think of me."

Michele Titolo, lead software engineer at Capital One and CTO of Women Who Code, has come to terms with wearing what she wants, saying what she wants, and most important, going after what she wants without worrying too much about the fallout. Having a supportive manager is a big bonus, as is finding and cultivating networks that include senior-level men and women who she can talk to and learn from and who serve as internal advocates.

"You have to be fearless," Titolo says. "There are going to be people who don't like the way you do something or don't like you for any particular reason. Don't let the fear of that hold you back—there's so much potential out there."

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