Take a moment to imagine an engineer. What springs to mind? Is it someone working on a computer, or on a large-scale construction project? What does the engineer look like?
An ongoing data initiative by Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou shows that around 80% of engineers at tech companies are men. There are many reasons why this gap is so large. Women are often paid less than men for equivalent work, parental leave policies force new parents into choosing between their career or their family, companies offer few opportunities for growth and development, and women often experience behavior at work that ranges from micro-aggression to harassment.
Without a solid foundation of relevant education, and solid processes that encourage career growth and retention, pathways into engineering are complicated for many women.
We wanted to find out more about how tech’s gender imbalance affects women in the industry, so we spoke to some of Simple’s engineers about the problem, and found out how they are creating community and making connections.
Women meet up at a recent Ladies’ Night PDX, organized in part by Simple engineer Stefanie.
Meetups and networking
One of the ways that many in the engineering industry find jobs is through meetups and conferences. Simple data engineer Meli L studied undergraduate neuroscience, but found a career in data engineering through PyLadies, a small women’s meetup. After this initial introduction to a group of women who worked with Python, Meli was introduced to the wider Python community through a scholarship to PyCon.
“I joined PyLadies PDX knowing almost nothing, and found that people there were really patient and helpful,” she says. “I grew up poor, and I did not have a traditional academic background; in PyLadies, I found people like me. They don’t assume that you already know the command line, like somebody who grew up around computers.”
For a woman looking to get into engineering, code schools and meetups are a great way to meet people, learn to code, and find work. Simple data engineer KF is self-taught in Scala, and says, “Scala is not exactly a beginner-friendly language, but I was too new to know that, of course!”
Every week, in every major city in the country, scores of women meet to learn new coding languages, and make work connections. These events don’t just exist to build camaraderie, they’re often also established in reaction to wider industry events. Women in engineering report that conferences, which are often dominated by men, can make them feel alone at best, and unsafe at worst.
For frontend engineer Stefanie H, events catered to groups other than just women can become a battleground for proving her knowledge and competency. “A lot of the time, guys at events will find out what I do for a job, and will then start grilling me and testing me; it’s frustrating.”
She says, “I’ve gone to several Google I/O events having done work for the event—like building the conference website, or the experiment for the conference that was used in all the branding, or a new mobile experience for Chrome Experiments, in addition to a mobile experiment being showcased and launched at the conference; all very legit things that I felt like I had to divulge in order to get some credibility. Because of things like this, I’ve stopped going to really large conferences. I still go to ladies’ events, however. Everyone’s excited to get together and share experiences, and people are generally pretty stoked to hear what you do for a job.”
Meli says, “When you go to a women’s event, you can worry less that people aren’t going to take what you’re saying at face value. If I’m at a general Python event and I say that I’m sexually harassed at conferences, I know there’s a high chance of someone saying, ‘that’s not true,’ or making me feel like I’m a radical feminist for recognizing that I’m being discriminated against. If I’m at a women’s event, others have experienced it, and they will believe you.”
From coding classes to networking opportunities, meetups are just what engineers like KF, Meli and Stefanie needed to break into the industry. Now that they’ve established a career, each of them give back to the community that helped them. KF is involved in groups such as ClojureBridge, Bridge Foundry, and Programming Languages I’ve Been Meaning to Try But Haven’t Gotten Around To Yet; Meli went from learning Python through PyLadies to running the Portland chapter, and Stefanie is part of a group that created Ladies’ Night, a digital industry event that welcomes women from all corners of the tech industry.
At the most recent Ladies’ Night, several women developers showcased their work. On the night, attendees could have a distorted, triple-layered portrait taken in the Glitch Portrait photobooth—a project spearheaded by Wieden + Kennedy’s lady developers to explore how women are disrupting the tech industry. Roaming the venue was Needybot, a fuzzy helper who seeks out humans through body heat, and attempts to connect them with others on site.
Stefanie says the networking opportunities at Ladies’ Night create a palpable energy that give the room a real buzz. “As an organizer, I don’t get to chat a lot at Ladies’ Night, but I love to see pods start to form, and people start to make organic connections where they’ll find jobs and advocate for each other. You can tell that everyone there feels the need for community, and the energy is great. There’s some kind of magic there that I don’t quite understand.”
Translating this meetup magic to the workplace can be difficult, especially if there aren’t many women in an engineering department. At Simple, KF and Meli are part of a data engineering team made up of seven people, three of whom are women. For KF, this has helped her feel more at home.
“Originally, I think I tried to tone myself down a little bit, but that was not sustainable because I was miserable,” she says. “Now, I tend to be assertive and expressive—I have a lot of pink on my workstation, and I’m known for spreading glitter and weirdness everywhere I go.”
“Working with more women is great,” says Stefanie, whose frontend engineering team is comprised of seven men and five women. “Everyone here is really empathetic and understanding, but having more ladies around really helps us have a good balance.”
Addressing gender imbalance at Simple
Tracy Chou’s women in engineering data project shows that average engineering department is made up of 20% women. Simple’s engineering department is in line with this industry average, but for Simple VP of engineering, Will M, this is not good enough.
“Technical and leadership roles are disproportionately occupied by white men,” says Will. “I’m one of those white men, and I understand that my role is to listen, to educate myself, and to look for ways to empower those around me who didn’t happen to wind up in a position of such privilege. It’s my responsibility to hear and amplify the voices of people from marginalized groups, and to invest in my own education; not to burden someone else with it. And, when I act, my work should increase opportunity for people who systematically have less.”
Will says, “Diverse teams perform better and develop more creative solutions. And people on diverse teams are more likely to have lived experiences that reflect our growing and broadening customer base. These shared experiences help us understand the problems we need to solve and make sure our solutions are real and authentic.”
The next frontier
Addressing the gender imbalance in engineering is just the beginning—Simple’s engineers know there’s work to be done in other areas, too. For the engineers we spoke to, it’s also important to start addressing inequality when it comes to people of different races and abilities now. Meli says, “Most common diversity initiatives are disproportionately geared toward white women, and that needs to change.”
Stefanie and the board of Ladies’ Night have recently committed to making the event more diverse, through a recent partnership with the Underrepresented in Tech Association. UTA seeks to provide opportunities for African, Latinxs and Native Americans to attend events in the Portland tech scene; no mean feat in a city where 66% of tech industry employees are male, and 84% are white.
Here at Simple, Will says identifying that we have a lot of work to do is only the first step.
“We need to acknowledge that we have not yet taken on the changes that would make our company more diverse and inclusive. We need to acknowledge that people of color and trans folks are not adequately represented here. We are only just beginning to assess our current state. Next, we need to find out how far we can go, and how quickly we can improve. This is just the beginning, and we have lots of catching up to do.”
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