07 Dec 2018

How to survive and thrive as a woman in tech?

Despite all the talk and diversity chest thumping, the odds are still stacked against women in tech. As pressure for the industry to diversify and transform its bro culture mounts, it’s time to give women sound advice rather than empty promises.

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
How to survive and thrive as a woman in tech? - NewsMavens
Woman, PixaBay

Technology will shape the future of every aspect of our lives, from education, business, to environment and medicine. If women do not have equal representation in technology then by and large it will be white men solving problems and challenges that are relevant to their societal group. This means that the problems and challenges of women will not be addressed by tech solutions and our capacity to impact our lives and our communities will shrink instead of grow. So it is excruciatingly important for women to be present and influential in this sector.

But the roadblocks for women in tech are many and to truly help them grow into a meaningful force in this sector, we cannot sugar-coat reality. Instead we need to arm women with a clear understanding of what awaits them in the tech sectors of the world and sound advice on how to navigate them for success once they are on the inside.


Above the water line, tech companies big and small talk about being diverse. They even have diversity officers.

But the reality is that for every one woman in tech, there are still 20 men.

Companies claim to be inclusive, but what often happens is they find one woman, give her a high position and then check diversity off the list as ”done”. This is “tokenism” and there’s a lot of it everywhere --  Silicon Valley, Berlin, London, Hong Kong.

There’s also a huge gender pay gap. Even multinational companies with a public dedication to gender equality are not living up to the promises they make. As recently as May, a top computer manufacturer was forced to pay nearly three million dollars in compensation to women and people of color who had been systemically underpaid in their US plants. This November, we saw a Global Employee Walkout over a huge exit package paid to a high level executive as he was forced to leave over sexual abuse accusations. The women at that company know where that money came from -- from their underpaid wages and unpaid bonuses.

There is also bias in both hiring and  promotion. Women are working beneath their credentials all over the tech industry. And once they get in the door, they are bullied, they are abused and very often they do not get the help they need from the human resources teams who should be looking out for them.

Now, luckily, the pressure is mounting on technology from journalists, from NGOs, from activist groups and from amazing men and women inside the tech sector. There is also more awareness of gender equality, which means some progress is being made but, as Patricia Florissi from Dell tells me, we are not at the tipping point yet. It is not my generation that is going to fix tech for women and for other minorities. It is yours. You are the people who are actually going to go in and revolutionize the tech industry.

The job of older generations is to make sure that you get in the door, survive and thrive. 


The following are excerpts from a panel discussion moderated by Zuzanna Ziomecka during The Women in Tech Summit in Warsaw on November 28, 2018. The participants were: Sara Clatterbuck, Engineering Director at Google, Alain Simonnet, Managing Director, 3M Poland and Ukraine, Georgia, Birgitta Finnander, Head of R&D Center Ericsson Poland, Emilia Burzyńska, Chief Information Officer Central Europe / Procter &Gamble.

Zuzanna Ziomecka: When these young women show up in Silicon Valley, or Zurich, or Berlin to start their careers in tech, what do you advise that they pack in their suitcases?

Sarah Clatterbuck: My first advice is make sure you know the fundamentals. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you studied originally to get into the door, but make sure you have a solid understanding of systems design, algorithms and coding, because these are the things that you’re going to need to survive and to thrive as an engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked at Apple, Yahoo, LinkedIn and now I’m at Google and one of the things that I decided was a blind spot [for me]...was a global perspective, so I decided last year to move [...] I’m now based in Zurich, working for Google. That was something I really felt as a leader I needed to develop -- to be more inclusive, to develop products for the whole world, not just for Americans.

Other than the fundamentals, I’m also looking for people who have leadership skills that include the ability to communicate well, the ability to have empathy and to influence other people and, again, I love to work with engineers [who] have a global perspective and not just a local perspective.

Emilia Burzyńska: The first thing I would recommend is to understand the company you are applying for. What they are looking for? What are their values? What are the talents they need? Talk to your colleagues, and use social media. There’s plenty of information about employers and available roles out there. The second thing I would advise is to understand yourself. What are your own expectations? And what I mean here is more about -- what is driving you? And once you understand the first and the second, make them match.


Zuzanna: In most of the tech world, if you’re a woman on a team, you are going to very often find yourself the only woman in the room. I can’t tell you how often I hear this from women in technology. They are constantly the only women in the room or the only women in the region. So, this is an environment which in and of itself is uncomfortable. It’s hard to be a minority. Sometimes, it can be dangerous. It’s difficult to work well, creatively and be safe when you feel singled-out and threatened. What’s the best way to deal with this situation?

Sarah: First of all, find your tribe. What I mean by this is, in any company, especially if you’re in a very large company, there are a huge diversity of interests outside of the core of what you’re doing as a team, so you can always find people who share your interests, whether that’s a sport or a game or…. I think Google is so big you can probably even find a knitting circle!

There are ways to develop relationships with your colleagues, not just other women, but all of your colleagues on the basis of shared interests. The second thing is to actually develop a network of females peers and colleagues. This is something that even if you’re in a small company, can be done right away, you don’t have to wait for a formal mentorship programme or a Lean In Circles programme to get started, all you need to do is just find the other women and say: “Hey, let’s have lunch once a month’. That’s just a great way to have those allies and build relationships even if they’re not in the same team as you are.

And finally, have an ally in leadership. If you ever work with me, find me, I’m an ally. But you can also have male allies in leadership and develop a close relationship with somebody that you know that you can trust and that if you ever run into difficulties, you can go to them and they will help you advocate.

Zuzanna: Can I ask you a follow-up question to that? I think that’s really excellent advice but I wonder how do you go about befriending someone in leadership?

Sarah: If you’re a woman in technology, you’re going to be surrounded by male leaders because you’re going be in the room full of them all the time. Listen to the conversations that are happening, [and] find something, some shared interest. Or if you hear something interesting that a person says, next time you run into them in a hallway, strike up a conversation. A lot of these mentorship or sponsorship relationships get started as casual conversations that happen around the office and then, if you get some engagement from that person, then you can say: “Hey, let’s have coffee or  lunch sometime.”

Birgitta Finnander: Choosing your manager is as important as choosing the content of the job. I’ve had many, many good managers. I only had one that I didn’t really like. I didn’t see that I could agree with him, I didn’t understand the direction he was moving in and I didn’t really have [any] trust in him. And I realized I had been putting up with him for too long. I would never let myself do that again -- if I ever have a manager I don’t trust, I will move on as quick as possible. I think that is a clear recommendation, if you feel that you’re not aligning with your manager or you don’t get the trust you need, you have to be careful. Actually, I’ve had quite a few female managers as well, and those are probably the best ones I’ve ever had. In Ericsson we’re working a lot towards one specific target: we want to have 30% of female employees. We are a tech company, so it’s a very challenging target.

Zuzanna: It’s important to note that, in many ways, 30 is the new 50. There’s research that shows that once you have a minority group that reaches 30% of the greater population, thanks to programmes and outside support, they are able to self-sustain and grow without additional quotas or outside support. So this 30% is very realistic -- pay attention to this number, if you hear a company that you’re applying to mention 30% as a goal, this means they’ve done their homework and they know what they’re doing.

Emilia: I see two things: First, women can really grow if they have a meaningful work plan. If they feel safe, they can develop better. This is about an area of trust and the culture of trust and  inclusion -- the fact that  I can be listened to, that my point of view will be heard,  that I can share and that I can speak up.

I personally also use a lot of mentoring. I am both a mentor and a mentee. I have mentors from diverse backgrounds, both IT and business. I also use reverse mentoring, which is especially important if you are a manager. It helps you get the continuous feedback and to hear about the difficult cases and situations that your people encounter. Because as you said, there are ups and downs. It’s not always pleasant but thanks to this culture of trust and one on one relationships, people can really speak up, and share their opinions, this is one of the main ingredients of success.

Zuzanna: Ok, so, we’ve got two “green flags” that have come up out of this round:

First, make sure you’re not alone in the company even if you’re alone in the room. Make sure there are allies, people both in management and in different departments that you can turn to if you have a problem.

The second thing I’m hearing, which is interesting, is trust. Now, trust isn’t something you can bring into company. It’s something that needs to be there. So, I’m not quite sure how to go about measuring the culture of trust inside the company before you actually join them. But it seems from what I’m hearing that it’s very important to gauge whether you can trust the people around you and in particular your boss, and if you cannot, maybe move away, towards a different role or even a different company.


Zuzanna: There is a lot of bias in hiring and promoting women, which means that sometimes, tackling the company you want to work for head-on is not going to work. Sometimes, it’s easier to move in the tech sector from side doors and windows. So, what are the best side doors for women to enter into tech? I’ve seen architects move to user experience design, I’ve seen women in education use technology to take over a whole field. What other fields can women use pivot into technology?

Sarah: I came a little bit through a side door via design into engineering and I think you also see, especially in the sciences, there are a lot of people doing quantitative analysis who tend to make excellent data scientists, so that’s a nice side door for people that come through. I think the ultimate side door though is to be an entrepreneur. To see an unrecognised problem in society and decide that you’re going to solve it and build your own company -- I think that could be a fantastic side door into technology. I would also say that having an “adjacent skill” is a superpower.

Zuzanna: What does “adjacent skill” mean?

Sarah: So, if you’re an engineer who understands design or a designer who can write code or a product manager who knows how to do research -- these things are incredibly valuable because they make you more versatile in your organization. You can solve many different types of problems, not just the core problems in your core competency. It’s really great to sometimes come in through a window and bring a different perspective and a set of skills to your competency.

Alain Simonnet: What is important is your willingness to learn.

A willingness to take the risk to learn something which is out of your comfort zone, because this is what we’re looking for as leaders of our companies and that’s what we want to see. So, if you have both, it will most likely work out well for you.


Zuzanna: Tell me about competitive advantage. In your particular fields, what should women specialize in today so that they can have an edge in the market in 5, 10, 20 years time? What’s coming?

Sarah: Quantum Computing is in the area of research right now that I think that will emerge in the next 20 years. There are maybe a couple of topics that I find fascinating in these different areas. One is that when the Quantum Era arrives, most of our encryption algorithms are going to be breakable by brute force very easily and so a pretty interesting area in academic research will be cryptography -- the development of new encryption algorithms. And then I think Cyber Security on the professional side will continue to be a pretty big topic, going forward as a result.

Another thing is, I think the intersection of Machine Learning and Edge Computing is pretty interesting; like autonomous vehicles and other autonomous things. In the Internet of Things… I think you’re going to see enhanced silicon coming to the edge to support the Machine Learning that needs to happen not in data centers -- we won’t be able to rely on sending data back and then doing all the computation in a central place and then sending it back out to the edge, so you’re gonna see that computation happening locally. You will also see the need for the more compact deep-learning algorithms to support that machine perception. I would say, wrapping it up, that the ability to learn is probably the most important skill you need to have to stay relevant because things are going to change and we don’t know what those directions are going to be but if you’re able to continuously learn as a technologist, that will help you.

Zuzanna: What would be a source that you follow to figure out what needs to be learned now?

Sarah: I tend to follow a lot of CTOs and technologists in areas of speciality that I’m interested on Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media. I watch what they’re saying and then follow the articles that they’re posting.

Alain: A point, which is very big for us and 3M and will be for many companies’ sustainability is: people, engaging people; employees, peers, your bosses, your executives. This is very important -- the ability to manage and lead people through change -- is probably one of the biggest skills you can have and bring to a company.

Birgitta: We are currently working a lot with the 5G and IT connected to that and that will continue for many years as a competence that is needed. 5G will address all industries not just the telecom industry.

Emilia: Focus in the things that you are passionate about,  and that you feel strong at. Keep developing them, stay on the edge of this path, but also be open and able to learn and think what’s next. Interdisciplinary skills. Even if you are an expert in one  particular domain, you will potentially need to develop this domain for the broader audience, to the vast consumer or user  groups, so you need to understand adjacent domains that might support this growth. And keep investing in yourself. Many companies will help you with that, but remember that it’s your responsibility. It’s your career and you should know what you need most to make it a successful one. When you feel you have learned enough, that’s when you should buckle down and keep learning.

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