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5 Lessons for Women to Succeed in a Male-Dominated Tech World #GHC15

October 15, 2015

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I attended my first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 11 years ago while in grad school at Stanford. That year, GHC was held in my hometown of Chicago and I remember the inspiring keynote by Dr. Shirley Malcom from AAAS. There were 800 people or so in the audience that year. This year’s event (#GHC15) topped 12,000 people. I could feel the energy from all 12,000 women and men in the audience, and it gave me great hope and optimism that we will continue to change the numbers.

In the decade since my first GHC, I’ve worked as a software developer at Microsoft, in business operations at Google, and in product management at Salesforce.com before building an app that went viral, writing a New York Times-featured bestselling book, founding a startup named Hearsay Social, and joining the Starbucks board of directors. But back then, sitting in the GHC audience, I had no idea of course that any of these things would happen. Here are five lessons I learned along the way:

1) The power of listening

In my career, I’ve had all the classic things happen of males speaking over me, cutting me off in meetings, repeating my ideas as if they were theirs… and I’ve certainly learned to speak up and manage those situations. But I’ve found that the ability to listen is equally important because I can most confidently speak up when I’ve been carefully paying attention. Listening is crucially important when you are with customers (or people you are hoping will become your customer) and when you become a people manager. I’ve realized that you can learn something from almost anyone you spend time with if you really listen and ask the right questions. Often, it is the quiet ones who have the most to say.

2) Know yourself to be yourself

Everyone says to “be authentic.” It sounds trite and obvious, but it’s a problem I observe with many women, and is something I’ve worked on developing in myself. I remember a friend of mine at Microsoft asking me one time why I was trying so hard to be “one of the guys.” He said to me, “you know, you don’t have to constantly drop all the nerd references for us to still want to be your friend and respect your technical skills. We all know you have other interests and would like to hear about them.”

Other people can tell when you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin and are trying too hard. Perhaps counterintuitively, the best way to be accepted is just to be yourself. But to be yourself requires first knowing yourself, and knowing yourself requires reflection, soul-searching, and trying out different things until you find your passion and identity.

3) Invest in relationships above all

It’s hard being a minority. It’s easy to feel singled out, feel like an impostor, feel alone. For me, relationships with friends, managers, mentors, role models, and sponsors have meant everything during the difficult times. Like anything, I’ve found what you get is a function of what you put in, so I try to invest a lot of time, to be thoughtful, and to pay it forward.

I’m grateful that one of my mentors, Sheryl Sandberg, also spoke at GHC this year. She has been an unbelievable source of wisdom and encouragement, has helped my company get funding, and she nominated me to the Starbucks board of directors, where I’m now serving my fourth year. For Sheryl and my other mentors, I do everything I can to make sure it isn’t a one-way street – I equally make it my goal to bring to them interesting ideas and opportunities and to support the amazing work they are doing.

LinkedIn survey of nearly 1,000 women in the U.S. found that professional mentorship is on the rise: 51 percent of Gen Y women have had a woman mentor, compared to 34 percent of Baby Boomers. I hope this trend continues and can’t think of better places to begin cultivating those relationships than at events like GHC. Two of the women I met at GHC in 2004 are still some of my closest friends today.

4) There’s no failure, only learning

At Hearsay Social, we got 1,000 “no”s before our first “yes” with investors, employees, partners, customers. We’ve raised $51 million now, but I remember pitching for our Series A and getting one rejection after another. This was probably the most difficult lesson for me because I have perfectionist tendencies, which are not that helpful in a startup environment.

Men have to learn this, too, but in my experience I’ve found that socially, fewer women are willing to put themselves out there and keep picking themselves back up after something flops the first time or first twenty times. On a personal level, I’ve learned the hard way that my perfectionist tendencies are counterproductive in a GSD startup environment and have worked hard to overcome them. Research published in Harvard Business Review suggests that men are more likely to increase their risk-taking under stress, while a woman’s inclination to take risk declines under stress. Now, I have a motto that if a few weeks or months have passed with no rejections and no negative feedback, then I wonder if people are being completely honest with me or whether I’m not being bold enough.

5) The future is on us

A very important set of decisions we all need to make is how we invest in the next generation of women engineers and leaders, including supporting girls to be interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education early on.

Studies suggest mentoring makes a big impact, especially on our youth – a five-year Big Brothers Big Sisters study that tracked nearly 1,000 children found that girls with a mentor are two-and-a-half times more likely to be confident in their ability to be successful at school, while mentored boys are two times more likely to believe that school is fun and that doing well academically is important. We all have to do our part.

Here are three things we’ve done at Hearsay Social to promote diversity. 1) For historically low-diversity roles and functions, we interview two diverse candidates for every one, going beyond the Rooney Rule, 2) We make time to teach and mentor others, such as through our volunteerism with Stanford’s Girl Code programming workshops, She++, Hackbright, CodePath, and Code.org, and 3) We develop our own employees to address the pipeline problem – last year, we decided to bring a code academy to our company, we’ve graduated one woman from our support team to engineering, and are about to graduate the next class.

My journey over the last 11 years has been incredible, and I hope I’m just getting started. I believe engineers can make the best leaders, since many aspects of software engineering translate easily into startups: modularity, abstraction, end-user involvement, continual iteration, the importance of testing.

In today’s world, the options are endless for us engineers. We’re dreamers, builders, and problem solvers. We have the ability to imagine the future and the privilege of creating it.

My keynote was also covered here:

Clara Shih

CEO, Founder

A pioneer in the social media industry, Clara developed the first social business application in 2007. Her latest book, The Social Business Imperative, is a Wall Street Journal-featured bestseller. She is a member of the Starbucks board of directors.

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