Insights from our panel on breaking down the barriers to gender diversity in tech

March 27, 2015

Last night, I had the pleasure of moderating a fantastic discussion between four inspiring women about the role of women in technology and the issues they have faced (and overcome) throughout their careers. The panel – which featured Kamilah Taylor, senior software engineer at LinkedIn; Sara Ortloff Khoury, VP of user experience design and research at Walmart Labs; Leigh Honeywell, security engineer at Heroku; and Gretchen Anderson, VP of product at Great Schools – was hosted at LinkedIn’s SF R&D office as part of our regular meet up series and in celebration of International Women’s Month.

Gender inequality and inequity in the tech industry is, of course, a huge and ongoing issue. The panel touched on everything from the media’s representation of the people that work in technology (think of stereotypical male hackers living in a basement, and lack of female representation in “The Internship”), to how to overcome the root causes of gender discrimination. Kamilah Taylor shared a fantastic story about her parents having to advocate for her to get her into advanced-level math and science classes in school, highlighting the lack of access girls have to math and computer science when they’re young. Studies show that girls in the single-digit age range are just as interested in math and science as boys are, but end up exposed to those fields less and less as they grow up. Once women are actually in the industry, they leave twice as quickly as their male co-workers do.

Several of the panelists also talked about unconscious bias and stereotypes we encounter – and harbor – on a daily basis, be it gender, age, race or otherwise.

Here are a few tips the panelists gave to make yourself indispensable at your job, and help break down the barriers to gender diversity:

Get a mentor and a sponsor.
A mentor can be someone more senior or even a peer who supports and encourages you to learn and grow in your career. This can be hard at first because, as Taylor said: “I felt like I was bothering people. I felt like I needed to be self sufficient, but I finally realized no one does this themselves.” Leigh shared a great insight that if you want to find sponsors you need to treat people in high places like your peers. This can create champions who will end up advocating for you. Those people who rely on your work and appreciate what you do will go to bat for you when you need it.

Nothing in tech will slow down.
Opportunities aren’t just going to come knocking on your door – you need to jump up and ask for more if you need it. Ask for help if you need it, and use your intuition and deductive reasoning to see what’s going on in your field in order to make productive assumptions.

Stay nimble.
Make relationships with people and learn how to adjust quickly to changing landscapes. Make yourself indispensable by continuing to learn new skills, and becoming a leader at work, whether it’s by being the best at what you do, or being a mentor or teacher to others.

At the end of the day, everyone is impacted by the gender gap, whether we know it or not – and everyone has to take action. We need champions on all sides of the fence. The only way to make that happen is to keep relaying the same message and one of these days, the message will stick. We need to internalize it and embody it in our everyday lives. It was inspiring for me to hear these women give out wonderful advice and advocate for everyone to get an equal opportunity out of the great work they do.