Looking Back on My Experiences as a Female Technologist

by Conor Smith | March 8, 2017

I have been the only woman at tech meet-ups more times than I can remember, and as a woman working in a senior role for a technology company, I’m still unusual.

Today, I wanted to reflect on my experiences as a woman working in a senior role for a technology company, the advantages of being one of the few women in tech, what it’s like as a female leader, and how we can get more women in the tech industry.

I’ve written about all of this before in my series “The Female Technologist”. In a way, things have changed drastically since then. For example, Debenu was acquired by Foxit Software and became Foxit SDK. At the same time, much of what I said back then still applies. I did say that things were changing gradually!

The Upside of Being a Woman in Tech

Back in 2014, I discovered that my gender was opening doors for me. I found out when I was debriefing with Karl and Rowan (my fellow male Debenu execs, now Foxit SDK execs) after a local networking event. (The Debenu/Foxit SDK executive team and I are active members of the local tech-focused entrepreneurial community and regularly attend networking events in our area).

I felt that the event had been a great success. I had spoken to a lot of fellow entrepreneurs, made small talk, chatted about our families, and of course, talked a little business. Moreover, the whole night had felt rather relaxed and pleasant. But I remember being quite surprised to hear that Karl and Rowan had both had a completely different experience. They said that it had felt like they had been locked in a fierce struggle for status all night, with the other guests constantly seeking to compare growth, turnover, profit and staffing figures. It was hard to believe that we had been at the same event!

Of course, in hindsight, it makes more sense. When you get that many driven, ambitious people in one place there is bound to be a current of competition (healthy or otherwise) running through the room. Being the sole woman in the gathering of tech entrepreneurs, I think I had forced everyone to go off-book. Instead of going through the whole ritual of comparing balance-sheets, we were able to just cut straight to the actual point of the evening and start networking.

I realized then, and continue to realize today, that being a woman working in a senior role for a technology company makes me unusual. However, I don’t believe that will always be true. For example, our head developer was female for several years, but even now, I find that being a woman can be a significant professional advantage in this male-dominated industry.

Being a Female Leader

Gender and leadership is a complex issue and one in which context, industry, company composition and one’s personal approach to leadership all have parts to play. Personally, I’m happy where I am, and am optimistic about seeing a more representative balance of genders in leadership roles.

Without beating about the bush, gender is relevant to perceptions of leadership. It just is. People often have pretty specific ideas about how men and women are meant to behave, and violating these scripts can cause some people great discomfort.

For example, Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor of the New York Times was fired back in 2014. It was thought that the decision was driven by tension over perceived pay disparities between Abramson and her male predecessors. But, according to Politico’s Dylan Byers (three weeks before Abramson’s exit), the chief complaint of “many staffers” was that she could be “cold” and “condescending”. In Auletta’s 2011 profile of Abramson, she noted that some in the newsroom had expressed concerns about her “sometimes brusque manner”.

Without speaking to the truth of these words – I’ve never met Abramson and have no real basis for that – I do think the comments as reported reflect certain expectations. Let’s talk a bit about those expectations, because they’re still around today. According to the empirical data, likeability and success are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women (see, for example, the story about Heidi Roizen in Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, starting from the 07:30 mark).

Now, I gather that this finding is fairly well established, but it doesn’t line up all that closely with my personal experience – at least, not so far. I think that there are probably a few reasons for this.

Internally, Foxit SDK/Debenu has had women in key leadership positions, on both the executive/operations/marketing (i.e., me) and development (i.e., our previous head programmer, Lucia) levels. While I think that this must influence our company culture, I also don’t think that this alone would explain the (apparent) disruption of the success-unlikeability link within the company.

So what could it be? I believe that my position, context, and the composition of our staff are all relevant. I think that gender-specific expectations are also crucial. When thinking about both Abramson and Roizen, I was struck by something. In both cases, the unlikeability of the women in question was tied to a certain perceived callousness or self-interest. By extension, it seems that these women defied the expectations of their critics that they should have been warm, self-effacing (or at least collegial), and self-sacrificing. When I try to make sense of all of this in the context of my experiences, I suspect that some of the specific differences between our situations really matter, along with individual approaches to work and leadership.

My take is this: attitudes towards successful women are complex. Sometimes, as has been my experience in the tech sector, this has worked in my favor. For other women in other settings, their success has clearly been counted against them. The research implies that this might be the rule, rather than the exception. Nevertheless, this phenomenon is not universal, and it has generally been my experience that, when my gender has mattered professionally, it has often been an advantage. Considered as a whole, it seems that these observations result from a complex interaction of contexts, attitudes and individual approaches. I’m in a good position personally, and I like to think that things are getting better in general. I’ll admit, though, that perhaps this is happening faster in some areas than in others.

How to Get More Women in Tech

While I’m happy to be a unicorn, I do often think about why there aren’t more women in tech, or even why we seem to be underrepresented in the wheeling-and-dealing world of start-ups and entrepreneurship.

One reason that has been suggested is that there aren’t all that many of us already in tech/entrepreneurship/any male-dominated industry. Specific objections can revolve around concerns that there aren’t enough potential female peers or mentors in a given sector. The biggest problem with this is that it makes the status quo self-sustaining. Someone has to be first. Perhaps one answer is that, if you can’t find a female mentor, be one.

As I noted earlier Debenu’s head programmer was female. What I didn’t mention is that I aggressively pursued her for the post. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though she was previously making her living by weaving baskets, singing arias or working as CFO of a Fortune 500 company – although I’m sure she could do any of those things if she put her mind to them. She was already a seasoned software developer. I just thought she was working for the wrong company (i.e., not ours).

Together, we set up Debenu’s main development office. She then managed that site, providing supervision and guidance to both male and female team members. Our story wasn’t unique, but it was unusual. Some day, the story of two women collaborating to help build a tech business might be so common as to be boring, but that day isn’t today.

As for mentorship, I joined an organization back in 2015 that provides investment capital, advice and support to entrepreneurs of both genders and from various industries. Someone might have to be first, but we needn’t be the last.

We often hear people talking about social progress – or the lack thereof – in the technology sector. Personally, I’m in a good place and believe that things are gradually changing with respect to gender balance in the tech industry. For now, I’m still a unicorn, and I’m more than OK with that.