Even though it's not necessarily obvious, women often doubt their competency, especially in male dominated fields like the tech industry. This can have a serious impact on their careers. Over the past years of being a data scientist, I've found a few approaches that helped me to empower myself. Here's what has worked for me.
As a young girl, I never thought I was questioning my own abilities. Yet, certain technical skills just seemed off-limits, things reserved for boys such as coding on computers or tinkering with mechanical systems. This didn't end up deterring me from becoming a data scientist but even now as an adult, I tend to undersell accomplishments like my PhD in Physics.
When I completed my studies and entered the industry, I didn't believe in my skills, and so didn't project as much confidence. Then I read an amazing article about women in tech and the vague unease about the lack of confidence in myself and my abilities crystalized into understanding:
Not only was I already trapped into an image of being less capable, but my efforts to move from that position made me less likeable and less likely to be advocated for by the very people who would have to promote me!
No-one was doing it consciously or out of spite, I was trapped by the convergence of various cultural and historical influences that are largely subconscious and difficult to address.
Since then, I have been proactively looking into ways to empower myself. Here are the strategies that helped me do this.
1. Find allies
I was lucky to have a female colleague who started her career around the same time and experienced many of the same ups and downs. We could share our experiences, validate each other's ordeals, commiserate and support each other emotionally. Most importantly though, we decided to help each other professionally:
Advocating for yourself can often feel ineffective, but you'll be surprised at the impact your endorsement of others can have.
My friend and colleague for example recommended me for an important, high-profile project. I, in turn, support her and encourage her, advocate for her to our superiors and recommend her to recruiters.
This has opened up amazing opportunities for both of us that we wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
I also found a Lean In Circle at my company called Women in Tech that met monthly and discussed issues faced by women in the tech space. I regularly attended meetings and found the experience very validating as I realized I was not alone. I shared my failures and victories, and in turn learned from the trials and errors of others. These groups are available online and if one isn't close by you can form one of your own.
2. Fake it till you make it
I've heard this so many times before, yet still had to learn this lesson the hard way: Being in a new field with unfamiliar skills and tasks, I initially let my uncertainty show through. More experienced colleagues faced with similarly new and unfamiliar tasks however would present themselves as capable.
It turns out that when you give yourself extra long deadlines and show your uncertainty it doesn't inspire confidence, even if you meet your very long deadlines and your colleagues miss their over-optimistic short ones. First impressions matter.
Faking it was just another workplace soft skill I needed to learn. Once I could say that I could do things, even if I didn't know how just yet, I was given more responsibility.
In the beginning, being slightly more optimistic really helped me appear as capable as it turned out I was after all, even if I myself didn't believe yet.
This is also an essential skill in most negotiations, both in your career and in life. Focus on positives and past achievements to make a good impression. When I was asked what I was currently earning in a salary negotiation, for example, I focussed on what I had achieved and wanted to earn. I was able to substantiate that with research from Payscale and compare it to others of the same skill level in my field.
3. Keep track of goals and achievements
In recent years, I have started to keep records of my completed projects, promises of promotion, or commitments to give me projects or leave. I've come to find this practice extremely helpful in ensuring that I have clear deliverables to check against and thus solid ground to back me up in negotiations. Having a screenshot or referring to an email has far more weight than saying: "But you said…"
Record agreements with managers
In terms of my career, I previously found it tricky to figure out concrete goals to move towards and skills to improve. Both, however, are necessary to get an objective evaluation of my growth and contribution.
Making an effort to explicate and put everything in writing has certainly helped me in this: I asked my manager to write a list of things I'm good at, things I'm bad at, a list of skills needed for me to do my job well, and suggestions on where to improve. This has helped me far more in developing my skills than most of the verbal, less concrete feedback I've gotten.
Keeping track of projects
Another thing I've found useful to detail and write down is the scope of projects. This has really helped to keep them manageable and avoid the "just one more thing" mentality we often fall into. Clear briefs allow me to defer requests that fall out of scope to a later version of the project and helps me meet deadlines.
I also started keeping track of all the tasks I perform, anything from small side requests to the sub tasks of major projects. I use our Jira kanban board tickets as a guide and made a log of all tasks along with outcomes and links.
This has been extremely helpful when the ever-dreaded question: "What have you been doing all month?" comes up.
My colleagues who do not keep a similar list often confess that they do not feel like they achieved anything, while I know that they worked as hard, or perhaps even harder than me. The final great boon of this is that I do not need to struggle to think of what to add to my LinkedIn profile or resume under the section for my current work, it's already neatly summed up!
How I use these to empower myself
It's hard to fake it if you never feel like you've made it. Having a concrete list I am slowly adding skills, projects and accomplishments to help me build my confidence. I know where I stand and, together with a clear and detailed record of what is asked of and promised to me, I also know where I am going and how to get there.
To Allies of Women in Tech
If you are an ally of women in tech, here is what I would appreciate from my colleagues:
- Promote their ideas: Your support will help your female colleagues get noticed and gain credence for their ideas.
- Recommend them for difficult projects: They are more likely to get career-changing opportunities with your help.
- Mention them to superiors: This will help them get visibility that could lead to promotion.
- Offer to give advice and help in technical skills: We all have something to learn and something to teach.
- Be supportive: Don't tell them to be more confident, instead compliment them on concrete things they have done to help them realize their capabilities.
- Believe them about their experiences: Experience is subjective, but no less important. Make them feel validated by accepting that they experience things as they say.
- Counteract the bias: Far fewer women reach positions of leadership than men, so your advocacy is sorely needed.
Remember: We are adaptable
This list of approaches has helped me grow and develop a lot as a woman in tech. However, I have yet to face many other challenges such as starting a family. It's also important to mention that, even with these approaches I haven't always been able to get the outcomes I've wanted. Should you find yourself in an environment where you can't thrive, I invite you not to be trapped by your circumstance but to rise beyond it to find yourself a place best suited to who you want to become.
Cornelia van der Walt spent the first part of her career as an academic, gaining her PhD in Physics at the University of the Free State in computational materials science, while simultaneously teaching English in Japan. She believes AI is the future and since she made the change to data science she has not looked back.