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Women in Tech: a Crisis of ConfidenceFeatured

The Current State of ConfidenceOne of the bigger issues at hand in the tech industry is far more subtle than expected at first sight: women in tech tend to simply have less confidence in their own abilities than their male counterparts. According to a 2014 HBR survey, women are more likely than men to deem themselves unqualified for a given job. They tend to demand that they meet every requirement defined by the job description before being comfortable enough to apply. Of course, confidence isn’t just a quirk of the X chromosome. Women’s lack of faith in themselves stems from generations of oppression and disillusionment. Can such an ingrained opinion be fixed relatively quickly, though? Jessie Arora @JessieA, Executive Director of Wogrammer, is certainly giving it a shot along with the rest of her team. I had the chance to speak with Jessie about her background, her work at Wogrammer, and how she plans to use it to effect change for women in tech. Her answer: storytelling.Stories Have PowerBack in 2015, two female engineers at Facebook, Erin Summers and Zainab Ghadiyali, made some sobering observations about the narrative around women in tech in the press. They realized that current events and their coverage about women tended to craft a very negative image of what it was like to be a woman in the tech industry. Jessie details that they feared that women and girls around the world were reading these stories that would likely discourage them from entering the tech industry themselves. “We believe stories have the power to create a positive narrative, and to inspire more women and girls to pursue STEM careers by showcasing the diverse and interesting women that are building the future of tech right now. And so Wogrammer was born.”Creating such a positive narrative requires many instances of high quality storytelling, and Wogrammer provides a platform to do just that. At the beginning, Erin and Zainab maintained a simple side project on Instagram where they reached out to interesting women they knew to ask them what they were proud of building and showcasing their personal stories as successful role models of women in STEM. The format resonated with their audience and they soon had millions of people reading their inspiring stories worldwide.This is where Jessie came in to take things to the next level. She helped develop Wogrammer’s fellowship program and develop a storytelling workshop. The goal is to, “give women the confidence to communicate their competency and get the recognition they deserve. We strive to amplify the contributions that women are making to the tech industry right now,” says Jessie. With all the positive feedback the team received from women all over the world, they quickly realized they were right to think stories have immense power to boost representation, and subsequently, confidence in one’s career goals. “What we say at Wogrammer and in our workshops is, that confidence matters just as much as competence.”Plugging the leaky STEM pipelineAs Jessie discovered, the narrative around women tends to be about deficits. There aren’t enough women in tech, and there is a leaky pipeline of those who choose STEM careers with women dropping off their chosen paths as they hear more about the negatives: women in tech are harrassed, suffer pay inequity, and are always the only woman in the room. There is no doubt that these things are true, but there are also positives in STEM that need to be properly communicated to help plug the leak. “There's so much talk around diversity and inclusion, but what does it actually mean to create and foster a sense of belonging in the tech industry? We think through these stories, people read about a Native American aerospace engineer or a woman in Nigeria who is working on her own startup, and they feel like they can see themselves in those narratives, in those career paths, in those role models, and that's really powerful,” Jessie says.These are the kinds of stories that Wogrammer amplifies, particularly for university-aged women and girls. This is a major point of the leaky STEM pipeline that must be addressed. “The women who read our stories are largely 18 to 35 years old. So we are thinking about how we can create programs that better serve them so they feel more connected.” Measuring success is still a bump Jessie is working on tackling, but she plans to use surveys and other data collection tools to help Wogrammer understand its impact and effectiveness in improving confidence for women everywhere.Comfort in DiscomfortWhen asked for a piece of advice for women in STEM, Jessie said to remember that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. There are certain expectations set for us concerning the kind of education and career path we should be following - Jessie’s recommendation is to use education and skills as a tool on the path to success, not a mandate, even if the mandate provides a sense of familiarity and comfort. Building the confidence to step out of that comfort zone is one of the most important things a woman in a STEM career can do.This is an issue that Jessie ran into herself, but pulled herself ahead of time and time again. After beginning her career at Google followed by a master’s degree in education policy from Stanford, she took some time to learn as much as she could in the nonprofit space. From there, she took on the always uncomfortable mantle of entrepreneur and started Embark Labs, which is a program for students to learn creative problem-solving and algorithmic thinking. From Embark, she went on to Wogrammer, where the heft of her demanding job requires the discomfort of finding balance with the rest of her life. This willingness to experience discomfort is what has helped to propel Jessie forward throughout her career.Finishing up by talking about the kind of legacy she hopes to leave, Jessie says, “I think if Wogrammer could help move the needle on how women are portrayed not only in the tech press, but how women in STEM are portrayed in the media in general, that would be a fantastic legacy for us to leave.”Using stories as the perfect tool to boost confidence, this legacy doesn’t seem too far off for the groundbreaking company. Share your own story as a woman in STEM below!- Swati is a writer, digital strategist, and brand enthusiast. She is currently a tech startup Brand Story Consultant with Plotline and is also passionate about gender equity in tech, abolishing the phrase, “marketing bullshit,” and making startup growth strategies accessible to all entrepreneurs. She consults pro-bono for small businesses and nonprofits and writes about things that matter (and things that don’t) in her free time.Want to be featured in an Elpha Editorial? Tweet or DM us with your details!
I love this! Thank you for sharing. I agree 1000x with the discomfort bit. I myself feel uncomfortable on most days. If I start feeling too complacent, then I go do something that makes me feel just a little scared (e.g. bike up a hill, cold email a seemingly untouchable hero). I think so much of having a meaningful career in STEM (and any other field, for that matter) is having the courage to envision a slightly (or hugely) different world than the one you live in and then doing what you can to make that world happen.Discomfort is a big part of that journey, so you might as well start practicing how to get comfortable with that by starting small and doing daily life things that make you feel weird or scared (e.g. say hi to that person you're dying to be friends with). Or doing that thing that seems so out of reach but actually just takes a tiny leap of faith (e.g. taking a trapeze class like @kuan did).
This is great! Practicing is such an important part of getting good at something. In our tech narrative that showcases 'overnight' successes, the hours/months/years spent practicing and trying are often glossed over.
Hmm, I’m not sure I agree with their solution to plug the leaky pipeline - it’s going to require more than simply amplifying other women in tech who were able to overcome adversity and be successful. She addresses some real and legitimate problems in tech that contribute to justifying a strong argument for women to leave. When we celebrate these successes of underrepresented groups, we aren’t only providing a role model to inspire more women to enter the field, we should also be celebrating and more important acknowledging the strength it took them to get them. These success stories no doubt deserve our praise and admiration, but I’m not convinced this is the solution for the pipeline problem. I feel like we need to put our effort into addressing the hostile work environment before we inspire more women to enter a field where they will no doubt face blatant and unfair sexism. There are two solutions to fixing a leaky pipeline: put more water into the hose and you’ll get more put or fix the hole and all the water entering will exit. For me, this feels like the first. I think we need to focus on the second approach.
> “I feel like we need to put our effort into addressing the hostile work environment before we inspire more women to enter a field where they will no doubt face blatant and unfair sexism.”Word. It’s irritating that that the Damore note has amplified the misconceptions that there is some inherent genetic attribute that makes women inferior at programming (the human body hasn’t even fully adapted to the millennia-old technology of agriculture & no genetics expert has ever mentioned coming close to identifying intelligence genes).You can’t swear “MERITOCRACY!” up and down then profess that a complex skill is fully determined “genetically”, because that’s actually moving AWAY from evaluating an individual by her actions.People need to expand their notion of a hostile work environment beyond blatant criminal harassment and look at actions that reflect willfully ignoring the actions/contributions of people only to punish them under the rationale that they ✌️“Didn’t perform”✌️. For example, realistically, what are you supposed to do if one of your code reviewers demands you change your code to something not only suboptimal, but capable of causing problems when refactoring or adding a new feature down the line? Do you make the change to avoid being seen as the aggressor, or do you go to someone above that person explaining that the reviewer refuses to acknowledge that their suggestion will cause problems down the line that you refuse to get blamed for? A couple months ago there was a long Twitter thread full of this stuff and there didn’t seem to be any consensus on how to handle this type of crap.
Oof, recently on Reddit reading a woman's account of her experience on an IT team consisting of her and three men with whom she described having a good working relationship. Her fellow male colleagues went out to lunch regularly together without ever extending an invitation and she was seeking advice on how to assess the situation. The number of comments alluding to "they just want to talk about dude stuff so let them be" was heartbreaking while I'm over here waving my arms in the air screaming "this is systematic sexism in tech". That sort of thing absolutely makes for a hostile workplace even if unintentional and should be addressed.
Absolutely. In this case I'd encourage this person/team to talk about creating a more inclusive culture rather than referring to it as 'hostile workplace.' You'll see my consistency around how words and narrative matter, but in my experience it's easier to bring people together around a positive narrative than one where people may feel defensive, and not have a productive approach.
I agree on your wording - that's a good call out.
> The number of comments alluding to "they just want to talk about dude stuff so let them be" was heartbreaking while I'm over here waving my arms in the air screaming "this is systematic sexism in tech".I wonder how many of those repliers agree with the statements made about Ellen Pao in court when she was described as being "not friendly" because she didn't want to go with her colleagues to a strip club. Apparently being considerate of other people / putting yourself in other people's shoes is either very hard or very optional...
Weird, I have also been invited to a strip club by my colleagues and I also declined. At least I got invited? What a world to live in.
Did declining to accompany them to a strip club affect team dynamics when it came to actually getting things done at work?
Hmm, that was legitimately a hostile work environment that cannot be masked by a different choice of words so declining the offer is low on my list of things that affected the team dynamics for me personally unfortunately.
Word to your word.
Yes I think this is an excellent point. Retaining women who are already in the tech industry is critical. Understanding why we leave and how to combat the issues we run into is key.Not so dissimilar to when startups drive new users to the top of a funnel for a broken product with bad retention.
Yup. This is a massive issue and of course tech is not the only industry with "blatant and unfair sexism." It's going to take all of us coming together to shift the system and plug the various points in the leaky pipeline.
Appreciate you sharing your perspective on this. I agree that stories alone will not solve this complex problem, however, it's important to think about how much power and influence there is in the stories/narratives that traditional media perpetuates. Narratives around what success looks like and the types of "successful" people who are integral to the innovation economy. We wanted to see more diverse women held up as role models for everyone else, so that's the approach we started with. We have a lot of work to do and are just getting started!
"When asked for a piece of advice for women in STEM, Jessie said to remember that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. There are certain expectations set for us concerning the kind of education and career path we should be following - Jessie’s recommendation is to use education and skills as a tool on the path to success, not a mandate, even if the mandate provides a sense of familiarity and comfort."Yes! I've noticed there is more conversation around the normalization of feeling uncomfortable. We've been conditioned to believe that feeling uncomfortable is associated with uncertainty, and negativity. If we could start looking at uncomfortable as something exciting and empowering I think we could see more innovation. Thanks for sharing!
Glad this resonates. I associate the discomfort with growing and stretching, which doesn't always feel great at the time, but produces positive outcomes and feels good after.