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An Open Letter to Women in Tech

Empowering women in technology roles

February 16, 2024

March of 2023 rolled around much like any other March at an enterprise tech company. Purple heart emojis popped up across Slack messages, and the usual statements were made about the importance of Women’s History Month. Vice President of Engineering Monica Bajaj wanted this year’s Women’s History Month to be different. She wanted the folks engaged in our Women in Engineering group and the larger Women at Okta community to take action and make history ours. Inspired by Monica’s call to action, I’m sharing my own experience as a woman in tech, hoping the story will resonate with others and inspire even one other person.

My story of being a woman in tech begins with the story of another woman - my mother. My mother graduated from law school in the 1970s. She became a lawyer at a time when less than 12% of all lawyers in the United States were women, at a time when my grandfather warned her not to learn how to type for fear she would be relegated to a secretarial role, and at a time when women were expected to wear skirts and heels to work each day. My mother hustled and overcame the odds to eventually become a Vice President at Citibank in the 1980s, a roundabout way of saying my mother was –and still is – a badass.

Fast forward to 2015, and I graduated from law school. That’s right! I once dabbled with the dark side and practiced law. Jokes aside, though it wasn’t the right field for me, I have nothing but admiration for the many wonderful lawyers I know, including the incredible corporate legal team who needed to proofread this blog for publication! I graduated at a time when just under 40% of lawyers in the United States were women, which is a huge leap from 40+ years prior when my mother graduated. My mother was thrilled, and I remember us both feeling so proud of the progress and representation of women in the legal field. The world was changing! Opportunities were increasingly available to women! Surely, this progressive and inclusive mindset must be expanding across every field - right?

I quickly learned this wasn't the case when I switched fields from law to software engineering. Only around 20% of software engineers in the United States are women. Out of a cohort of forty students, I was one of eight women in my coding boot camp. Only three of us are still software engineers today. A recent study showed that 50% of women leave their careers in tech by the age of thirty-five. This rate is 45% higher than the rate at which men leave their careers in tech. Many assume this career cliff has to do with women reprioritizing and focusing on their families, but often, the reason many women abandon their careers in tech at this staggering rate is because of how hard it is to be the “only.”

From the day I stepped into coding boot camp to today as an experienced engineering manager at a well-known and progressive corporation, I’ve experienced being the “only” in a meeting, on a team, and even in an entire department more times than I can count. Being the “only” can be isolating, but over time, I've learned many lessons and implemented the following strategies to help alleviate loneliness, build connections, and foster community.

Connect with Your Peers

While being the “only” or even being one of a few can be challenging, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone, and the best way to do this is to connect with your peers. At Okta, we are fortunate to have the largest, most incredible, and most talented pool of women engineers I’ve encountered in my career, which provides an amazing network to tap into right at work. Being part of our Women in Engineering group means you can hang out at WinE Time on Fridays, listen to cool technical talks or reach out to your fellow women engineers with one-on-one coffee chats. By joining WOkta (Women of Okta), you get the same fellowship and the chance to engage beyond the engineering bubble. Outside of Okta, there are local women's engineering groups or women in tech groups in many locations for you to connect with in person. Personally, I’m a big fan of Women Who Code. From panels on The Danger of Burn Out to Advocating for Yourself, I’ve always felt seen and incredibly uplifted after attending Women Who Code events. However you choose to connect, finding a group that speaks to you is important.

Make Peace with Imposter Syndrome

I’m going to say the thing no one struggling with imposter syndrome wants to hear: imposter syndrome never goes away. There will always be a little voice questioning if you’re qualified enough or flat-out trying to convince yourself that you’re not. The most important thing you can do is make peace with that voice. First, recognize that imposter syndrome tends to rear its ugly head most when you’re doing something new and scary. If you’re feeling its effect, you’re probably pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, becoming even more awesome than you already are. Use it as a sign that you are heading down the right path. Second, practice telling that voice to “Shut up.” It doesn’t know you or the amazing things you’re capable of. You’re a woman in tech! Just by doing what you do daily, you defy the odds. That voice will get quieter with practice. Third, it’s not enough to neutralize that negative voice; you must practice the positive. You have to do whatever you need to get into a headspace where you believe you can do all the things. For me, this usually involves a ten-minute dance party in my office to psych myself up. (Thankfully, I work from home.) For you, it may be the same (we should have a dance party sometime), or it may be reviewing all the accomplishments you kept track of in your brag sheet. For others, it may be picturing where they see themselves in five years and feeling excited that this next opportunity will help them get there. Whatever action gets you telling yourself, “I can do this!” is the one you should incorporate into your routine.

Find a Sponsor

As women, we get a lot of advice about having mentors and the importance of mentorship in our careers, but we don’t often hear about the importance of having a sponsor. Mentorship is important, and I encourage everyone to develop a mentorship. What does developing a great mentorship look like? It can be as simple as setting up recurring one-on-one meetings, having “coffee chats,” getting their feedback on your pull requests, or getting vulnerable and asking for advice. Let me share the worst-kept secret: people love being asked for their advice, so don’t feel awkward about being the first to reach out. Also, great mentor relationships can last a lifetime, and you’re not limited to just one. Having multiple mentors with expertise in different areas can help round out your personal and career growth.

So, where do sponsors fit in? Studies show that mentorship can look quite different for men and women. Women often get advice on how they should change, while men tend to get concrete steps they should take to advance their careers. A sponsor uses their power and influence to advocate for you. Everyone reading this, women and men, should find a sponsor (or multiple sponsors). You need someone who will say your name in the rooms you aren’t in yet –someone who knows your value and will help open doors for you. Don’t think that your work alone will do the talking for you or that having a sponsor means you somehow achieved less on your own. Think of it as the professional “alley-oop” we all need to get ahead. No one has to go it alone.

Find Your Person

Yes, joining peer groups is wonderful, and ideally, we’d all tell our imposter syndrome to take a hike, but for days where those tactics aren’t enough, find your person. What do I mean by your person? Find that other woman in tech who doubles as your personal hype-woman, who will help build you up when self-doubt creeps in, and who will give you that ultimate confidence boost you need to succeed — the one who will proofread your Slack messages and will sit through practice rounds of your big presentation. Don’t ever feel like you need to be strong alone.

Pay it Forward

I was fortunate enough to be inspired by another woman in tech to become a software engineer. She guided me and, most importantly, helped me build the confidence to embark on a journey that would change the entire trajectory of my career. When I doubted myself and my abilities, she gave me the encouragement I needed to keep going. I owe her so much that I will never be able to pay back. What I can do is pay it forward. You don’t need to change the landscape of women in tech overnight. Just try your best to make the experience better in any way you can for someone else: share your experiences, become a mentor, set up that coffee chat, and elevate each other’s voices. In short, take action! This support is the secret sauce. This fellowship is how we get more women to join tech and stay for the long haul.

When my mother and I celebrated the higher number of women practicing law, that number didn’t improve by happenstance. It got better because of trailblazing women like my mother, women who didn’t let the odds intimidate them and who showed up ready to do the work every day while supporting those around them. We can do the same thing within tech. Together, we, the amazing women here at Okta and our incredible allies, can have the same impact and improve the representation and experiences of women in tech. There’s no better time to start than today.

We’ve built an amazing community here at Okta; we’d love for you to join us! Check out the Careers Page to learn more about our current opportunities.

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