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A Conversation on Women in Tech
March 29, 2021

By Teresa de Onis and Sophie White

March is Women’s History Month and at Apogee there have been some great conversations in our Teams feed as we’ve amplified the theme with challenging topics and ideas. Teresa de Onis, VP of Marketing at Apogee and a Gen Xer, and Sophie White, Campus Solutions Strategist, a Millennial, sat down to talk about our experiences as women in tech and the degree of progress that’s been made.

Our conclusion: not much has changed. Why are our stories so similar when there’s a 20-year age difference—one of us a Millennial, the other a Gen Xer?

It’s rewarding to feel like we’re breaking glass ceilings, but at the same time it’s exhausting to experience the typical challenges: imposter syndrome, microaggressions, gender pay gaps, and the nuanced systemic issues we can’t define.

It’s tough to say exactly when each of us in our career became aware of the ingrained challenges women face. We were both liberal arts majors and never felt pushed or validated to pursue a STEM discipline. For both of us, it was never really brought up as an option, and “I’m bad at math” became ingrained as it has for so many women. Looking back, it was as if some insidious system was holding us back from exploring STEM.

Yet both of us were able to become well-versed in technology – perhaps due to the critical thinking skills acquired as liberal arts majors – Teresa earning an MBA and becoming a 25-year veteran of tech and Sophie’s career now solidly growing in this space. But in many instances, this hasn’t earned us equal respect from technology professionals.

SOPHIE, the Millennial: “I’m constantly battling the assumption women are less technologically savvy. I’ve seen technology questions directed at male colleagues even if I’m the expert in the room. I’ve had male CIOs completely derail a conversation to prove their technological chops. And I’ve noticed that the women technology leaders who do exist are often faced with the typical stereotypes: behind closed doors they’re called ‘bossy’ or ‘unreasonable’.”

TERESA, the Gen Xer: “One phenomenon happened a lot. I’d say something and, lo and behold, it would come out of the male voice on the other side of the meeting table as if it were their idea. It was such a regular occurrence, that I would think, ‘I say it here and it comes out there,’ reminiscent of the scene from the movie Broadcast News.”

And then there’s being talked over.

SOPHIE: “There are innumerable times I’ve been talked over or interrupted, or outright ignored, while describing a technical solution.”

TERESA: “Every woman I know who heard Vice President Kamala Harris say, ‘I’m speaking,’ to Mike Pence when he talked over her in the vice-presidential debate knew her frustration. Being talked over in meetings, particularly on technical or business matters, has been a common experience my entire career.”

The gender pay gap is something that’s widely discussed in today’s working world, with statistics showing that women earn 82 cents on the dollar compared to men. It’s startling to see that the gender pay gap widens with job level and age, where in the controlled group of executives, women make making a shocking $0.70 to every dollar a man makes.

TERESA: “My fear is that Sophie will experience this. For me it’s very real. At a major technology company that I dedicated many years to, I learned I was paid $30K less in salary and had a lower bonus structure than my male counterpart with the exact same education and years of experience. It was crushing. The result is that my entire career I have been underpaid and unable to catch up to men, since my starting negotiating point was already behind. This is why the gender pay gap persists. Also, my good work was rewarded with the most difficult projects and more work, yet promotions went to the men, impeding my ability to close the pay gap. I’ve had to leave jobs to get a pay raise and still found myself behind.”

SOPHIE: “This is top of mind right now given Equal Pay Day was just last week. It’s incredible that the pay gap has closed by only 8 cents in the last 25 years. My circle of friends has experienced this. A friend in the finance sector witnessed her company hiring a male with less experience to do her same role for the same pay.”

Being a working woman can become extremely difficult when it comes to starting a family. Many women are afraid of starting a family knowing that their career will most likely be affected.

TERESA: “As a woman and mother I was faced with that choice when my daughter was born. I was in a sales role in tech at the time, responsible for Mexico and Latin America. Meeting my numbers without continuing to travel extensively wasn’t possible, and there were no roles elsewhere in the company that were open. In other words, my employer couldn’t make accommodations to keep me, a top performer. I had to quit and seek a job with less travel. The irony is that it was a videoconferencing company. In the middle of this pandemic, I chuckle about this now. But my point is that men don’t usually face the same issue when becoming a father.”

SOPHIE: “While I haven’t thought about starting a family yet, I do know this will be a challenging situation when I cross that bridge. The Millennial aspect of this is that we are weighing the impact on our careers alongside the impact to the climate. We fear that having children isn’t sustainable and that our children will inherit a more volatile climate and the dangers and problems that come with that.”

In a male-dominated industry like technology, particularly at in-person events and conferences, there’s also exclusion from the boys’ club and confusion around expectations of behavior at these events. Those moments epitomize the constant balancing act women face between professionalism and familiarity.

SOPHIE: “Men at conferences continue their networking conversations in the bathrooms or at industry golf outings where women are unintentionally excluded from joining the traditionally male-dominated sport. I’ve heard most industries have similar challenges, yet for women already facing sexism or imposter syndrome in technology, industry culture makes the barriers to entry that much higher.

Industry events with alcohol have always been the most confusing. Experiencing conference culture for the first time as a young professional woman was frankly shocking. I saw folks who had responsibilities as parents or industry leaders engage in behavior that I would have expected to see at a college house party.

I’m expected to be ‘fun’ because I’m young and energetic, so I feel the need to stay out and have a couple drinks with coworkers, clients, or other vendors at conferences. Some of these interactions lead to incredible networking opportunities. At the same time, I can’t drink nearly as much as some of the older and established leaders for risk of being viewed as the ‘party girl.’ I’ve had to gracefully slip out of awkward conversations with inebriated male colleagues at conferences.”

TERESA: “It’s disheartening that this has not changed in the 25 years I’ve been working. My experiences mirror Sophie’s. I guess the thing that comes with age is that you no longer care what people think, so you can bow out a little more easily. I remember telling colleagues just a couple of years ago, ‘Sorry, Game of Thrones awaits,’ so I could go back to my room and chill.”

There are also the microaggressions — the everyday, subtle, and often unintentional interactions or behaviors that communicate bias. They signal disrespect and reflect inequality.

SOPHIE: “The time I was told my long hair as a 25-year-old wasn’t ‘professional’ after I sat in a room with male IT staff wearing polo shirts.”

TERESA: “Yes and being told you’re too assertive or pushy. There’s a double-standard for communications styles.”

SOPHIE: “The time at a conference in Las Vegas when the security guard told me I ‘wasn’t allowed in’ to the exhibit hall because I looked ‘too pretty,’ I was mortified and quickly flashed my lanyard and brushed past him into the exhibit hall with potential clients all around.”

TERESA: “Being told to use my femininity as a tool in my toolbox to help the male ego respond to you. Flatter men and that’s how you get your projects moving forward. And this advice was from my FEMALE boss, who employed those techniques successfully. I still cringe about that awkward conversation.”

In the past year, COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing gender inequalities and systemic workplace issues. Women’s labor force participation is at a 33-year low as more women take on caretaker roles at home due to remote schooling. Nearly three million women had to leave the workforce, undoing many of the gains we had made, but that we smartly had not celebrated yet. While the data is insufficient to give the full picture—and time will tell for certain—gender equity may be set back decades because of the pandemic.

Given this and the fact that this Millennial and Gen Xer haven’t seen the expected progress we hoped to by 2021, it’s hard to end on a hopeful note. But it’s in our nature to be optimistic and to be leaders and role models. So, we’ll use this opportunity to call on both men and women to be a part of the solution to create gender equality and pay parity in our industry. Women, if you experience microaggressions, confront and respectfully correct. Women must support women in empowering ways.

And men, help us fight for equal pay and recognition. As one of our female colleagues commended on Teams from personal experience: “Despite these challenges, I’ve seen the power of brave allyship. Male leaders who step in to let a woman finish speaking or call out rude interruptions can change the trajectory of a woman’s career.” Male leaders with salary setting and hiring responsibility can help close the gender pay gap by proactively identifying the organization’s pay gap, implementing fair hiring practices, and paying what’s due.

Our colleague remarked, “It’s incredible to see how those with power and influence can use it to boost everyone around them.” We will all win when those in positions of privilege use it to be allies.

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