Lately there have been a lot of blog posts outlining stories of battles women have won to represent themselves in the technology industry, and hurdles they’ve overcome to fight for gender equality in the workplace.
What there aren’t many of, though, are posts explaining that not every company puts those hurdles in the way or makes those battles necessary.
I’ve been regularly chatting with women considering jumping into the industry, and a common thread I’m running into during those conversations is that they’re worried that they’re going to be put in David and Goliath situations no matter where they end up working if they choose to pursue tech careers. Everywhere they turn they hear horror stories—the positive stories aren’t being told.
I decided to write this post to make sure women who are new to, or considering joining, the tech industry know that there are fantastic companies out there that support both men and women in career progress, from entry level to founder.
I tossed a post out on Twitter asking for stories from women who have had great workplace experiences, and within a few minutes my inbox was full of responses.
I asked them to share what made their workplaces so fantastic, what to look for when you’re interviewing to give yourself a better chance of ending up in a great workplace, and some advice for other companies looking to improve their work culture and promote gender equality in the workplace.
I’ve selected 4 responses from 4 amazing women at all stages in their careers to share with you today.
- Kimberly Coles, Creative Director at Happy Monday
- Danikqwa Rambert, Designer, Web + Print at Studio Rainwater
- Danielle Chan, Junior UX Designer at Perpetual Solutions
- Elise West, UX Lead at ThoughtWorks
Have you ever worked with a team of designers where being a woman in tech was a non-issue and/or celebrated?
Kimberly Coles: In my 20+ years in tech, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with many companies and clients to help plan and design hundreds of websites and apps. While it’s still a male-dominated environment at most companies I collaborate with, it’s finally becoming a little more balanced.
At the beginning, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be the only woman in the room. It was a little intimidating at first, but I was persistent because I knew I had the talent to continue on my career path. To be fair, when I started out in 1995, both men and women were in the same boat when it came to figuring out website design and interactive design, so I was very lucky to be able to get support from both women and men.
Early on, a great product manager mentor showed me that it’s just as important to understand each team member’s individual responsibilities as it is to see the big picture and the end goal. I had always been highly motivated at learning design, development, and business skills so that I would be considered for higher level positions, but that product manager pushed me even further. From then on, the desire to learn anything and everything has always been stronger than my fear of failure.
Being able to wear a closet full of hats (sales, strategy, band, UX, design, manager, etc.) and getting out of my comfort zone has allowed me to more successfully collaborate with others across a wide spectrum of personalities and disciplines just as a product manager does.
Once I had a good amount of experience, I got the opportunity to create and grow an interactive team of women and men who were just starting out in their careers. In the early 2000s, I helped define the web design and development processes from the ground up at 2 different traditional full-service advertising agencies that previously had no web or interactive capabilities.
“It’s just as important to understand each team member’s individual responsibilities as it is to see the big picture and the end goal.”
Thinking back on that, there’s definitely a huge difference in opportunities available to women in tech today than when I started out. There are so many more awesome schools and companies to choose from to pursue your passion in tech than there were 20 years ago.
After many years of working at advertising agencies and interactive firms, I began my own company in 2010. To this day, I still strive to collaborate with diverse teams of strategists, designers and developers through all steps of the discovery, strategy, brand, design, content, and development process to produce deliverables that are driven by a strong user experience, solid brand messaging, and rich design elements.
Even though I’m at a higher level now, I still relish those opportunities where I can get into the weeds with the team.
What are the traits of the company, team, team members, culture, etc. that made you feel empowered?
Kimberly Coles: It’s our goal to make everyone feel like they’re able to bring their best self to their job every day, no matter their position or level. We believe that everyone has to have the opportunity to decide what they want their story to be.
Danikqwa Rambert: Honesty, trust, and respect are the first characteristics that come to mind when I think of the culture at Studio Rainwater. We’re a small team of 3: Sarah Rainwater, founder and Art Director; Sarah Verity, Senior Designer; and myself, Danikqwa Rambert, Designer.
We also partner with developers frequently to make our web design projects come to life. I joined the team when I graduated college from Johnson & Wales, Providence, in November of 2015. Being part of such a small team right away gave me a lot more exposure to various projects ranging from print and web than I feel I would gain elsewhere.
Elise West: The company is a non-hierarchical structure with a 50-50 learning and mentoring mentality, which is great for growing a culture of giving and receiving knowledge equally. ThoughtWorks has a strict interview process where there’s a strong emphasis on respect and company culture. This has meant my team members are respectful, friendly, and thoughtful.
I have previously experienced derogatory comments and aggression as the norm. That just doesn’t happen here.
Were there specific experiences in the workplace that cemented the feeling?
Kimberly Coles: While I know many other women that don’t always feel welcome in tech careers, personally, I’ve had more positive encouragement over the years than negative. It may have something to do with the cities I’ve lived in, and the companies I chose to work with. But, it definitely also has to do with my perseverance, willingness to take risks, and always thinking about what comes next in my career.
Danikqwa Rambert: It sounds so simple now, but when I first joined the team as a junior designer, I remembered how much it meant to me that Sarah would ask my opinion on something and give me space to develop a design. She doesn’t micromanage and she never expects me to just recreate a vision or her own.
To be directed and nudged in a direction is a completely different thing than being told exactly what to do. It means a lot to me that we each can give (and receive) open feedback without fear of being critical. It’s always about what is best for the design, the context, and the users/audience.
Danielle Chan: I think working in Perpetual has been really enjoyable and exciting. The company’s culture is very encouraging and supportive. As a junior UX designer, there are still many things for me to learn and my boss, Amish Gandhi, has always been very patient in answering my doubts and questions.
My colleague Matthew Kast has also been very helpful, sharing with me his knowledge and experiences as a product designer and also offering me tips on how I can improve my skills in this field.
What should women searching for awesome workplaces like the one you described specifically look for when applying for jobs?
Kimberly Coles: Women in tech might consider looking beyond the traditional tech cities if they’re looking for a full-time job. I’ve worked full-time jobs in Indianapolis and Savannah and both offered a better quality of life based on abundance of jobs, comparable pay, and reasonable cost of living.
I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to make the move to larger tech cities once you have solid experience under your belt. Once I had that experience, I was able to work all over the country at small, medium, and large companies. Wherever you decide to work, it’s essential to create and maintain your own personal brand to help you stand out from the crowd.
Danikqwa Rambert: Research firms in your area, cold call, and meet as many people as you can. Define what you are passionate about and let the industry know about you. I cold-called a lot of agencies while still in college, and I gained a lot of good responses from doing that. I got the job I have now purely based on the connections I made.“Create and maintain your own personal brand to stand out from the crowd.”
Originally I met with some guys from another firm for coffee with the hopes of opening the door for a potential internship down the road. We hit it off really well but the opportunity for an internship didn’t pan out. A few months later they sent me a message asking if they could send my contact info to someone at a firm who was looking for a junior designer. I said sure, and didn’t hear anything back until 3 months after that. The first email from Studio Rainwater came at the perfect time, as I was looking for a design job once I graduated.
Danielle Chan: I think for women who are searching for awesome workplaces similar to mine, they can only find out if a workplace is truly a good fit after their in-person interview. The direct interaction and engagement will allow her to tell if she’s able to envision herself working in that workplace.
Fit is an important factor when it comes to finding job as a junior UX designer, so one way you can tell is to see if you can click and connect with your colleagues/interviewer. Ask yourself if you feel respected during the interview and comfortable at the new workplace, and if the answer to both is yes, I think you just got yourself an awesome workplace.
If you cannot envision yourself working there and you felt uncomfortable during the interview, then this may be a red flag for you.“Look for a job where your talent can be grown and maximized.”
Elise West: Look at the percentage of women in the company. If there are very few, then women should feel comfortable to ask why and see if it’s something the company actually strives to change.
What are some red flags they should avoid?
Kimberly Coles: I’ve always avoided working with companies that ask women to blend in or try to fit into a male-dominated organization. Once, I found myself in a job where red flags arose, and the going got tough, so I tried to find a way to break through. Even though it didn’t work out, it’s always a good practice to take advantage of every opportunity and exhaust all aspects before deciding to quit. You never know where an opportunity, even a bad one, will lead you. Often, you can learn more from failure than success.
Bottom line: you should be looking for a job where your talent can be grown and maximized.
Danikqwa Rambert: If the agency has a small team and a high turnover rate. There’s a reason people aren’t sticking around. Ask as many questions as you can during the interview phase to get a feel for the company culture.
Unfortunately, there are just some instances where you just won’t know what you’re getting into until you’re part of the team, but try to glean as much insight from as many sources as possible beforehand.
How can other companies create a similar environment? (Or at least improve their current environment?)
Kimberly Coles: I’ve worked with many companies across the US and some still have a lot of room to improve if they want to attract and keep female tech talent in full-time jobs—especially in the era of the gig economy. Some companies still think their hiring practices are fair and work environments are welcoming and female-friendly. If those companies can start to implement policies and cultures that are open and supportive to women, change will come slowly but surely.
After years of working for other people and absorbing all the knowledge I could, I started my own company with the goal to create a fair and welcoming culture.
Danikqwa Rambert: To me, there is nothing worse than a boss who micromanages. I think that a huge bonus of working as a designer for Studio Rainwater is that she doesn’t micromanage and knows how to critique in a way that is understandable and genuinely pushes the work forward.
Companies can improve their current environment by respecting, empowering, and trusting their team members to deliver great work.
Danielle Chan: For other companies, I think one way to create a similar environment is to remove the idea of having a hierarchy. My colleagues and I have very close relationships with my boss and he always treats us as equals, respects our opinions, and gives us opportunities to learn and grow as a person. Even though I’m a junior UX designer, he always takes my inputs into consideration and allows me to feel involved in various projects we have with our clients.
Elise West: Making an effort to employ a more appropriate percentage of women in the company is important. I am in no way saying employ people of a lower standard just because they are female. But making the right efforts to spread the word about your roles can bring attention to your company of a more diverse range of people.
“Companies can improve their current environment by respecting, empowering, and trusting their team members to deliver great work.”
The general culture of the company is important too. At ThoughtWorks, I feel comfortable in the knowledge that respect is vital and being in anyway derogatory, aggressive, or offensive to people is not tolerated.
Related: What exactly is a design culture?
Is there any other information/advice you’d like to share?
Kimberly Coles: As a female, we often have to work harder to get to the next level. If you believe you can do it, you can!
Danikqwa Rambert: For those who are just getting started in the industry, don’t limit yourself—and try a lot of different things. As I mentioned before, cold call or email different agencies that pique your interest. Present yourself professionally with a portfolio book or at least an iPad to show your work. Get some business cards printed and have a nicely designed resume to leave behind.
All of these little things present you in a professional manner. Never be afraid to meet with someone, even if they don’t necessarily do work that aligns with yours. As in my situation, they could know of someone else who can broaden your network.
Header image from the amazing #WOCinTech Chat collection.
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