As a PhD mathematician who spent the first decade of my career working in the government space before moving on to become founder and CEO of a tech startup, I’ve thoroughly lived the ‘woman in tech’ experience. And compared to even a decade ago, personal experience validates the idea that there is now a broader acceptance of women in leadership positions within the technology sector.
However, women pursuing such roles in our industry unfortunately still face a challenging path, particularly if that woman happens to be a mother. There is no shortage of stats that speak to the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math, but sometimes it is important to talk about the imbalance as it appears through the lens of personal experience.
When I first founded my company in 2016, I intentionally avoided talking about my family and the fact I have five children to remove the investor bias of ‘how can she possibly run a business and be a mom at the same time?’ In a competitive fundraising environment, I didn’t want to risk anything that might impede their vision of my abilities as a technologist and entrepreneur.
Does my role as a mother undermine my ability to be a successful founder? Absolutely not – it arguably enhances it – but as most women working in this space can attest, that is not always the reality of the situation. Unconscious bias is real, but the best way to overcome it for myself and the woman who will walk this path after me is by continuing to pursue and deliver substantive, undeniable value. I’ve never aspired to be a successful woman in tech; I aspire to be a successful founder and CEO – all other labels excluded.
Being a mom and a successful business woman are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to be superhuman to have a happy family and run a tech firm. When it comes to cultivating roles for women in the tech industry, the first step is to highlight this path as an option. We can’t – and shouldn’t – force anyone into a STEM career, but we should do more to ensure it is more frequently considered by young women. The education sector has a vital role to play in helping young women understand that they have a choice.
That may come in the form of mentorship, STEM programs designed to reach young women, or just a continued normalization and exposure of the women in leadership roles. They can choose to focus on a career, or, if they prefer, to raise a family. Or they can choose to do both. We should celebrate and publicise the fact that young women today really should and do have that choice.
Unfortunately as the past year has demonstrated, highlighting the option to pursue a career like mine is something we need to strive for in the best of times — and desperately hold on to in the worst. One of the most challenging parts of the current pandemic for women has been the loss of practical choice. When it comes to opportunities in the workplace, women are disproportionately bearing the pandemic burden, and mothers are feeling it even more substantially.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 3.5 million mothers living with school-age children left the active workforce during the early months of the pandemic. In some cases, that meant shifting to paid or unpaid leave, losing jobs, or leaving the workforce all together as the challenges stemming from virtual school and a lack of adequate child care options piled up. Those of us with kids at home can particularly empathize and relate to increased stress relating to the changes in routine and loss of community.
When the global economy eventually begins to bounce back, we need to use this re-start as a chance to push women forward and give them opportunities.
In the tech community, we can open doors for women by exposing them to options and offering flexible work environments. And for those of us who speak from within ‘women in tech’, I hope we will continue to amplify our actions and our voices, showing others that I have done it — and you can too.