Women+ in tech: Navigating the gender gap

Joanne Yip headshot
Joanne Yip|March 29, 2023
Image illustrating board game
Image illustrating board game

Technology may have advanced, but when it comes to true gender parity, the tech industry has yet to catch up. Many women and gender minorities in tech still face microaggressions and career-altering challenges like gender-biased performance standards, salary gaps, intersectional gender inequity, and the motherhood penalty. So it’s no surprise that the attrition rate for women tech workers is 45 percent higher than it is for men.

While companies can (and should) do more to close the gap, it could be a long wait. In the meantime, we’ve gathered useful strategies for individuals navigating some of these obstacles — from finding the right mentors to building strong support systems and nurturing your very own superpower.

5 challenges facing women+ in tech

In many industries, women experience unequal standards and career hurdles in ways that men do not. And the tech industry is no exception. We’re calling out these issues to push for much-needed change (and hopefully prevent them from happening in the first place).

1. The likability paradox

In many societies, traditional gender norms prescribe that the ideal woman is kind, conciliatory, and nonassertive. Women who don’t conform to these standards are seen as less likable, but those who do are less likely to command respect from their peers. Ridiculous, you might say — and we agree! But the likability paradox persists.

So how does the likability paradox play out at the workplace? Women frequently walk a tightrope between managing unspoken expectations based on deeply rooted biases and simply getting the job done. This paradox is even more apparent for women in leadership roles or positions of power. For instance, a Columbia Business School experiment showed how perceptions of the exact same behavior varied depending on whether the successful businessperson was a man or a woman.

“The same characteristics are labeled differently in men and women, especially at the leadership level. If a woman is hard-nosed or asserts her view, she could be called aggressive, irrational, or even crazy. I’ve seen how men can yell in frustration and no one blinks an eye. But if women react, they’re immediately discredited. Over the years, I’ve learned to keep a straight face and never appear ‘emotional.’” – Tara Sinquefield, content engineer and former IT manager (she/her)

2. The performance tax 

When assessing employee job performance, women are typically “taxed” more heavily than men. A Stanford Business School study of performance reviews found that there is inherent bias when supervisors evaluate individual employees. And the bias in favor of men is stronger in male-dominated jobs such as those that involve leadership or technical skills.

In contrast, companies often subject women to gender policing and don’t reward them, even when they possess the same traits that are highly valued in men. Compared to men in the same roles, women are held to higher standards and more readily penalized over any gaps in their technical skills.

When companies are less likely to recognize women’s leadership potential, they make it harder for women to progress in their careers. Across the tech industry, women hold fewer than 20% of leadership positions. And the imbalance starts at the very bottom of the corporate leadership ladder — at the proverbial broken rung, where companies promote fewer women in entry-level positions to first-level managers. According to McKinsey, only 52 women in technical roles are promoted to manager for every 100 men.

3. Salary gaps

6 out of 10 times, women in tech are offered a lower salary than men for the same role in the same organization. In the U.S., tech companies generally pay women less than men, even with comparable levels of education, skills, and experience. Here are some examples.

  • Women software engineers earn $9,000 less annually.

  • Women data architects earn $13,000 less annually.

  • Women database administrators earn $11,000 less annually.

4. Intersectional gender inequity

For women of color and LGBTQ+ individuals, overlapping social identities can make the disparities and challenges even greater. For instance, women of color in tech report experiencing higher levels of bias at work than white women. Many face gender, racial, and ethnic stereotyping; unfair job expectations; and the need to work harder to prove themselves. Black and Hispanic women in tech also earn some of the lowest wages in the industry.

Useful data on LGBTQ+ tech workers is nonexistent as they are often excluded from measurement. But early research suggests that systemic inequalities exist. These can have a negative impact on their career opportunities, perceived professional credibility, and ability to fit in at work.

“All inequality is not created equal.” — Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, civil rights advocate and Professor of Law, UCLA and Columbia Law School, who coined the term intersectionality

5. The motherhood penalty 

The motherhood penalty refers to the discrimination that working women face for choosing or planning to have kids. Compared to working fathers, working mothers are often seen by employers as less committed or less competent at work — even though research shows otherwise. And this can impact everything from their wages to their chances of getting hired or promoted.

Unlike similarly wealthy countries, U.S. companies are not required to provide paid parental leave. And those who do are still a minority. A survey found that, with the return to in-person work, the number of U.S. companies offering paid maternity leave has dropped from 53 to 35 percent. And those offering paid paternity leave dropped from 44 to 27 percent.

Until these challenges are sufficiently addressed, companies will continue to struggle in attracting and retaining women+ tech talent and some of the best minds in the industry.

How can women+ navigate the gender gap in tech?

To be clear, it’s not the job of women and gender minorities to eliminate systemic gender discrimination. But according to the World Economic Forum, it will take more than 130 years for the gender gap across the world to close — and that’s a long time to wait. In the meantime, here are a few ways that women+ in tech can navigate the gender gap, improve their chances of success, and thrive.

Find good mentors  

Mentors play a key role in a person’s professional growth and success, whether you’re fresh out of school or halfway through your career. In a recent panel discussion organized by PDQ, three women business leaders offered some valuable insights and advice on finding mentors who can help you.

  • Reach out actively and choose people with roles and experiences that you’re interested in. 

  • Be clear and specific about what you’re asking for help with.

  • Choose different mentors for different skills you want to learn.

  • Remember that mentorship doesn’t have to be a long and formal process. It could even be a single conversation.

"I had a great mentor in school. There were only two female students in my entire class and this teacher would regularly push us to step out of our comfort zone. She was tough, but fair and very encouraging. She was really invested in our growth and wanted us to take the lead in getting more attention for the computer science program. We ended up having a lot of fun and I learned a lot from her." — Kaela Tudhope, software engineer (she/her)

Build a strong support system 

Form relationships with people who show up for you, celebrate your wins, and defend your right to be heard and acknowledged for your work. At a community level, consider joining groups that you identify with. These can be within your company or external organizations that focus on providing communal support, resources, and opportunities to women, women of color, and LGBTQ+ folks in tech.

Screen potential employers

When applying for jobs, try finding out how potential employers support women and gender minorities. For example, does the company offer paid parental leave and childcare benefits? Employee resource groups (ERGs) for women and LGBTQ+ folks? Mentorship programs?

Besides scouring the company website, consider checking out job review sites or third-party resources. You could also ask an existing employee (if you know one) or ask during the interview itself (HR practitioners suggest waiting till the second round of interviews). Most importantly, know your rights so that you know when you’re being unfairly treated.

Focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t

Gender discrimination is all too common, and sometimes women can internalize the struggles they face. (Facing double standards and being underestimated will do that to a person.) Imposter syndrome may be a popular term, but remind yourself that it’s seldom a reflection of your true abilities (and might actually be a result of gender discrimination). To overcome self-doubt or discouragement, try adopting a growth mindset and focus on the things you can do to build your knowledge and confidence at work.

"Tech is a space that anyone can enter as long they have the necessary skills and knowledge — even if they don’t have formal degrees. There are senior engineers on my team who are self taught. It’s totally plausible. At PDQ, we work with Tech-Moms to teach people to program and make websites. And they can use what they learn to make a living, which is neat and really empowering." — Taylor Pine, software engineer (they/them)

Cultivate your superpower

In a recent panel discussion at PDQ about empowering women at work, business leaders shared how in the face of gendered discrimination, they discovered their own personal superpowers. For some women, being relentless in pursuing their goals is their superpower. For others, it’s staying focused and intentional in everything they do. Your superpower can be anything that equips you to overcome difficulties and achieve success.

For example, it could be mastering the art of negotiation, developing the critical elements of emotional intelligence, or just being friggin’ good at your job. The important thing is to nurture what gives you the ability and strength to rise above and keep going.

"Ultimately, if someone in a non-leadership role doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up for whatever reason, it doesn’t make them a bad person. We don’t have to fight every battle or fight them right away. It’s okay to pace ourselves and do it when we’re ready. And it shouldn’t be on women alone to do all the work all the time. It’s ok to take a break and choose rest instead." — Gaia Beatrice, staff software engineer (she/her)

At PDQ, we’re fortunate to have leaders and fellow coworkers who truly believe in creating a safe, inclusive, and equitable workplace for all — especially women and LGBTQ+ employees. And we work hard at empowering our people and upholding our values in everything that we do. Sounds idealistic? Maybe. And we know that there’s room for improvement. But we’re problem solvers at heart, and we love a good challenge — especially if it aims to make life for folks a little easier. If this sounds like the place for you, come join us! Or follow the PDQ blog and YouTube channel for more news and the latest updates.

Joanne Yip headshot
Joanne Yip

Joanne has always loved the impact that words can make. When she isn’t typing away in the world of sysadmin, Joanne loves hiking with her husband and dog, true crime podcasts, and dreaming of her next scuba diving adventure.

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