When I was growing up in India, my family made sure I knew I could do and be anything. My dad was convinced I could be the prime minister if I wanted, just like Indira Gandhi, the first female prime minister of India.
For anyone coming from a middle-class background, education was considered to be a path to success, so I was encouraged to study hard and apply myself in school. The fact that I was a girl never came up. Even when I was one of only a few women in my engineering program, it didn’t shake the confidence instilled in me by my family.
The confidence that started at home continued during my formal education, which was surprisingly gender-neutral. I took pride in taking on the hard subjects, and being the only woman in my advanced math and engineering courses didn’t faze me.
This confidence and access to education served me well during my career, allowing me to tackle difficult tasks like hardware engineering during my time at Cisco, and working my way up to my recent appointment as CIO at Atlassian. Unfortunately, my path through the ranks is unusual in the tech industry.
New research from HackerRank found women in engineering are 3.5x more likely to be in junior positions than men. What’s driving this trend and how do we get more women into engineering leadership roles?
First, our educational environment has a significant impact from an early age. I’m raising two boys in the US education system, and I notice it’s much more gender-biased than the schools I attended in India.
Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) is considered much more appropriate for boys, and girls are encouraged to stick to “softer” subjects. This mentality contributes to another finding confirmed by the HackerRank study – women start coding later than men. The good news is that this gap is closing in younger generations, so removing the stigma that “programming is for boys” from our education system is a key driver in preparing women for leadership roles in tech.
Second, the nature of the work and team dynamics play a significant role in keeping women off the leadership path. HackerRank found women learn front-end and back-end development languages, yet they routinely end up in front-end engineering roles. It turns out that front-end jobs are considered more “women-friendly,” which makes it more attractive to join a team with other women. During one mentoring session, I was talking with computer science graduates from MIT and Carnegie Mellon. These women told me that they were looking to apply their degrees in the fashion industry, instead of cutting-edge tech companies. The reason? They didn’t want to be the only woman on the team. We must change the gendered nature of programming to break the cycle of women joining a few teams in a few industries that don’t lead to the C-suite.
Finally, the confidence gap has a significant impact once women reach the workforce. Research shows that women are less likely to raise their hand for stretch assignments or promotions if they don’t have the concrete experience to show that they can do the job. HackerRank shows women have the skills that employers are hiring for (Atlassian included, we use HackerRank assessments for coding interviews), but they’re still unsure about going after senior roles.
I was fortunate to have a strong support system at home, supportive peers during my time in engineering school, and strong men and women advocates in the workplace.
Now that I oversee a large team, I plan to pay it forward by encouraging my direct reports to throw their hat in the ring. I’m going to intentionally discuss paths to leadership with my female colleagues and reports. I’m going to take time to understand their goals and ensure managers are assigning impactful and visible projects to all members of the team.
We need more women in engineering leadership. We know that diverse teams produce better outcomes. Let’s commit to encouraging girls to pursue STEM education, considering women for both front-end and back-end programming roles, and pushing the women on our teams to stand up and say, “I can do this job!”
I’m glad to see the progress we’ve made, and I can’t wait to see what brilliant solutions the next wave of engineers produce when they’re given a chance to shine.