April 19, 2024

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Women vs the World: Navigating Obstacles in High-Tech Careers

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At every level in high-tech fields, from first-time software engineers to VPs of R&D, working women face numerous challenges. In fact, despite significant advances in the working world in general, these same obstacles are common to women in many disciplines.

The above cartoon depicts the experience many women face as they pursue a career in high tech. We are told the race is the same length. We are told to stop complaining. We are told our issues are minor or that they’re figments of our imagination. Yet our experience tells us something quite different: that the race is not equal, that we face many more obstacles than men, and that moving ahead takes much longer. 

From the early stages of their careers as software engineers to leadership roles like VPs of R&D, in the fast-paced world of high-tech careers, women often find themselves running a race that feels longer and more arduous than that of their male counterparts. 

In my journey, the main hardship I dealt with at the beginning of my career was a blind spot that I was unaware of. As a successful software developer, I aspired to become a team lead. However, I was seen as too aggressive, even though a man behaving in the same way would have been perceived as assertive and ambitious. I did not get a specific promotion that professionally I deserved. Lacking female role models, I attempted to conform to male stereotypes, believing that this was my path to success. 

To this day, I believe the four most common obstacles that working women encounter are biological, emotional/psychological, societal/cultural, and environmental/company. These challenges, though formidable, are not insurmountable. By understanding and addressing these obstacles, women can navigate their way to success in the high-tech world. Note that for women of color or non-traditional gender roles, these challenges can have their unique form.

Biological Obstacles: Balancing Career and Family

One of the biological realities women face is the impact of pregnancy on their careers. The journey to motherhood can significantly affect a woman’s career trajectory. From the difficulties of conception to coping with morning sickness and finding time for doctor’s appointments, pregnancy demands a considerable portion of a woman’s life. Men don’t face the same physical, emotional, and mental toll. Even after childbirth, women often find themselves struggling with hospital stays, hormone changes, and exhaustion from childcare responsibilities, which can hamper their professional performance.

Furthermore, the choice to spend more time at home with children may lead some working women to opt for less demanding jobs or accept pay cuts to reduce commuting time. 

Emotional and Psychological Obstacles: The Confidence Gap

Apart from biological challenges, women encounter emotional and psychological barriers that affect them. The confidence gap is one such obstacle. Women often hesitate to ask for higher salaries, fearing they may come across as greedy. This reluctance becomes evident during job interviews, where highly qualified women may undervalue themselves compared to their male counterparts.

Moreover, women tend to hold back from applying for jobs when they don’t meet all the listed requirements, while men are more willing to take chances. This difference in risk-taking behavior can slow women’s career progression. 

Societal and Cultural Obstacles: Navigating Gender Norms

Societal expectations and gender norms often lead to judgments about women pursuing high-tech careers. These stereotypes can include the idea that women are caregivers and should prioritize family over their careers. This expectation can lead to women taking on more childcare responsibilities, opting for less demanding jobs, or even experiencing challenges when both partners prioritize their careers.

Educational environments can also contribute to gender disparities in STEM fields. Traditional teaching methods favoring competition may not cater to girls’ collaborative learning styles, discouraging their interest in STEM subjects. The scarcity of female role models in STEM and subtle biases further deter girls from pursuing these fields.

Environmental and Workplace Obstacles: Bias and Discrimination

Being the sole female in a team can be isolating and lonely. The gender gap in engineering and technology fields means that women often have few female role models and mentors to guide their careers, forcing them to navigate career advancement without counsel and support. 

As mentioned earlier, women face differing expectations and labels for the same behaviors as their male counterparts. Stereotypes and double standards persist, leading to challenges in communication and career growth. Discrimination from employers, including the denial of promotions and salary disparities, commonly affects women’s career trajectories.

Finally, toxic work environments and the gendered dynamics within them can have severe effects on women’s mental and emotional well-being. Sexual harassment poses a significant obstacle, leaving lasting traumatic effects on women. The workplace harassment gender gap is evident, with women filing the majority of complaints. 

The Path Forward

Navigating a high-tech career as a woman may present its challenges, but remember, each obstacle you encounter is an opportunity to showcase your resilience and determination. These challenges are not roadblocks, but stepping stones towards your success. By acknowledging and understanding these hurdles, you are not just overcoming them, you are blazing a trail for others to follow.

Embrace the challenges, for they are the fuel that drives you forward towards a better, more inclusive future in the world of technology.

By Anat Rapoport

By Anat Rapoport

Anat Rapoport has worked her way through every rank in the engineering and technology industries. She has been VP of engineering at multiple companies and was GM and co-CEO in her last two roles. Rapoport is an experienced R&D manager with a master of science in computer science from Tel Aviv University. She is an Israel Defense Forces 8200 alumni, and a mom of three. Her new book is Woman Up!: Your Guide to Success in Engineering and Tech.

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