Gender keyboardThe technology industry provides some of the most desirable and exciting jobs. In Glassdoor’s report on the Best Jobs in America for 2015, 10 out of 25 of the highest-rated jobs were in a tech-related field. As the entire industry continues to grow, it’s unfortunate that the number of women holding jobs in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—is not keeping pace. Jobs in STEM are still predominantly held by men.

There are definitely more women in the tech industry today than when I started in 1997. But the feminist in me can get cynical when I see reminders of the slow speed of progress and the challenges that women continue to face. Stories like Newsweek’s What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women—which provided some visibility into the level of sexism in the industry—and current statistics are clear reminders that the progress I have personally experienced is hardly representative of the industry as a whole.

LEARNING FROM THE STRUGGLE

It’s disheartening to read these stories. I worry that these challenges might deter young women from considering careers in tech. But, luckily, my natural enthusiasm wins out, and my personal experience confirms there’s something to feel optimistic about. What I know for sure (channeling my inner Oprah here) is that women can and do find meaningful and successful technical careers.

My own introduction to the industry started with a position at a Mad Men-esque, “boys’ club” company (glass ceilings and all) where I was one of two women on a team of about 50 men. My time there was sometimes deeply challenging, not the experience an eager young woman who’s ready to learn and make a valuable impact expects. I can certainly relate to the challenges women in the industry face, from outright sexism and harassment to lack of advancement opportunities. But looking back on it, that was one of the more pivotal and defining experiences in my career. In spite of the negative environment, I learned a lot about the tech industry and had some wonderful male co-workers. I took what might be seen as an indicator that I was in the wrong field and refocused my energy on finding the right work environment.

ENVIRONMENT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE

After leaving that job, I joined Microsoft, where I worked for MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network) and was surrounded by serious developers—guys who built tools for fun. Men outnumbered women in the company, but smart, driven women were holding their own. Women carried impressive titles, and were managers at many levels. I spent many years at Microsoft, worked in four business groups across the company, and had excellent mentors. This experience confirmed that I made a great career choice, one that offered so much growth potential and interesting opportunities.

FINDING MY GROOVE

I’ve spent the past nine years working with incredible, hardcore women at Denny Mountain Media and 84 and Sunny. Women who ride Harleys to work, and sing in bands, and have “avalanche control” in their employment history (DMM’s fearless leader, Jill). When I hear someone labeled “fearless leader,” I always wonder if they have also strapped dynamite to their back and navigated near-vertical, snow-covered mountain peaks on a pair of skis. Probably not! But I digress.

What stands out as the key environmental differentiator, the thing that most directly affects my personal job satisfaction, is being offered the space and support to stretch in unexpected directions, and having clear, substantive confidence in my ability, coupled with high performance expectations. My experience tells me this type of collaborative leadership is what women want and need to thrive.

Girl heroWOMEN LEADERS INSPIRE WOMEN TO BE LEADERS

There’s no doubt that it’s critical to show young women there are many opportunities to succeed in STEM careers. It’s equally important—and more challenging—to help women see the full career track, that there’s potential for them to contribute at all levels. If we want to retain the women we have in this industry, and continue to attract young, bright, and capable women, we need to show them women in all positions, from program managers, testers, and engineers, to VPs and CEOs.

EVERYONE BENEFITS FROM MORE WOMEN IN STEM

Women bring valuable and unique perspectives, capabilities, and leadership qualities to the workplace. This has a positive and measureable impact on financial performance, effectiveness of organizations, social and corporate sustainability, and the way we design, develop, and market products.

DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES AND COLLABORATIVE ENVIRONMENTS ARE KEY

As the tech industry continues to focus on innovation, it’s important for companies to cultivate diverse and highly collaborative work environments. This is particularly critical for successful product design and development, for solving today’s complex real-world problems and for ensuring organizational readiness in a rapidly changing market.

It is a privilege to be at the helm of two companies (Denny Mountain Media and 84 and Sunny) that serve as great examples of a continuous commitment to an environment where every person’s ideas and creativity are valued, appreciated, and recognized. Individuals who are collaborative, creative, and strategic thinkers, and have strong leadership qualities, flourish in a company like ours. I know this type of environment fuels curiosity and investigative interests, and appeals to many women in the industry.

WOMEN ARE MAJOR TECH INFLUENCERS

Women are now the leading adopters of technology. Given a statistic like this, it’s clear that male-dominated product development and marketing can’t continue as the norm. Companies need to expand to include the positive influence of their most important demographic—both as consumers and as creators.

My deepest desire is that more young women will consider their full potential and the possibility of a successful STEM career. I hope they envision their careers free of the kind of limitations that make headlines. No self-imposed glass ceilings allowed!