Allyship and gender equality in tech- An interview with Courtney Machi

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Charting a path as a woman in tech

The technology industry hasn’t always been the kindest to women; you only have to read the news to get some inkling of the challenges women face when working in tech. Ahead of International Women’s Day, we sat down with Courtney Machi, Vice President of Product at Andela, to talk about her experiences from over 15 years in the industry, what she’s learned, and the challenges she’s faced.

“I never thought I would end up in the tech industry. I always thought I was going to be a journalist or a writer, but I ended up taking an introduction to programming course to keep a friend company and discovered that I had a passion for it,” she comments. “It was a whole new world for me, and it immediately appealed to my love of languages. That one course set me on the path to majoring in Information and Computer Science.”

Working as a student in the high-performance computing center at Carnegie Mellon opened Courtney’s eyes to the potential of technology. It also became evident that there was a massive gender disparity in the field, often leading to people assuming that she was favored because of her gender.

“One time, I was awarded a scholarship, and one of my fellow students found it hard to believe that I had won it based purely on my capabilities. There was the impression that I was only chosen because of my gender.”

After graduation, she moved into a large technology consulting firm, working on projects for some of the largest manufacturing companies in the U.S. “Many times, in those early years, I was exposed to some pretty blatant sexism,” she says. “On one occasion, even told to ‘just sit there and look pretty.”

“I found that all too often, I was underestimated because of my gender, and when I moved into product management people would assume that I didn’t understand the technical nuances of the field. I encountered people who seemed to believe that women aren’t technical, that they don’t have the appropriate technical background, and can’t understand the deep technical aspects of a product.”

“I found that the shift to remote working made a massive difference, however,” she comments. “When people can’t see you ‘in the flesh,’ your work speaks for itself. When you’re fully remote, everything has to be fully documented, and the focus shifts to the work itself rather than the person behind it.”

While there have been challenges, there are a few key areas that helped Courtney to stay the course as a woman in technology.

Find allies

“I didn’t always have women to look up to, or to turn to for assistance, but there were lots of men who helped me deal with many of the issues,” she explains. “You don’t necessarily need to have a female mentor, you just need a mentor who cares about you, someone who’s going to give you their opinion, provide direct feedback, and be real with you.”

She adds that, if you’re looking to move ahead in your career, you need someone who will advocate for you, and having colleagues who you can turn to for honest advice is essential. “You need to have a team of advisors, especially people more senior than you, to give you input on decisions.”

Be real with yourself

Conducting an honest self-assessment is another critical skill for women in the tech industry. “In an industry where sexism can be endemic, you have to be able to distinguish for yourself when decisions are being made on an objective basis and when there’s active discrimination involved. It’s not always easy to see the difference, so building up that skill is vital.”

Build your network

Even though women still don’t have the level of representation in the industry that they should, there are many networks out there for women in tech, and Machi comments that these can be vital in gaining insight into how to advance your career. “There are several groups on Facebook where it’s possible to get valuable advice around how to survive in the tech industry, with other women able to lend valuable support and discussions around critical issues that affect women in business. “

The industry is changing

Courtney adds that it’s not all an uphill battle. “Over the past few years, I’ve seen a massive increase in the number of women working across the technology industry. At my previous company, when I left, there was a 60:40 split between men and women in the product and UX teams. This would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

“It’s also something that creates its own momentum. I’ve seen that teams run by women tend to attract more women, and this is just one more example of why it’s so important to have women in leadership positions across all levels of the tech industry. There are so many amazing women out there just looking for the opportunity to grow.”

What to look for when you’re looking at jobs

A lot has been said about how companies with purpose are more successful, and Machi comments that this is the one thing she’s seen while working at Andela.

“Andela’s a very mission-driven company. And people want to work here because they want to work on something they feel is important.

“As a woman, working in a company that’s open to new ideas means that many of the old attitudes don’t survive in this environment. That’s super refreshing, not just for product managers but anyone who’s creating. If you want the freedom to be able to create and get feedback, this kind of culture is truly refreshing.”

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