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Breaking the bias for women in tech: Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code

Building a community to help women in tech succeed

The theme of International Women’s Day 2022 was #BreaktheBias: a campaign to encourage people to take action against the biases that hold women back from achieving their potential both in business and in society.

One woman who’s made an impact in this regard is Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code, the global nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. As part of our International Women’s Day celebrations, Rosa Langhammer, Andela’s Director of Talent Experience, spoke to Alaina about her experiences and how Women Who Code is making an impact for women in tecnology.

Alaina explains that the first time she truly understood the challenges facing women in technology was when she moved to the San Francisco area to pursue her dream of working in this hotspot of innovation. “I was coming from a more traditional business environment, having worked for Puma in Germany, and I struggled to find my feet in the technology industry. So, I learned how to code and as I started to interact more with the community I realized that less than 5% of the people in top technology roles — CTOs and VPs of Engineering —  were women. I realized that there was an opportunity to make a difference in this area.”

“When we started Women Who Code it was really just a local community group trying to help women to advance their careers. We were tapping into the knowledge and expertise of women who had already made the jump into these roles, but it was still a small community organization. Elevating the needs of the women in the industry was very important and we took an approach of being international and accessible from early on. One of the first cities that we expanded to was outside of the United States, and now we’re in 134 countries and all of our programming is either free or scholarship accessible.”

Bias is there on a daily basis

She adds that this just illustrates the biases that women in the industry face on a daily basis. “Even something as simple as opening a business bank account can be a challenge as there’s an inbuilt bias or expectation that the CEO of a company won’t be a woman. This probably isn’t something your stereotypical 22-year-old founder gets asked.”

She adds that some of these biases aren’t always that noticeable. “The smaller it is, the harder it is to externalize and realize that it’s a social or cultural issue that needs to change and not a personal failure.”

“One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there are some women in the technology field who have very high profiles. But the reality is that there are so many incredibly talented, successful, women in senior positions who have taken different paths to leadership, and who are really making a difference in the industry. And they need to be celebrated.”

Women also need to be more assertive when they’re talking about what they’ve done and their skills, Percival says. “I once had a hiring manager comment that when they were interviewing women candidates they would underplay their experience, while male candidates would be saying: ‘Oh, yeah, that programming language is really easy. I love it.’ Even when they’re equally competent.”

Celebrate success – no matter how small

She adds the part of the path to overcoming this is celebrating success. “In Women Who Code we’re trying to get our members to celebrate even small successes, because if we don’t feel confident in in owning our successes, the world won’t do it for us. I was talking to a member and she said ’You’re right. I’m Senior Director of Engineering now, but I’ve actually been embarrassed to update my LinkedIn profile.’ If women are forgetting to tell people about the contribution they’re making or how they helped their company succeed then we’re all going to continue to be penalized for it.”

She comments that she’s seen some of her male colleagues taking an active stance to examine their own biases, something that should be far more common. “I had a male manager who would go back and look at the language he used in his performance reviews and see if there were words or phrases he used to describe women that he wasn’t using to describe men in a similar situation.” Taking this kind of critical approach to even something as simple as this makes a big difference in eliminating biases.

Percival says that there are several strategies that women should adopt when trying to tackle entrenched biases. 

  • Speak up: “When there’s something that you want, like, a promotion, you need to tell people like your manger or HR. Often what happens, especially for women, is that there may be a bias that exists to promote male colleagues and you might be being overlooked because people don’t know that this is a path that you’re looking to take. People are wiling to help but they can’t if you don’t ask for help first, be it a promotion or a project you want to work on, make sure people know that this is what you want to do.”
  • Think ahead: “Don’t just think about the next promotion, think about the one after that and the entire trajectory of your career. You should always be working towards all of your future promotions and building the networks you need to achieve those. Talk to people who are in those roles, talk to them about why they love doing what they’re doing. Look for people who are one or two steps beyond where you are and talk to them about how they got there.”
  • Know your style: Often women are accused of being aggressive, but this is actually a bias term that gets assigned to women who are assertive. “So if you’re being told you’re aggressive, you might just be voicing your opinion In a way that is being received as aggressive. On the flip side, I’ve also heard from women who are put off by the aggressive nature of the industry. They want to do the best job possible without having to fight with their colleagues. This is a double standard because they’ll often be penalized for this, where male counterparts won’t. This is a clear bias and to counteract this it’s important to build up strong networks who understand the value you bring without having to adopt an aggressive stance.”

Things are changing, however, as the visibility around bias this International Women’s Day shows. There are also more opportunities for women to take leading positions in technology and break through as company founders.

“I just recently took on a scouting roll with People’s Capital, which is a German investment firm. And they’re particularly dedicated to examining pitches from women in historically excluded communities. I’m very passionate about looking for ways to help women get access to capital, and where I’ve been involved I can definitely see how the organizations they found have been successful.”

You can watch Alaina’s webinar in full here.

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