There are still too many barriers when it comes to hiring and advancing women in technical roles. Fortunately, those obstacles are being overcome with the help of people like Alaina Percival, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Women Who Code.
In the latest episode of The New Talent Code, hosts Ligia Zamora and Jason Cerrato revisit a conversation with Percival from our Cultivate event. In this talk, Percival shares more about launching her organization where women can learn in-demand technical skills and share advice on navigating male-dominated fields. To date, her nonprofit serves nearly 300,000 members in 134 countries.
Here’s more from Percival on why she started her organization, where women get off-track in their career journeys, and how companies can do a better job in hiring and supporting them. (Ed note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Ligia Zamora: Why did you start Women Who Code?
Alaina Percival: While I was always interested in women’s empowerment, I moved to the Bay Area a few years into my career and had a strong, more traditional career path to that point. I hit a little bit of a wall and decided to learn to code to really understand the tech space and get more deeply involved in it.
I realized a couple of things: First, I loved spending time with smart women who were talking about and building technology. And second, that women were deeply underrepresented at the senior and executive levels, and that was a gap nobody was talking about.
As Women Who Code was getting started, this amazing conversation about “teach women and girls to code” was happening in the media, and there were organizations working toward it, but we were this community of brilliant women already in the industry who were ambitious, and one of the things we were coming up against every day was this bias about proving your skill level, this view of being more junior than you were.
That’s when it really hit me. This fun thing we’re doing is actually critical. It’s a critical voice, and the fastest, easiest way to create greater equality in the workplace is to invest in this talent today.
Ligia: How do companies partner with you?
Alaina: We work with companies to elevate their profile to our community, but the important thing is that you actually become part of and invest in the community.
We’re doing hard work. We’re supporting women all over the world to stay engaged in their career, develop a sense of belonging, overcome imposter syndrome, and build pure technical skills.
You can’t come to this audience and say, “Join my team, I’m the best company to work for.” You have to let them know why you’re an exciting company to work for. You have to show them that you care about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging because technologists have their pick of companies they can work for right now.
What’s important for our community is to hear and see your commitment and learn about the programs you’re doing and then meet some of the talented technical women inside your organization who love their job. That’s how you get people interested in coming to work for you.
Ligia: Women tend to leave technical careers about 10 years after they start. What initiatives have you seen best-in-class companies put in place to encourage women to continue their technical careers?
Alaina: When companies come to me and say, “I need to hire,” but they’re not thinking about retaining or elevating the talent that’s inside their organization, my heart gets a little bit sad. The most important thing to do right now is invest in the teams and the talent you already have inside your company.
You need to help women understand what their path is inside of your organization and what they need to do to achieve that next position. Women tend to wait until they have all the skills asked for or they’re actually even doing the job before they go for that promotion. You want to help them envision that path and have clarity around how to get there.
Ligia: Upskilling is a continuous journey. Is this something you see your members continue to come back to in events?
Alaina: Absolutely. Software engineers know that you have to continue developing your skills. You’re not going to just learn one programming language or one framework. It’s going to become obsolete, or you’re going to be interested in working in something else, probably in the next two to five years. You need to constantly be in a state of learning.
For women, it’s so difficult to take the time to invest in yourself, so we are deeply dedicated to access. When we were doing in-person events, we wanted to provide free food because we didn’t want women to decide between dinner and taking the time to attend. We don’t want to put a dollar sign in front of an event because we don’t want women to think, “Oh, I’m going to put it off to see if I really want to pay the $50 to attend,” and then become disengaged from it. We want you to take that time and invest in yourself.
When I was starting, a woman who ran a consulting agency with a lot of engineers said to me, “Women come and ask, ‘Do you mind if I take these resources, whether it’s time or money, and learn the skill?’ ” You’re always under a deadline, and her instinct was always to say no. Men would come to her and say, “I spent all Wednesday doing this, this is my new skill.” Her response was like, “Oh great. Now I can put you on this other project.”
You need to make sure that people have the avenue and the clarity that they should be investing in themselves, and that they can take the time to do that and have the support and resources to do so.
Ligia: Do you see any differences globally in terms of women in tech?
Alaina: When we talk about women stepping out of technical roles around that 10-year mark, it’s different in different countries. In India, that might look like eight years. In China, if you haven’t hit a leadership role by the age of 32, you’re unlikely to do so.
We want to find ways to address at a systemic level the barriers and breakpoints people are facing. It’s much easier to design for inclusion inside of organizations than to change every single woman around the world to be able to overcome the barriers that our society puts in front of them.
Ligia: If you were to give advice to companies, what would that be?
Alaina: For hiring, first make sure you’re examining each breakpoint in the pipeline and designing for inclusion. If you realize you’re getting 95 percent male applicants, post on women’s job boards.
In the hiring process, if no women are making it past the whiteboarding session where American-centric or gender-specific questions are being asked, that needs to be addressed. I’ve heard over and over how uncomfortable it is for a woman to stand in front of a panel of men, writing with your back to them and going through this process.
I remember debating a CTO who said his go-to question was asking about a game. I had this woman next to me from India, and she was a brilliant software engineer, and she said, “I’ve never played that game before.” In this interview, this individual was expecting someone to not only talk through the problem but also to understand what the problem was, so they were not designing for equity in the most simple way.
In the offer process, I recall hearing from a woman who said they had a man and a woman in the final offer phase and both asked for more money. With the woman, the team said, “She’s missing this and that.” But the response to the man was, “Oh yeah, we need to give him more.”
Have an ally in the room who can say you’re using a gendered perspective in this negotiation process. That’s an opportunity for creating greater inclusion because you know what? When you end up hiring both, and six months later she finds out she’s making less money, she literally knows she is less valued at the company. It costs $190,000 to replace a skilled engineer, and that doesn’t include the opportunity costs of her building technology while at your organization.
Ligia: I think about imposter syndrome a lot. Women want to have all the skills mastered before applying, while men have a few. What advice do you have for women who are either going into tech returning from motherhood or pivoting later in life?
Alaina: I’ve been thinking about imposter syndrome a lot, and I still experience it for sure. I encourage women to reframe that thinking as a growth opportunity. Unless you want to feel stagnant, you should always be feeling some level of imposter syndrome because that is what you still have to learn in the role because I promise you, nobody gives out promotions, opportunities, and roles. They see that potential in you, and they know that you have the ability to grow in that role. If you don’t feel imposter syndrome, it’s actually time to ask for that promotion or to move into a new role.
Ligia: Any last words of advice?
Alaina: The industry is only going to be better once we have more diverse voices not only building the technologies that shape our world, but also leading and making decisions around what’s going to be built next.
The New Talent Code with Eightfold AI’s Ligia Zamora and Jason Cerrato is a podcast with practical insights for empowering change agents in HR.