6 ‘Stepping Stones’ for Women in Tech—and Assessing the Path Forward

Despite progress, women are still underrepresented in the technology sector. We spoke to three female leaders in tech who provided insights into their career success and advice for future generations of girls, including reframing challenges as opportunities, taking steps to avoid burnout, and embracing self-advocacy.

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

Two hundred years. That’s the amount of time the World Economic Forum estimates it will take women to achieve parity in the workplace.

In certain sectors like technology, the gender gap is even more daunting. In the United States, women constitute just 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce—even though they’re about half of the overall labor pool. In the eight largest technology companies in the world, women hold between just 17-30 percent of tech-focused roles.

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But although the statistics around women in tech are discouraging, there are signs of progress—and more than a few estimable women at the forefront of a promising societal shift.

“I don’t believe that gender or age or any of those things have to limit you; they didn’t limit me.”

—Marsha Osborn, COO, Briggo

We spoke to three successful women in technology about the power of role models, leadership tactics, and tips for the next generation of young girls pursuing STEM careers. Below, we’ve distilled their advice into six stepping stones for young women to apply to their own paths forward.

1. Reframe Challenges as Opportunities

Mandy Dhaliwal, CMO of Boomi, an integration platform to unify your digital ecosystem, says that despite the oft-cited statistics and obstacles facing women in technology, she’s never viewed herself as limited. This mindset has helped her achieve significant career milestones, such as working in “just about every role imaginable within the marketing discipline” at successful Silicon Valley tech startups.

“I’ve viewed [challenges] as an open door for me to rise up, and I’ve always managed my career in that fashion,” she says, citing her upbringing and the support she received from a young age as critical to this mentality. “I was raised to think, if you want to go do something, go try it. That foundation has helped me [grow] my career,” she says.

Marsha Osborn, Briggo

Marsha Osborn, COO of Briggo, an Austin, Texas-based coffee startup, echoes the sentiment that reframing limitations as opportunities—paired with a dash of serious ambition—is a winning formula. “Figure out how you can take an adverse situation and make it positive for you,” she says.

“I don’t believe that gender or age or any of those things have to limit you; they didn’t limit me,” she adds. In her case, Osborn found the challenge was extra motivation to outperform her peers. “It wouldn’t matter if there were four engineers next to me and I was the only female. I wanted to work harder, study more, and be able to contribute 200 percent of the expected results,” she says.

2. The Path Is Not Linear—Learn to Keep an Open Mind

Many young people embark upon a career path with a specific company, Ivy League university, or ambitious job title in mind—but Dhaliwal notes that keeping an open mind is important for long-term success.

“You may want to be at XYZ company, but the road is not linear,” she says. “Look at opportunities for what they are, and look at them as stepping stones, perhaps versus getting right to where you need to go.” She also suggests students be “open to learning,” even during later stages of their career journey. “We’re in a world where you have to continuously learn. I’m still learning.”

3. Take Care to Avoid Burnout

Mandy Dhaliwal, Boomi

One pitfall to avoid is the phenomenon of burnout—which studies have found is particularly common in the tech industry. The World Health Organization even recognized burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019.

“I think as far as obstacles in my career and challenges, I was my own worst enemy,” Dhaliwal recalls about her own experience with burnout. “I pushed myself too hard. That was a [difficult] lesson for me to learn about my limits. So, I’m much more cognizant now about what I take on.”

Vanessa Bryan, director of client services at Draper, a not-for-profit research and development organization in Massachusetts, emphasizes that work-life balance is a must, particularly when it comes to prioritizing family time.

“I have a [prestigious] job and a lot of responsibility, but [Draper] really encourages work-life balance. I make it to my kids’ games, and I’m there to help with homework when it’s needed. That’s something I need to continue to do,” she says.

4. Seek Out and Embrace Mentorship

Bryan touts the importance of strong role models, citing a mentor who helped her gain confidence at the onset of her career.

“[My mentor] was an account executive, and she was fearless. Nothing got in her way. The biggest thing I learned from her was you earn what you put in.”

—Vanessa Bryan, director of client services, Draper

“[My mentor] was an account executive, and she was fearless. Nothing got in her way. The biggest thing I learned from her was you earn what you put in,” Bryan says. “She was really inspirational, and I think she had a very positive effect on where I am today.”

Vanessa Bryan, Draper

Osborn reiterates that it’s necessary to develop mentoring relationships at an early age. “It really takes strong role models to create confidence, so that [young girls] know they can do anything they ever aspire to do. … Not every person may want to be the CEO, but there is a place for everybody in this big world, depending on what you want to be. I think it’s extremely important to give back by showing [kids] the great example of all of the opportunities that are out there.”

5. Be Your Own Advocate

In addition to mentorship, Bryan says that self-advocacy is a critical part of climbing the ranks in the competitive tech world.

“If you want something, you’re going to need to work for it, and that’s going to require you to step out of your comfort zone,” she says. “If that means you need to call an HR department and talk to people you don’t know, then those are steps you need to take. You are your own best advocate, and you’re going to be a make-or-break defining factor,” she says.

Bryan also acknowledges the added challenge that many women working in technology face in the form of unconscious bias—although she expresses optimism that workplace biases are beginning to come to light.

“I think it’s important to be able to identify where there are biases,” she says. “Each of us have a responsibility to do our part to try to squash [them].”

6. Find What “Makes You Tick”

All three women express unbridled enthusiasm for their work. Dhaliwal stresses it’s important to discover what “makes you tick.” In her case, she’s thoroughly enjoyed working at the intersection of business and technology.

“The fact that I can take technological advancements and take the nebulous [concepts] and translate them to plain English, I find that to be fun and challenging,” she says.

Osborn expresses similar satisfaction with her work—and she encourages young girls pursuing STEM careers to seek intellectual stimulation, as well as personal and professional growth, on a continual basis.

“Always be exploring; reach for goals and go build that confidence, because [you] can achieve anything,” she says. “It’s just a matter of putting your mind to it and making it happen.”

Positive mentalities, mentors and role models, and strong support systems can pave a path for future women leaders to continue making progress—and achieve equality sooner than two centuries from today.