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I gave the wrong answer when I was asked how people can better support women in tech. Here’s what I wish I said instead.

“The funny thing is, I look back on all of these moments and think about how lucky I am,” writes Kristi Perreault. “How lucky I am that it wasn’t worse.”

Kristi Perreault

  • From a young age, Kristi Perreault experienced stereotypes as a woman in the tech field.
  • To better support women in tech, help build your colleagues up — and don’t make comparisons.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

At age 16, I took my first engineering class in high school. As one of only two girls, I was met with whispers of, “She only took this class to meet boys, and have the attention all to herself.”

At age 17, I sought out an AP Computer Science class online and only made it halfway through. I was told that maybe programming wasn’t for me, and I should explore other options.

At age 18, I applied to college for computer engineering, and I was met with questions like, “Are you sure you want to do this? It’s going to be really hard — are you up for it?” and “You know you’ll probably be the only woman in most of your classes, right?”

At age 20, I was told I could have any internship I wanted because, “All tech companies are looking to hire women.”

At age 22, I drove 12 hours to Michigan to compete in an autonomous vehicle competition with a vehicle I had led the autonomous algorithm development of. Again, I was greeted with a myriad of “wows” — because no way was *I* in software.

At age 23, I was asked to work front-end development on a project because “I’d have a much better eye for it” than any of the men on the team, and the back-end development was “pretty complex.”

At age 24, I was told our “this could have been an email” meeting had value because the only two other women on the call had “made a connection” and were now friends because they were the only two that spoke up.

At age 25, I removed my job title from my dating profile because I was sick of being told that I was too pretty to be an engineer or too smart and intimidating to be with.

At age 26, I have mentored dozens of female college students, interns, and new hires, and every single one of them has told me they have wanted to give up and have asked me how I handle it.

A few weeks ago, I was on a flight to a large tech conference, and the men next to me were not only surprised that I was attending but also that I was attending as a senior software engineer in serverless and could hold my own in a technical conversation.

I share these stories not to shame and look for pity, but to raise awareness and understanding

The funny thing is, I look back on all of these moments (and many others that I did not share here) and think about how lucky I am. How lucky I am that it wasn’t worse, like the stories I’ve heard from dozens of other women. How lucky I am that, for every bad comment, there were a dozen good ones telling me to keep going.

A few days ago, I was asked to join Serverless Office Hours. At minute 7:50 in the video recording, Julian Wood asked me about my experience as a woman in technology, and he asked what others can do to help support women. Honestly, I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, and after taking some time to think about it more, I’ve decided I can do better. So, if my journey in tech thus far has left you frustrated, confused, or just plain curious, and you’re wondering what you can do to help, I encourage you to read on.

Build women up

It could look like a number of different things, depending on the person (or people) you’re helping and the role you hold. If you know of a job opportunity that’d be perfect for them, share it. If you know of a podcast looking for a guest, pass their name along. If they wrote a book or a blog post or contributed a feature you like, share it with your network. The possibilities here are endless, and it’s so easy to stand up and spread the word. Don’t underestimate the power of your voice and the weight of your word.

The flip side of this — and it’s something I am guilty of — is many of us tend to compare ourselves to others and downplay our achievements. If you want to help, hype us up, even if it’s just to our face. The women I know are achieving great milestones every day, but they are too humble or too quiet or too scared or just honestly don’t think it’s impressive enough to share out when it very much is.

Watch the water cooler talk

Yes, I know most of us are no longer near water coolers, and we aren’t socializing as much as we used to, but it is still important to create an inclusive environment, even in the virtual world.

I love the recent focus on using more inclusive language, like asking for pronouns and choosing to use “you all” or “everyone” over “you guys.” We need to continue giving women a platform to speak, whether in a team meeting, a presentation, or another medium (unintentional pun). It’s important to know when to speak up for women and when to step aside and let their voices be heard.

I have heard frustrations from many women about some of the “water cooler” talk in the tech scene. Many feel like they are being criticized for having more “feminine” interests and not always talking about sports or [insert another primarily male-dominated interest here]. And honestly, I can see where they’re coming from. Yeah, I am the commissioner of my Fantasy Football league, and I’m also anxiously awaiting the next season of “The Mandalorian.” But I’m also watching “The Bachelor” on Tuesday nights, and don’t you dare dismiss me for that. Be conscious of your audience, and don’t make assumptions based on gender.

Educate yourself so that you can educate others

Earlier, I mentioned my frustration with this phenomenon of women in technology needing to be the best of friends. When I noticed this in a meeting I was in a few years ago, I pointed it out to a trusted colleague. He was shocked when I explained my perspective and apologetic that he didn’t notice it before. I very much understood, brushed it off, and moved on with my day. About a week later, he called me, saying it bothered him so much that he went out and bought a book on unconscious bias and had read it cover to cover over the weekend and asked me if I would hold him accountable going forward. It moved me to tears and still does today. When I say educate yourself, THIS is what I mean.

Pick out your gaps, find your blind spots, be honest about the things you don’t know, and work to improve them. Hold others accountable, too, even if you’re still learning. If someone is posting sexist remarks, call it out. If you’re part of an interview team and the candidate pool severely lacks diversity, speak up. If you see something — a snide comment, rude behavior, any sort of harassment, etc. — say something. Your word holds more weight than you think it does.

Ask them what they need

When all else fails, just ask us what you can do to help. We’re all different people with different needs and perspectives. What bothers me may not bother the woman standing next to me.

I share these tips as general guidelines that I have found to be most helpful in my tech journey, and I’m sure it will evolve and change over time (and hopefully for the better). Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re already way ahead of the curve, so be sure to share with a friend, colleague, or — probably most beneficial — the Worst Guy You Know.

For those that may be concerned or worried or just plain mad about some of the anecdotes I shared above, don’t be. Despite all the adversity and frustrations, I graduated first in my engineering class with summa cum laude. I went on to get a Master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering while working full time.

I continue to push the envelope and work towards excelling in my career every day, in any way I can. I have found such an incredible support system throughout my journey in tech so far, and as much as I hate the whole #NotAllMen hashtag, I have found some pretty phenomenal and supportive male colleagues, mentors, and friends along the way.

We’re making strides, but we still have a long way to go. I’ll pay tribute to the old adage: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?

Kristi Perreault is a senior software engineer in serverless enablement and development.

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