A Survival Guide for Female Employees in Male-Dominated Companies

*This post originally appeared on the blog of The Digital Dames under one of my pseudonyms.

No. Way.

You just got an offer from that amahhhhhzing company with the $70M venture round and the [insert tech buzzword here].

Maybe the business is super-secretive, or maybe all their glassdoor reviews rave about how fun it is to work there. Beer! And Starcraft!

You show up on your first day, eager to meet all the badass women in leadership.

All zero of them.


Or maybe, like, one.

You might be in this situation right now. Or you might remember a younger version of yourself who went through this situation.

If you work in tech, you didn’t make a grave mistake by joining  a male-dominated company—at least not relative to joining any other tech company. Most tech companies are like this.

So you’re a female employee at a male-dominated company. What is the effect on you?

Look, girl. I believe in your abilities. I believe that your company would do way better if it listened to you, and other people like you, and other people who generally don’t look like all the people running the place right now. That’s what I believe. But I need to level with you about the reality.

Here’s the reality: based on the evidence of history, chances are low that you will advance through the ranks with the speed that your skills and abilities merit. Your progress at the company, if you progress at all, will be frustratingly slow.

Why? There are lots of reasons. I have cherry-picked a few because I ain’t got all day.

  • Decision-makers tend to favor people who look like themselves for promotions and projects (this is called pattern matching).
  • Your voice will not be taken as seriously as those of your male colleagues because women are assumed to be less experienced, less credible, and more ‘sensitive’ (whatever that means, and which is inexplicably somehow a bad thing).
  • If you increase your effort or raise your voice to influence change, you will be read as ‘aggressive’ instead of assertive or competent like your male peers. You may even be disciplined for this.

Yes, the patriarchy sucks, and we could all give ourselves a hernia fighting it. But if you don’t always have the energy to go to battle at your job and you’re not planning on leaving your job, consider some of the following options:

1. Identify advocates. 

One of the reasons women advance more slowly than their male peers is that they have fewer advocates in the boss’s ear than their male counterparts. So identify men who are below your boss who are willing to speak up to your boss and who your boss respects. Get to know those men, and give them reasons to go to bat for you. Why? Because you’d be judged more harshly than your male peers for promoting yourself, but if you can get your male peers to advocate to your boss on your behalf, then the outlook is much better for you.

This strategy includes some risk that your potential advocates misinterpret your attempts to establish a good professional relationship. If you’re single, you’re probably going to have to deal with one or more of these men coming onto you or otherwise trying to make their sexual or emotional feelings your responsibility. I can’t say I know a surefire way to avoid this. You could specifically target advocates who are already married, mention your partner in conversation (or fabricate a partner if you don’t have one), tell them that you don’t experience sexual attraction, or tell them you don’t experience sexual attraction to men. None of these measures eliminate the risk of men coming onto you. However, they do mitigate the risk.

2. Set personal goals.

If your metrics for success at work depend on other peoples’ opinions of your expertise, you may become frustrated with your unfairly slow progress. Instead, identify professional goals that you can measure independently of other people’s opinions and that align with the opportunities your company provides.

Examples: maybe you want to learn functional programming. Maybe you want to practice building team rapport on small teams. Or you want to add an iOS app to your design portfolio. These are all excellent goals to pursue at work, provided they align with your job, because they don’t depend on someone else’s review of your work.

In addition to making goals that build your skills, you can make goals to expand your network. Maybe you want to connect with decision-makers on LinkedIn. Or maybe you want to establish relationships with coworkers and identify potential cofounders for your future ventures.

3. Diversify your energy portfolio.

You wouldn’t put all your money into a single stock with a low return on investment. But you know what’s more valuable than your money? Your time and your energy. You’ll only ever have a finite amount of these. So treat them as precious, as you would your money. And don’t pour them all into a job where your efforts and achievements are not recognized and appreciated.

Moreover, when you leave the company you are at right now, your accomplishments in service of the company follow the company…not you. This is fine if they’re compensating you for that time and effort as part of your job description. But rather than go above and beyond in service of your employer, devote your discretionary time and energy to projects that will follow you when you and your company part ways.


  • Do you care about social issues in tech? Great! Get involved in community groups or industry efforts instead of trying to convince your company’s leadership to care alongside you.
  • Do you love to write? Great! Start a blog. Don’t contribute to your company’s blog on your own time unless their blog has more visibility than yours does. If your company’s blog does have a lot of visibility and you choose to contribute to it on your own time, make sure you’re linking to your own blog in those posts.
  • Interested in a new technology? Great! Find some friends and play with it. Put the result on your website, dribbble, or github. If it’s an app, deploy it or put it in the app store and tell your friends.
  • Do you have an awesome business idea? Great! Validate it with customers outside of work. See if it has legs. If so, start working on it on the side. If it becomes a lot of work, conscript that cofounder you scoped out at work. Maybe it’ll get big enough that you can turn it into your career and never look up at a long line of all-male superiors ever again. Seriously, I wish you the absolute best of luck. And if it works, call me.

4. Practice self-care.

Look. Tech is a wonderful field, but it’s also a tiring field—especially for folks who don’t see themselves represented at the top. Some days, you might feel especially tired and frustrated. Please look for opportunities to step away and give yourself a mental recovery.

Everyone does this differently. Maybe meditation would work for you. Or maybe reading a fiction novel. Some people unwind with yoga, and others do it with running. You could try going to a walk, calling your mom, or watching a movie. Try a few different things and see what works best for you.*

*And you don’t have to feel embarrassed for doing ‘typical woman’ things to unwind. Maybe you like drinking wine next to your pet cat while knitting a sweater and watching Lifetime. This is a perfectly acceptable pastime; don’t feel obligated to let anybody shame you for it.

You may also find it helpful to have a confidant with whom you can vent. Maybe that’s a family member or a close friend, or maybe it’s someone you meet through a tech meetup. The point is not to dwell on the negative parts of your job; the point is for you to have an outlet to express your grievances so you can move on from them. This is especially true if you’re not safe to express your grievances at work.

Ideally, we all can continue to work together to make the tech community a place that values our contributions commensurate with their worth. But that’s not going to happen overnight. And so to make it here, and to make it to the top, won’t be easy. Hopefully these suggestions make it easier. Identify advocates. Set personal goals. Invest in yourself outside of your job. Take care of yourself.

Continue reading “A Survival Guide for Female Employees in Male-Dominated Companies”

Diversity, Inclusion, and Money.

Does hiring women or people of color affect a tech company’s bottom line?

According to some data, yes.

But so what?

Numbers like these  are uplifting, but they don’t convince companies to change.

So why not?

Let’s talk about two reasons:

  1. We don’t definitively know why diverse leadership improves a company’s financial performance. So we can’t draw a causal link that captures leadership’s attention.
  2. Metrics for overall company financial performance don’t motivate lower level managers and directors. Those lower-level positions, more than the C-Suite, influence the office practices that affect company diversity numbers. But those positions don’t get individual rewards when the whole company does well.

Let’s talk about both of these.

Then we’ll talk about a more focused metric that you can use to argue for, and measure the effectiveness of, inclusion-related efforts at your company.

Bonus: our new metric will help office leadership focus on retention of women and people of color, rather than only lamenting the pipeline problem.

Continue reading “Diversity, Inclusion, and Money.”

Bias doesn’t start with skin color.

Look around your office.

If you’re in tech, I suspect I can predict what you see: lots of white faces.

We’ve known tech to be a sea of white faces for a long time. Big companies respond by sponsoring code education programs and hiring (usually white) Directors of Diversity. But the numbers aren’t changing: tech remains 95-98% white, just like it was before the Directors of Diversity got hired.

Continue reading “Bias doesn’t start with skin color.”

Allyship in Times of Crisis

This presentation is for allies who are looking for a way to take care of the communities affected by the Pulse shooting in Orlando. I gave this talk at lunch at my workplace.

In the event of a tragedy like this, we need allies to step up. It can be difficult to know what to say or do if you are not a part of the affected community. That’s what this talk is for: it’s a starting point for allies.

We start with some terminology and talk about what we mean by terms like target, ally, bystander, and crisis. Then we discuss the grief and fear that prevail within a target community after a crisis, and where allies can start to help with that.

Finally, we relate the discussion back to what an ally can do on a daily basis to help fight for equality—and how social change happens.

The talk may be helpful to you if you have coworkers, friends, or acquaintances whose communities were affected by the Pulse shooting. These communities include the LGBT+ community, especially trans or queer people of color, and the muslim community.

More generally, this talk may be helpful if you know anyone who is a member of a target community in the aftermath of a crisis.


Ladies and gentlemen, I work in a fantasyland.

When I enter the front doors of the software consultancy where I code, I usually do so in jeans and a hoodie. I walk past frame after frame of funky art into a kitchen area with a ping pong table. A large stack of puzzles and games sits on a shelf in the corner. A partly-finished puzzle takes up one of the eating tables. In front of the far wall, burgeoning shelves offer me popcorn, chips, snack bars, and nut dispensers. Our massive refrigerator stays fully stocked with soft drinks and Noosa yogurt. In the corner, we keep two taps from which I can pour myself unlimited free nitro cold brew or beer.

Continue reading “Professionalism”

Remote Pair Programming: Best Practices

For the past four months, I have worked on a project in which I needed to pair program remotely with developers in other states, other countries, and other time zones.

Remote pairing feels different from pairing with someone in person: you lose the benefits of colocation for asking each other questions and reading each others’ moods and body language. That said, I have learned some practices that work better than others for pairing remotely, and I’d like to share them so that you can make your remote pairing experiences go as smoothly as possible.

Continue reading “Remote Pair Programming: Best Practices”

What Software Teams Can Learn from Improv Comedy

I work as a software consultant at a company that does almost 100% pair programming. I have also performed improv comedy, in classes and onstage. I’ve realized that the skills needed to improvise with other people can also help us pair program better with pairs of all kinds.

Here in Chicago, Second City is famous for its comedy theater and its school of improvisation. However, the business also consults for Fortune 500 companies on developing better teamwork. Two of its executives, Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, have published a book on the subject: Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City. The book discusses the business value of improvisational skills, and it also prescribes exercises to develop those skills.

From this book I’ve identified some relevant improv tenets for pair programming and some improv exercises that might make us better at pairing.

Continue reading “What Software Teams Can Learn from Improv Comedy”