The Barriers Facing Women in Tech


“There are always barriers… but I learned very early that adapting to whatever environment I was in has served me well. I was competent in my domain and respected for my knowledge and skills. I have walked into rooms and realized that I was often the only female and had a momentary feeling of being uncomfortable. I would then embrace that I belonged there, strong and competent, and I took my rightful place.” Christiane Coda, Industry Digital Strategist

Christiane Coda is just one of the many, MANY, women in tech who shared what it was like building her career as a woman in a male dominated industry for Debra Christmas and Kelley Irwin’s new book, Please Stay: How Women in Tech Survive and Thrive. 

Both these women, with 75 years of experience between them, have faced many barriers. With grit and determination, they’ve chipped away at some and blasted through others at full force – and lived to tell the tale!

Doors are opening, but would you be shocked to learn that, in fact, the number of women in the US completing computer science degrees was on the rise from the early 70s until the mid-80s – and has been on a steady decline since? True story.

But why? What keeps women from knocking down the barriers for a career in an often lucrative and always exciting field? And for those who make it…why aren’t they staying?

Barriers Facing Women in Tech

Let’s start with the most basic barrier. Gender. STILL. Hard to believe we’re still writing about this in 2021, but here we are. Many women in tech experience professional roadblocks and/or personally experience unconscionable and inexcusable behaviour directed toward them simply because they are women.

And many of these women ultimately leave the field because of this toxic culture. Run a few of THESE scenarios through your mind. Yes, they’re real. And they’re current.

  • In a broadly distributed company memo, women at a major high-tech firm were told they were anxious because of their gender’s higher level of neuroticism.
  • Women in the video game industry were doxed by an angry online mob. Their addresses and other personal information were published, and death threats were made.
  • A woman in a high-tech firm being sexually harassed by her manager brought proof of the harassment to HR. Their response? The harasser was a high performer, and she would need to keep working for him, or find a job in another department.

An entire book could easily be filled with stories of marginalization, abuse, and the mistreatment of women in tech careers. This behaviour has to stop, but it’s not going to stop until it’s called out, and more and more women stand up for and support each other (and yes, this subject – women supporting women (or not) – is a blog post for another day!).

The Impact of Underrepresentation

We spoke last month about the incredible ripple effect created by female underrepresentation in the tech industry. Scarcity of female role models for young women, lack of mentorship for those just starting in the field, missing sponsorship from senior executives as they move through the ranks, and lack of opportunities for growth, to name just a few.

But there’s more to “not seeing yourself” than gender. Surveys show nearly 40 percent of women of colour working in tech “report racial bias as a barrier to promotion.” Speaking about her own experience as a woman of colour in tech, Debra credits her father for encouraging her to set her sights high and reinforcing she could achieve anything she set her mind to. He also told her not to let gender become a factor in her aspirations, and reinforced over and over again, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t!”

“Hearing those words as a young girl and teenager were incredibly empowering. They built a level of confidence and assertiveness that serves me well to this very day. [But still], I was often the only female at a table of men, and most certainly the only person of colour. Colour was challenging because you often didn’t know if you were dealing with racism or ignorance. I knew how to challenge and ask probing questions, seeking to truly understand. I didn’t have to like you, I just had to understand how to work with you and ensure you couldn’t derail me. I would confront people head on. [And] I would give people the benefit of the doubt until they showed their true selves. I have met sharks pretending to be dolphins, and that is not easy to see through. But I also trusted my gut.”

Doesn’t that sound exhausting? It is. And yet, many women are still navigating these same shark-filled waters today.

To End

Of course, women in tech face many other barriers beyond gender, sexism, and underrepresentation: pay discrepancy, ageism, being penalized for having kids, bro culture, the list goes on. And that’s why Please Stay: How Women in Tech Survive and Thrive cried out to be written. Because women in tech CAN thrive in exciting careers in technology.

Over the next few months, we’re going to share stories and methods to help you navigate the challenges you face, whether how to find your voice, secure your seat at the table, or deal with discrimination and bias.

Women in tech have made progress. Yet, there is so much more to be done. This will take more than a village. We hope you’ll join our tribe!

Tips from the tribe:

  • Assess the source of the barrier you are facing to determine the appropriate action you need to take to overcome it.
  • Explore the options available to you to remove the barrier or get around it.
  • Get input from others to see if they agree with you that the barrier exists.
  • Assess the impact of your actions.
  • Remember that you don’t need to fight all barriers.