BELLEVUE, Wash. — The title of the panel was “Women in Hardware,” but the focus turned out to be more about the organizational software to support women at startups.
Five women engineers shared tips for getting ahead in a traditionally male-dominated field during today’s panel, conducted at One Bellevue Center as part of Techstars Startup Week Seattle.
The first tip is to embrace the engineer label, even if you don’t have an engineering degree.
“Being an engineer is just something I did not know I could become,” said Clarissa San Diego, the founder of Seattle-based Makerologist.
San Diego had a passion for DIY culture, and she learned the ins and outs of hardware by making the rounds at local maker spaces. Now she runs the Seattle-based creative technology agency behind such projects as JumboDuino, an outsized electronics card created for educational applications; and the Stranger IoThings Wall, a tribute to the spooky, retro Netflix series.
That’s a lesson other women in the tech world (and male techies, too) should learn, said Christina Cyr, who started out in with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and physics. She’s the founder, CEO and CTO of Bellevue-based dTOOR, a company that makes “non-rectangular phones for non-rectangular people.”
“Don’t let your background limit you,” Cyr told the Startup Week audience.
Here are five more high points from today’s panel:
Seek out women mentors: Stephanie Xenos, a senior systems engineer at SpaceX’s satellite operation in Redmond, Wash., recalled that she had male supervisors when she started at the company in California, and then switched to a team with a female supervisor. “It was so cool to have this boss that I wanted to be like, in my personal and work life,” she said.
The flip side is that for that to happen, startups need to give women managers a boost. “If you don’t get women in middle management, you’ll never have women at the C-level,” said Martine Stillman, mechanical program lead at Synapse Product Development in Seattle.
It’s important to make the effort to reach out and form alliances in the workplace, with men as well as women. “Allies and co-workers of every stripe can really make or break your career,” Stillman said.
Spread the credit: In a dysfunctional, Dilbert-style workplace, rivals are keen to steal each other’s ideas. When men do that to women, it’s called “manterrupting” or “bro-propriation.” Stillman favors a different strategy: making sure that a good idea is credited to its creator throughout the discussion. If the idea is branded from the start as “Christina’s idea,” for example, “she and I now have a stronger relationship because of that.”
Look for skills, not degrees: “When we first started out we started looking for people who had electrical engineering degrees, but then we realized we weren’t finding the people that we needed, who would fit well within our team, who were adaptable,” Cyr said. Jewelry designers turned out to be better-suited when it came to creating the unconventional phones that dTOOR had in mind, she said.
Be flexible: The panelists said they’d appreciate having more flexible arrangements for working hours and work-at-home arrangements. “Everybody, men and women, might want to work three-quarter time, so they have time for their personal pursuits and hobbies,” Stillman said. “If they get paid three-quarter time, but they feel so much more fulfilled in their personal life, they will stay with your company forever.”
Be yourself: Xenos said that when she started working at SpaceX, she tried to assimilate herself into the “bro club,” even though that wasn’t really who she was. “I don’t even lift,” she joked. “I definitely pretended to be a bro for a while. … I’m glad now that I’m not.”
Cultural diversity as well as gender diversity is particularly important for startups, said Oleha Riden, chief operating officer at MistyWest, an engineering design firm in Vancouver, B.C. “Thinking about that early on, when you grow your team, to have that diverse perspective on leadership can really go a long way,” she said.
The flip side is that women managers should be respectful of different perspectives as well. Cyr recalled some work-related beer parties in the past where she wished she could get a glass of wine instead. Now that she’s a CEO, the shoe is on the other foot.
“If I’m throwing a function, I should probably have beer at my function,” she said.
For more about the challenges facing women in tech, check out last year’s “Women in the Workplace” report from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org. McKinsey is already soliciting volunteers to participate in next year’s update.