Leyla Seka almost quit her job at Salesforce after reaching a point of frustration that she’d be stuck in her position. She wasn’t confident in her achievements and didn’t know how to code, so she thought she’d never move up.
Talented women like Seka face additional obstacles to being a woman in tech—feeling even more insecure and unsupported for not being "techie" enough.
While companies like Apple and Microsoft are throwing millions at colleges and programs claiming pipeline problems, the equally essential people who make Silicon Valley operate tend to get left out of the conversation, and women are losing out.
Every Silicon Valley company, big and small, has positions that don't require graduating from engineering school or coding camp: CEO, marketing, sales, operations, financial planners, support, analytics, human resources, and office managers. But a considerably low percentage of those roles are filled by women.
Women hold only 9% of management positions in IT and account for only 14% of senior management positions at Silicon Valley startups—just 10% more than technical jobs—according to a 2014 study by the Center for American Progress (CFAP).
Companies need financial-minded teammates. A CFO becomes necessary once a company approaches IPO, and yet women still hold low percentages in those roles. According to the same CFAP report, in the financial services industry, females make up 54.2% of the labor force but are only 12.4% of executive officers and 18.3% of board directors.
The majority of VCs don’t know how to code but have financial or business backgrounds, yet only 4.2% of US partner-level VCs are female. And still, VCs blame the absence of female board members on the lack of women graduating from engineering programs.
CEOs like Ebay’s John Donahoe—who also serves on the board of directors of Intel Corp.—doesn’t have an engineering background, but does have a bachelor of arts in economics and an MBA. Neither KISSmetrics' Hiten Shah—who started two SaaS companies—nor former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had coding skills. Oh, and some guy named Steve Jobs didn’t graduate from engineering school or code, and yet his genius is considered the very launchpad for the tech industry and innovative business in general.
Nontechnical CEO Neha Sampat has successfully turned the engineering company Built.io into a profitable, customer-funded company so it doesn’t have to rely on VCs. But it took a couple of months before her colleagues respected her. "You have to demonstrate your value and then you'll [gain] credibility," she says. "Limitations like that do exist and it kind of sucks, but we [women] need to push ourselves through it. We have to push our colleagues and employers for a level playing field."
Quip COO Molly Graham also had to push past naysayers during her time as a mobile lead at Facebook even though Mark Zuckerberg himself said he wanted her to be part of the team. "There were people who were like, ‘Molly wouldn't have passed our project management interviewing externally, so why is she being made a product manager?’"
"Initially, I took it a little personally and I started questioning myself thinking they were right," she says. "But then I thought, Well, why are Mark and others saying we want you to do this job?" Had Zuckerberg brought on a nontechnical guy—or even just a buddy—would there have been as much opposition or questioning?
Zoelle Egner says she was treated like an office mom who had to prepare extracurricular activities and meals—as well as clean up the mess—but then wouldn’t be allowed to use the engineer-exclusive perks. In an article titled "The Myth Of The Non-Technical Startup Employee," she recalls discrimination for both being a woman and not an engineer at the startup where she worked as an operations manager. "A visitor openly refused to believe I was capable of understanding our product, and yelled at me for 20 minutes about how he had a serious technical question that I couldn’t possibly answer. When I finally threatened to show him my GitHub, he immediately told me I was "awesome" and that "more girls should be like [me]."
Women who have humanities backgrounds often don’t think they qualify for positions in tech even though their perspective can greatly influence products and teams despite lack of recognition in the industry. "When people ask about how to get on the more technical side, I say, ‘You’re potentially overvaluing the ability to write code,’" Graham says. "When you’re building startups and companies, the ability to create structure is a really powerful skill."
Repeatedly having to "prove" themselves weighed on women’s desire to stay in the industry, according to a survey collected from 716 technical and nontechnical women who have left the industry. For some of those women, enough questioning from their office peers had led them to question themselves.
Despite repeated success, Molly Graham’s self-doubt naturally surfaced again when she was offered a position at a new company by Facebook’s former CTO—and inventor of the "like" button—Bret Taylor. "I find myself and my friends might be more likely to say, 'Oh, there’s always somebody better out there for this position,' where a lot of my male friends would probably be like, ‘Yeah I can do this—no worries.’"
AngelHack CEO Sabeen Ali knows the feeling. Not knowing how to code, she attended many male-dominated hackathons for years and had to force her way onto teams. The average hackathon environment makes for a hard place for coding females—let alone noncoding ones—to feel comfortable but is deeply necessary, Ali says: "Having that diversity is actually a huge asset."
She tells me about one case in point, a noncoding woman named Komal Ahmad who hit the trifecta of an uphill battle: a minority female who can’t code and is working on an actual important problem. So when she came up with an idea to help the homeless, she says she felt "massive" insecurity. "You feel a huge guilt that you don’t know how to code," she says. "It’s definitely uncomfortable when you’re unlike everyone else and presenting something to a roomful of judges who literally give two fucks that someone is going hungry."
Now Ahmad and many other women are trying to juggle being the CEO of a company while learning how to code so she can be taken seriously. "Yes, I want skilled empathy, but I’m also doing it so that no one can also put anything over me and no one can say that I don’t put enough time in," she says. "It’s not fair, but I’m not going to let that stop me from solving this problem."
After getting talked out of leaving Salesforce by her mentors, Leyla Seka is now running the company Desk.com as a general manager. She says that if women feel typecast to one particular role because they don't have coding skills, they have to work past it mentally first. "I think we all create a narrative of what we are and we stick to it," she says. "So we have to unstick ourselves, and I think that's where the challenging parts come in."
Each of the women were adamant about not letting biases become an excuse for them. And none is apologetic for not having prior coding knowledge. They do, however, ask for a level playing field—in all positions technical or not. "Noncoding women’s voices and ideas matter," Ahmad says. "It doesn’t matter if they [women] don’t know how to code, because that’s a teachable skill, but passion isn’t. Hustle isn’t."