4 Women in Tech on Finding Your Voice and Leading With Vision

These leaders offer advice and insight from their experiences as the sole women on teams in tech.
Written by Kim Conway
May 6, 2022Updated: May 6, 2022

As quickly as we work to employ and support women in tech, gender imbalances on teams across the industry still come with the territory. It’s a juggling act of sorts that puts a lot of pressure on women — especially those who are on an all-male team — to independently find their footing and establish their presence.

For Namrata Narayanan, creative director at digital identity authentication company Prove, one of the biggest challenges of being the sole woman on a team was figuring out how to make her voice stand out. 

“I had to make sure that my opinion was heard,” she said. Rather than settling for silence in the face of louder, more aggressive voices, Narayanan focused on finding her authentic voice — one that is assertive, but leaves room for mutual respect. 

Professional communication is something Perla Villarreal also considers, as she finds that her voice often gets overlooked in male-dominated rooms. In her role as technical assistant for the office of the CTO and Latinx employee resource group lead at Thoughtworks, a technology consulting organization, Villarreal aligns herself with a specific and personal vision. 

“Instead of communicating louder, I focus on delivering my message with impact,” she said. In addition to helping her day-to-day functions at work, Villarreal credits her vision-driven communication skills for guiding her in the launch and development of Thoughtworks’ Latinx ERG. 

Built In sat down with Narayanan and Villarreal, along with leaders from Augury and Landis, to learn how they experienced being the only woman on a team. They walk us through challenges they faced, share lessons they’ve learned and applied to their career development, and offer advice to fellow women on male-dominated teams. 

 

Perla Villarreal
Technical Assistant for the Office of the CTO & Latinx ERG lead • Thoughtworks

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve experienced being the only woman on a team, and how did you overcome it?

I have a computer science and engineering degree from MIT and have been in the technology landscape for almost seven years at an organization that prioritizes and continuously discusses the importance of diversity and inclusion — and yet I still often experience imposter syndrome, particularly at the beginning of a new project, role or client engagement. If I’m honest, I cannot claim that I have conquered imposter syndrome. It sneaks up on me unexpectedly and being in a room or on a team where I am the only woman, Latina and person under 30 only underlines the problem. 

Nonetheless, whenever I am in this state of mind, I adopt Brené Brown’s phrase, “The story I am telling myself is…” I take a moment to step back and analyze the situation and recognize not only the systemic biases that are taking part, but also the biases being introduced by my own state of mind. This moment of pause and processing ultimately allows me to reiterate to myself and others that I am in the room, and furthermore, that I have a voice and a seat at the table.

It is difficult to traverse the intricacies of being in a male-dominated industry without a diverse group of allies.”

 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as the only woman on a team, and how has it helped you develop your career since?

As a woman in technology, I believe the ability to influence is one of the most critical skills to develop. Often when in a room dominated by men, I find that my voice is lost or overlooked. Instead of communicating louder, I focus on delivering my message with impact.

I recently participated in a book club discussing “The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. They speak to “a vision [being] a framework for possibility.” One of the most important lessons I have learned is the value of focusing your influence by communicating with alignment to a vision. What is at the heart of the discussion you are having and trying to contribute to? What is everyone without an argument aligned to? Once that’s clear, draw your message through that vision and make it both easy to understand and difficult to overlook.

Driving with a vision helped me launch and develop the Thoughtworks Latinx employee resource group. It helps me in my day-to-day as I advocate for the interests of the technology organization, and it’s a powerful tool when preparing for my performance reviews. When I was in professional services, vision also guided my conversations with clients.

 

What’s the most important piece of advice you would offer to other women working on male-dominated teams?

Build a colorful team. It is difficult to traverse the intricacies of being in a male-dominated industry without a diverse group of allies. Connect with people who do not look like you, who are outside of your line of business and your organization, and who challenge your thinking and point of view.

At Thoughtworks, I am surrounded by powerful women leaders, but also by men who actively try to be cognizant of the systemic biases women face. My most effective sponsor is a man; he is outside my direct realm of work, but has consistently provided opportunities for my work to be recognized and amplified by leadership. I have also found tremendous support from the Latinas in Tech community. Through them, I connected with leaders who shared their journey as ERG leads and provided guidance and inspiration as I took on a similar journey.

Find people who give you perspective, guide you and listen to you. But don’t forget to also be the person who provides perspective, guides and listens. I encourage you to mentor and sponsor the women around you. It’s easier to create and maintain the environment we need when we work together.

 

 

Prove team Zoom call
Prove

 

Namrata Narayanan
Creative Director • Prove

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve experienced being the only woman on a team, and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge was to make my voice stand out. The energies of men and women are different — and so are our perspectives. My experience has been that not every man has the capacity or sensitivity to understand a woman’s space and needs in the workplace. Because of this, I had to make sure my opinions were heard. It’s sometimes easy to believe that loud, aggressive talkers get more face time and respect, but that is far from the truth. I had to come to terms with who I am as a person — I am not inherently aggressive or loud — and dig deep to find my own authentic voice. I focused on being assertive instead of aggressive. It’s always going to be a journey, but if you’re doing better than you were yesterday, you’re on the right track. 

You have to be aware of what makes you different from others — and be comfortable with it. As a woman and a designer, I believe we have the power to be deeply empathetic toward both the problems we solve and the people we work with. It’s important to acknowledge what your strengths are, but also to work with others to improve and flourish. None of us are in this alone, so instead of focusing on ourselves, we should focus on working toward our goals together.

I learned to recognize when I am the one standing in my own way to success.”

 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as the only woman on a team, and how has it helped you develop your career since?

We all have inherent traits that can hold us back. A lot of it has to do with the culture we were brought up in. I learned to recognize when I am the one standing in my own way to success. As my own worst critic, I have learned to be kind to myself, and I believe that as long as I am taking the right actions to get to where I want to be with honesty and integrity, things will work out.

Next, show up for people, meetings and activities — this doesn’t necessarily mean only speaking up. Of course, voicing your opinions or thoughts is very important, but oftentimes, we don’t give enough credit to listening with the intention of understanding the other person’s perspective rather than listening to respond. Building one-on-ones with my male colleagues has helped me understand them better — and vice versa, I hope.

Lastly, I am lucky to have had great mentors, both men and women, who have helped me navigate situations either by coaching or setting an example. This has been extremely helpful throughout my career. Mentors are uniquely positioned to motivate you to think big and push yourself further than you can on your own. They challenge you to try new things and encourage you to take risks.

 

What’s the most important piece of advice you would offer to other women working on male-dominated teams?

Navigating a male-dominated industry can be a challenge, but I try to apply these four ideals to make it work for everyone:

First, believe — and I mean truly believe — that you have something to offer. We all have different experiences and sometimes it can simply be because you are a woman.

Second, power through the inner discomfort you may have while speaking your truth. Take the time to think about your values, who you are as a person and how within that framework, you can find ways to deal with uncomfortable situations and remain true to yourself.

Third, understand your team members and work together to build trust. Don’t be afraid to give feedback, especially when you know there is a way to improve on a situation. Make your voice heard, but remember that everyone else’s voice matters as well. 

And finally, keep in mind that doing the right thing is always important, even if no one is watching.

 

 

Augury team members wearing aloha shirts on a rooftop patio
Augury

 

Elise Morse
Vibration Analyst Team Lead • Augury

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve experienced being the only woman on a team, and how did you overcome it?

There will always be challenges to run into. One continuous challenge I’ve faced while working in multiple sectors of a male-dominated industry is mutual respect not always being a given. I’ve encountered this many times in previous roles, either while working on an internal company team or externally with customers. Earning respect is a constant work in progress. No matter how I was treated, I tried to treat others as I would like to be treated, regardless of their actions or words. Being prepared and punctual helped me bolster my confidence to carry myself through a multitude of unnerving situations. And above all else, act as a professional. If I’m going to demand to be respected as a professional, I had better act like one.

Play to your strengths, work on your weaknesses and follow a path that is right for you and your aspirations.”

 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as the only woman on a team, and how has it helped you develop your career since?

Be confident in yourself and your capabilities, your knowledge, and your ability to handle responsibility and manage adversity. If an opportunity for growth presented itself, I did not hesitate. Instead, I jumped at it, regardless of how scary the unknown felt. I knew if I could get through the situation, I would gain experience, which would allow me to advance my knowledge base and expand into mentorship.

 

What advice would you offer to other women working on male-dominated teams?

Perseverance is important. Play to your strengths, work on your weaknesses and follow a path that is right for you and your aspirations. There will be roadblocks, draconian mentalities and possibly disgruntled co-workers who will try to throw you off your path. If you learn from those experiences and keep your goal in front of you, it will all be left in your rear view.

 

 

Jackie Levine
Software Engineer • Landis

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve experienced being the only woman on a team, and how did you overcome it?

Over the course of the past year, I have been the only woman on my engineering team. I was very lucky to join a company where I was not made to feel that my gender had anything to do with my job, which is exactly what I wanted in my first role as a software engineer after completing a coding bootcamp. 

However, given today’s very prevalent discourse around equality — particularly for minorities in the field of engineering — it is hard to ignore the topic completely. The social climate that has framed my move into the field of tech has made it challenging to go through each day wondering, “Is this happening because I am a woman?” For example, are my colleagues giving me formal feedback to be more confident because I am a woman, or is it because I am not presenting myself with conviction and poise? Am I being asked to speak up more at meetings because I am the only woman on the team, or is it because my colleagues respect my insights? Things happen in all workplaces that have nothing to do with race or gender, and every time a colleague’s intentions are not entirely clear, it doesn't necessarily mean they are discriminating. Having to question whether my gender is the reason something is happening at work is the most challenging part of being the only woman on a male-dominated team.

Embrace the things that make you unique, whether they’re related to your womanhood or not, and let them carry you forward.”

 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as the only woman on a team, and how has it helped you develop your career since?

This might sound a bit clichéd, but the most important lesson I’ve learned in my current role is to be myself and embrace my strengths. I am very quick to jump in and help out when things come up, even if it’s not necessarily my job or if it might take time away from “more important” things I’m supposed to be working on. While my coding abilities still have a ways to go, I am the first to jump on a Zoom call late at night if there is a fire. 

It is easy to let yourself believe that you should be more self-interested and focused on your own goals rather than thinking about others in order to succeed, especially as a woman. However, being helpful has allowed me to win over my colleagues and become someone who is highly valued and respected. In turn, I have advocated for myself during my reviews and have been promoted quickly. I would discourage my peers from trying to fit into any predefined box of how you think you have to present yourself in order to be respected as a woman on your male-dominated team. Instead, embrace the things that make you unique, whether they’re related to your womanhood or not, and let them carry you forward.

 

What’s the most important piece of advice you would offer to other women working on male-dominated teams?

One of the reasons I decided to make a career switch and become a software engineer was that I wanted to have a job where I could utilize hard skills. I wanted to learn a skill and employ it at work every day. I wanted to move away from the spreadsheets, coordination and theoretical conversations that can take up time and energy in less well-defined roles and instead take on a role where I could measure my success by how much code I wrote or how I fixed a bug, shipped a feature or built out a micro-service. 

Work hard and become skilled in your field to make it clear that your success is a result of your efforts, not your gender. Make it impossible for someone to fire or demote you based on your performance. When you speak up in a meeting, say something so on-point and valuable that if someone shuts you down, you don’t have to question why. There are too many moments where we wonder and ask questions as women. I firmly believe that in order to stop wondering, we need to continue performing to the point where it truly doesn’t matter anymore. 

I don’t want to be celebrated one day as the first woman to do something. I want to be celebrated as Jackie, who has worked hard her whole life to accomplish something.

 

 

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