Women engineers

How aspiring female tech stars can succeed

November 27, 2013: 10:31 AM ET

Tech is still largely a boys' club, but women can move up, says one veteran executive. The first step: Be ready to fight for your ideas.

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FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I'll be graduating from college in the spring with a major in computer science and a minor in business, and I really want to get a job at a big technology company. (I've interned at two startups and, while both were great experiences, I'm hoping for a little more stability.) I've signed up for a campus job fair in January where about half a dozen huge tech employers will be represented, and I'm excited about meeting with them. The only thing is, I keep hearing that IT is a tough industry for women, despite a few famous female executives. Do you or your readers have any suggestions about how to succeed? I've already read Lean In. -- Just Jennifer

Dear J.J.: You've picked a great moment to ask. Just last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that tech companies are now hiring more women than men. Of the roughly 60,000 IT jobs created over the past 12 months, some 36,000, or about 60%, went to female candidates. "Companies have been focusing on getting more women into technology for a long time, and those efforts appear to be paying off," says Shravan Goli, president of IT job site Dice.com. "Employers want to pull from the entire talent pool," he adds, not just the male half.

Even so, it will take women a while to catch up. Less than one-third of the tech workforce is female. Not only that but, according to at least one recent study, women in tech face a significant salary gap. When HR consulting firm TriNet surveyed 5,600 tech companies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, the researchers found that women make 9% to 20% less than their male peers in the same jobs.

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That's not to say that women and men are doing exactly the same jobs at most companies. One reason: a persistent shortage of female engineers. Although women now earn 57% of all college degrees, they made up only 19% of the engineering class of 2013 (a scant one percentage point increase since 2009), and 26% in math and computer science (unchanged for the past four years), according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Gabrielle Boko, an executive vice president at software maker Sage North America, points out that, as a female non-engineer, you're doubly outnumbered. "Engineers tend to see people in other functions, like finance and marketing, as a necessary evil," she observes. "So it's often difficult for any non-engineer to have a voice at the table, female or not."

Boko started her tech career a couple of decades ago, when "the IT industry was so new that nobody knew more than anybody else," she says, and held a series of content management and analytics jobs before moving into marketing. She has three suggestions for you:

1. Be willing to fight for your ideas. "Tech companies are looking for a constant flow of new ideas. So if you have something in mind that you've backed up with research and you're excited about it, be prepared to go to the mat for it," Boko says.

Overcoming skepticism from colleagues is part of the job, she adds: "I've noticed that both women and young employees tend to hesitate to stick up for ideas they believe in. But you need to be invested in creating the next thing. Technology changes so fast that you can't be, or seem to be, just along for the ride."

2. Start building a strong network. As the underdogs in IT, women have banded together to support each other's careers to an unusual degree, Boko notes, and -- particularly at this stage of your career, before you've met many of your peers -- you need to get in on that. "Women-in-tech networks are great as sounding boards for your ideas," she says. "You can learn so much from other women who have been in your shoes."

LinkedIn is awash with active groups of female techies, but don't overlook online communities like Women in Technology International which has about 2 million members worldwide, and Webgrrls, with local chapters in 29 states and 13 countries. Connecting with other women could be useful both now and later. "IT people generally get ahead by moving around a lot," Boko says. "A solid network can put you in touch with lots of people who could one day help you find your next job."

3. Don't settle for just any job. "Tech companies' cultures vary enormously and, to move up, you have to be in the environment that's right for you," Boko says. "We all have to feed our inner geek." How can you tell whether the fit is good? Boko suggests two tests: "First, the rewards have to go both ways. It's not only about what you can do for the company. You also have to be growing and learning, not just doing a daily slog. If you're not feeling rewarded and passionate about the work, move on."

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And second, she says, "look around at the higher levels of the company. Do you see anyone there you'd like to be when you grow up? If not, maybe you're in the wrong place. Earlier in my career, I've changed jobs because I couldn't find a role model" -- preferably, but not necessarily, a female one.

"Somewhere, if you work very hard and stand by your ideas, there is a company with a culture where you will flourish and succeed," Boko says. "So find that company."

Good luck!

Talkback: If you're a woman in tech, or you manage techies, what advice would you give a new grad? Leave a comment below.

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