How do we feel about being called ‘women in tech’?

The phrase “women in tech” has become a catch-all label, used to describe everything from the problem, to the solution, to the community. But what does it mean for the women working at Intercom?

Here’s the thing about Women in Tech. For a movement that was created to address the lack of female representation in the industry, it can also play into many shallow debates, preconceived ideas, and harmful expectations. From being the token woman who always gets invited to redeem all-male panels to snide comments about how “she’s just a diversity hire,” the term “women in tech” can sometimes feel more like a burden than a blessing.

And yet, it’s still incredibly necessary. While the movement has helped spark awareness over the stubborn gender gap in the tech industry, helping to drive more diverse hiring initiatives across all businesses and encouraging women to succeed in STEM fields, women still hold an astonishingly low percentage of tech roles according to recent data – 16% in engineering, 27% in computing. More, while women have been taking more and more jobs among top technology executives, at big U.S. firms, only 18% of chief information officers or chief technology officers are women. We still have a long way to go towards reaching gender equality in the workplace, and superficial, box-ticking articles showcasing “women engineers” are not going to help us get there. So, how can we discuss this in a way that isn’t performative or tokenistic? How do we address these issues while recognizing that not all women relate to the term in the same way?

We’ve reached out to a few of our colleagues on Intercom’s R&D team to hear their reflections on the movement and what the term “women in tech” means for them. In this episode of Inside Intercom, you’ll hear from:

We chatted about the value of supportive communities, labels and the challenges that come with them, and how being a “woman in tech” plays in their daily lives. And because conversations like these shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, we’d love to hear from you too. You can message us on Twitter or record a voice memo on your phone and send it to us on podcast@intercom.com

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on iTunes, Spotify, or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


What’s in a name?

Liam Geraghty: Hello there, and welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Liam Geraghty.

The issue of gender equality in the tech industry has been a huge topic for many years now. This historically very male industry has made significant progress, but numerous stories have illustrated how far we have yet to go. The phrase “women in tech” has become a kind of umbrella term, a label used to describe everything from the problem, to the solution, to the community working to solve the problem. But what does the term “women in tech” mean in practice? How do we discuss it in a way that isn’t superficial and tokenistic?

“The intention behind the idea was positive, but would it actually be helping anybody, or would we just be doing it to look good, just ticking a box?”

Recently, myself and the Content team were discussing the different ways we could approach this important topic. We wanted to do an episode about the amazing women who build Intercom. But for some of us on the team, myself included, well, we wondered if making an episode like that would sound like tokenism. The intention behind the idea was positive, but would it actually be helping anybody, or would we just be doing it to look good, just ticking a box?

So here I want to bring in one of my colleagues who was in that discussion, Niamh O’Connor. Niamh is a Brand Editor here at Intercom. Niamh, welcome to the show.

Niamh O’Connor: Thanks for having me, Liam. It’s great to be here.

Liam Geraghty: You were there when we were first chatting about maybe covering this topic about women in tech and that term. What were your first thoughts about the idea?

Niamh O’Connor: Well, first I was excited because, in the short time I’ve been at the company, I’ve met some really impressive, incredible women who are experts in their field. And so, I wanted the chance to amplify their voices, and any chance we had to do that would be welcome. But I was eager to avoid, as you were saying, the kind of tokenistic approach to spotlighting these women and go deeper than that.

“I reached out to women across the company, from engineering to R&D to product management, to get a sense of how they view the term ‘women in tech'”

Liam Geraghty: Yeah. So off the back of that, we started thinking about the term “women in tech” and asking, is it just a buzzword? And does it actually hold any weight in creating real change?

Niamh O’Connor: Yeah, I was reading about how a lot of women in tech don’t think of themselves as Women in Tech. And I came across an article on Fast Company by Sarah Lahav, the CEO of SysAid, and the headline was, “Stop calling us Women in Tech. It’s marginalizing, and it needs to evolve.” As much as Women in Tech events and discussions do exist to close the gender gap and to help women embrace technology and young girls find role models, there are women who would rather not fall under that label, and find that it might hold them back.

Liam Geraghty: So I suppose for this episode, instead of talking about women in tech, we’re going to talk specifically about the term “women in tech”. And you’ve been chatting to people at Intercom about it.

Niamh O’Connor: I have indeed. I reached out to women across the company, from engineering to R&D to product management, to get a sense of how they view the term “women in tech” and how, or if, they find it useful to them in their careers and personal lives. The first person I spoke to was Nidhi Kamat.

Feeding into impostor syndrome

Nidhi Kamat: Hi, my name’s Nidhi Kamat. I’m a product manager on the pricing and packaging team. I’m based in Dublin. I joined Intercom around six months ago. And before that, I did a computer science degree at UCD.

Niamh O’Connor: Nidhi has kind of mixed feelings about the term “women in tech”. On the one hand, she says it’s very helpful and relevant as it lets women and young girls know there is a place for them in tech, and that they’re not alone. But on the flip side, ever since she joined the workforce, Nidhi’s found it slightly problematic for her.

“If your male peers weren’t successful in the job, they’d almost imply that you got it because you’re a woman in tech”

Nidhi Kamat: It can make you feel like you didn’t earn something, and you only got to where you are because you are a “woman in tech”, and that you were almost led to the field or the industry or the job not because of your skills or the value you bring, but because of that label. A lot of times, you feel you got a seat at the table to fill a quota, tick a diversity box, or for the company itself to look good. I do think that this negative impact almost feeds into a lot of women’s imposter syndrome. And even if you don’t believe that’s true and you do deserve a seat at the table, and there’s nothing around that you feel is bad, it’s almost like others might treat you differently as well. They might treat you like you don’t deserve it either. I’ve seen this when it came around to looking for internships in college or job opportunities in the last few years. If your male peers weren’t successful in the job, they’d almost imply that you got it because you’re a “woman in tech”. So I do have mixed feelings about it.

Niamh O’Connor: Yeah. Those are some really, really interesting points. And what you said about imposter syndrome is interesting because I’ve read recently that a lot of women have said that imposter syndrome disproportionately affects women, but if we look at the reasons why this might be, as you said, a group of male colleagues feeling that way is going to make a successful woman feel like she’s an imposter. So, it’s not necessarily coming from inside her – it could be coming from her surroundings as well.

“I feel like I’d almost be drawing more attention to me being a woman, as opposed to the skills and the value I have to offer”

Nidhi Kamat: Yeah, definitely.

Liam Geraghty: So, I’m wondering. Because she has mixed feelings, did Nidhi say she’d ever refer to herself as a woman in tech? Would she ever use that label?

Niamh O’Connor: She said she wouldn’t generally use it to refer to herself in most situations. And actually, her answer sums up the dilemma of the label really well, I thought.

Nidhi Kamat: I feel like I’d almost be drawing more attention to me being a woman, as opposed to the skills and the value I have to offer. And I don’t know if it’s just my experience of that particular term, but it’s made me feel that, when I use it to refer to myself, instead of it meaning a good thing, it can be seen by others like you’re looking for pity or to be treated differently. And that’s something I don’t want, so I completely avoid using it. I do think that, in the context of raising awareness that there are women in the tech industry, I’m completely fine with referring to myself as a woman in tech. But if not, it kind of is what I mentioned before, sticking a label on me for no reason.

Niamh O’Connor: You mentioned the positives that can come from it. For you, personally, has any good come from the term since you started in tech?

Nidhi Kamat: I do think it has the ability to inspire and empower women who aren’t all already in tech to pursue that as a career, to raise awareness that there are women in here, that we can do this and it’s not just for men. I like that it draws attention and raises awareness to the fact there aren’t currently a lot of women in tech, and the motivation behind it is that we need more to come and join us. And I like the conversation and buzz that generates opportunities to hear other women’s stories that you can relate to. When you asked me to do this, I messaged some of my female friends from computer science on what their thoughts were on this, too. And hearing their stories around this, I think it generates a lot of conversation that you’re not alone. It’s very comforting, and it almost acts as a support system, which is great.

“We need to make sure that this is everyone’s responsibility and not just for women to take on”

Liam Geraghty: Something we’ve been very conscious of while putting this episode together is that we’re asking women to step up and speak about this topic, and maybe there’s kind of an expectation that they will, if you know what I mean?

Niamh O’Connor: Yeah, definitely. I actually asked Nidhi about this.

Nidhi Kamat: Don’t get me wrong. I definitely want to do this, and I’m really passionate about it. But when there is just that expectation that I will just do it because I am a woman, other people, like maybe my male counterparts, don’t really bother. It’s not only that, but I think that expectation that you will do it because you’re a woman means you kind of won’t get as much credit for it either. It should be an expectation for everyone, not just women. There is an issue where men don’t feel welcome to participate in the initiative, either. My male colleagues and male friends who are software engineers have expressed this concern to me that they don’t feel welcome if there’s a Women in Tech event or something like that. So I think there’s a messaging element there that we need to make sure that this is everyone’s responsibility and not just for women to take on.

A reservoir of support

Liam Geraghty: The next person you spoke to was Lily Beauvilliers.

Lily Beauvilliers: Yes. My name is Lily, and I’m a woman in engineering.

Niamh O’Connor: Yeah. So, Lily is a product engineer here. Lily says the term “women in tech” is really useful to her, and she talked a lot about the benefit of the community.

Lily Beauvilliers: In my experience, it just provides a sounding board. Sometimes you might experience something at work and you’re not sure, was it kind of sexist? Was that just something just normal? Was it just people being people? And it provides a safe space for you to talk over things and come to a shared understanding with people who have had similar experiences about what is and isn’t okay, and then how you actually take action, if you do need to take action.

“As an underrepresented group, those feelings are unfortunately often there regardless, and the term can actually give collective power to that group”

Niamh O’Connor: She mentioned that just having other women as a sounding board can be really useful and that Women in Tech groups can facilitate that quite well. For example, Lily’s a member of the Intercom employee resource group Inter-Women, a fantastic group here in the company that organizes events and includes everyone in the company in discussions that are relevant and important to women in the tech industry. She also finds it useful to be part of a Slack channel for women in tech outside of the company.

Lily Beauvilliers: If I want to get perspectives outside of just Intercom, that’s a really interesting place to go and hear what it’s like being a woman in tech in other companies, to hear other people’s experiences in companies of different sizes and different stages, all that kind of stuff. And just to get different people – they’re all different ages – you get a really interesting breadth of experiences and perspectives there.

“I don’t think you can fight for equality for a group of people unless you have a name for them and unless you have a way to talk about them”

Niamh O’Connor: One of the things Lily said that I thought was really interesting was that she believes the label Women in Tech doesn’t cause feelings of inferiority. As an underrepresented group, those feelings are unfortunately often there regardless, and the term can actually give collective power to that group.

Lily Beauvilliers: When I was looking at tech jobs, I was worried about getting hired specifically because I was a woman and not because I had the skills needed. I now realize that that was a pretty silly worry. It’s not in any company’s best interests to pay you a salary to be bad at your job, regardless of what kind of diversity you might bring to the table. So there are those kinds of dangers where women might feel that they are being treated a certain way or given opportunities just because they are women, but I think those dangers are there whether or not you have the concept of “women in tech” and talk about Women in Tech as an entity. I don’t think you can fight for equality for a group of people unless you have a name for them and unless you have a way to talk about them. And “women in tech” is the obvious, easy umbrella term for talking about gender equality in tech.

Not just a “woman in tech”

Nadine Mansour: I’m Nadine Mansour, I’m a product manager at Intercom, and I’m coming from a computer science background. I was actually studying computer engineering, shifted careers to become a support rep, and then shifted careers to become a product manager. That’s what I’m doing since then.

Liam Geraghty: So, Nidhi has mixed feelings about the term, Lily is all for it. Where does Nadine stand?

Niamh O’Connor: Here’s what she said.

“I would like to focus on getting better at my job, becoming more impactful, connecting and learning from other product people, regardless of their gender, background, or anything else”

Nadine Mansour: I personally don’t like labels. When I think of my professional life, I would like to think of myself as a product manager or a product person, and that’s it. I don’t want to add any other variables or think of how my gender or background can affect it. And honestly, it just makes it simpler. The question for me is: Do I need to do anything differently if I’m a female product manager? And honestly, I don’t think I should, or this is what I would like to believe.

Niamh O’Connor: That makes a lot of sense, yeah. So you would feel that the term “women in tech would” almost put you in a box a little bit?

Nadine Mansour: Yeah, exactly. And it’s just simpler to reduce the number of variables that I need to think about. I would like to focus on getting better at my job, becoming more impactful, connecting and learning from other product people, regardless of their gender, background, or anything else. I would like to isolate all the variables and focus on what really matters, which is we’re all technologists or product people.

“I want to win an opportunity because I’m a skilled product manager, not because I’m a woman product manager”

Liam Geraghty: Has Nadine seen any benefit from the Women in Tech movement?

Niamh O’Connor: In some ways.

Nadine Mansour: Initially, it played a very important role, promoting the idea that women working in the tech industry is an option, and it made it obvious for young girls that this is something they can pursue. But I think it can quickly become overwhelming, as well. And that’s, I think, the balance I’m trying to find, which is it was really useful in the beginning, but I’m just trying to make sure it’s not pressuring, as well. And that it’s still promoting equality. I want to win an opportunity because I’m a skilled product manager, not because I’m a woman product manager.

But honestly, even from my personal experience, what really affected me the most was my upbringing because I had two older sisters and both are engineers. So it was pretty normal for me growing up and seeing my two older sisters working as engineers. It felt normal. And also, my parents were pushing us as much as possible to pursue a successful career and professional life. And from my personal experience, this had more impact than the idea of Women in Tech, if that makes sense. But I don’t think this could be generalized, this is my personal experience.

Liam Geraghty: That’s really interesting. There are so many factors that go into all of this. It sounds like Nadine had amazing encouragement and support from her family there.

Niamh O’Connor: Yeah, absolutely. Nadine makes a really important point here about the movement’s benefits and balance. It’s so important for young girls to see women in tech being celebrated, but is that more about representation than the existence of a term and almost category that they may be labeled with when they do join the industry? This brings us back to our point, has the term actually helped increase representation in the industry?

Walking the talk

Liam Geraghty: I suppose that’s why we had so much debate before this episode about what it should be because doing this stock episode about Women in Tech seemed almost disingenuous when there are all these different facets.

Niamh O’Connor: I know you were talking to Lu, one of our research and development managers about this as well.

Liam Geraghty: Yeah, Lu Borko. Lu works very closely with our R&D leaders. Lu is also one of the leaders of the ERG group you mentioned, Inter-Women, and Lu had a great point about the movement.

“While the term ‘women in tech’ can help bring together and build rich supportive communities for women in the industry, it definitely shouldn’t be used as a catch-all label for all”

Lu Borko: The movement in itself is important, but it is more important to be able to equip women that go into leadership and managers positions to do it well versus just putting women into these positions for the sake of optics. It’s important that the right people are in those roles and not just having to tick a box and say, “we have women working in managerial positions,” and that’s it. I think having the right people in the roles is really important, and the companies have that responsibility to equip their people to do well in the roles they put them in.

Liam Geraghty: So Niamh, after talking to Nidhi, Lily, and Nadine, and hearing what Lu had to say, where does that leave us?

Niamh O’Connor: It’s definitely given me a lot of food for thought. My main takeaway would be that, while the term “women in tech” can help bring together and build rich supportive communities for women in the industry, it definitely shouldn’t be used as a catch-all label for all of those who identify as women in the industry, or to put them in any sort of box, whether that’s intentional or unintentional. For some women, that box can feel pretty hard to break out of, and the term “women in tech” should describe the supportive community, not a niche category of people working in tech.

Liam Geraghty: Absolutely. And I suppose this conversation will definitely continue here and on the blog as well. Something I’m kind of aware of is that, in a way, by asking everyone to come on and talk about Women in Tech, or at least the term “women in tech,” we’re kind of still feeding into that thing that we’re trying not to be, if that makes sense. But I did ask Lu how she felt about that, about coming on to talk today, and she had a pretty insightful answer.

“We should be providing women with all of the resources they need to succeed rather than just doing it for the sake of ticking off a box”

Lu Borko: The idea of just doing it for the sake of saying, “Oh, here are the women that work at Intercom” could be seen as, “Oh, we do have women at Intercom” and leaving it at that. This, I think, provides an actual way of having a discussion on a topic where different women from different backgrounds and different experiences speak. Just saying, “I work in tech, and this is what I do” doesn’t really help in any way. Reflecting on how you perceive the current environment and your takes on how it helped you could potentially help other women or allies see where we are currently, where we stand.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but people are genuinely interested in creating spaces for women to be a part of, whether it’s through organizations or different programs that companies have, and everyone can do their part in helping. We should be providing women with all of the resources they need to succeed rather than just doing it for the sake of ticking off a box, saying we have X percent of women in these positions.

Liam Geraghty: Niamh, thank you so much for joining us today.

Niamh O’Connor: It’s been fascinating speaking to all the guests and to you, of course. Thanks so much for having me.

Liam Geraghty: And we’d love to hear your thoughts on the term “women in tech,” so do reach out. Our email is podcast@intercom.io and @intercom on Twitter. That’s it for today. We’ll be back next week with another episode of Inside Intercom.

Inside Intercom Podcast – 2019 updated images