What it Feels Like to Be a Woman in Tech

What it Feels Like to Be a Woman in Tech

07-Aug-2014 by SophiaKirova

“So, did you see this article in Wired, about women as tech company founders?” I asked Diana Hildebrand, the CSO of a Germany-based biotech startup Prospero BioSciences. “Yes, and I was astonished by the variety of experiences women in tech-business have had.” “Has yours been any similar?” I went on, “Well, it has sometimes been, well, lonely”.

The ENIAC Programmers

Ever since the wave of tech companies disclosing their gender diversity data, an initiative pioneered by Pinterest’s software ingeneer Tracy Chou, “women in tech” has become a hot topic. It comes as no surprise that female employees in technology are underrepresented. The ones who’ve made it to leadership positions are even harder to find.

Browsing through many of these women’s confessions, it looks like someone has opened Pandora’s box. As I chatted up with Diana about women in tech, however, it hit me that it might not always be a girl-boy topic, but rather a science – industry one, at least in Diana’s universe.

From University to Business

Diana's BrushDiana's Brush

Diana: I divide my time between the lab and the business meetings. I like it colourful and I like it broad – the vividly balanced work. So I enjoy this compound of business added to the scientific work I have been doing. But, I am chiefly a scientist and, before I joined Prospero, business thinking was not part of my know-how. At University, I never thought how my product was related to the market or how great its applicability actually was. As I talked to fellow scientists, they would say “maybe I want to go to the industry”, but no one knows how industry really looks like. I myself never knew how to setup a meeting with an investor, how to pitch…

Sophia: So, how come you are a CSO today?

Diana: I was working as a lab manager at University when Robert, the founder of Prospero, came in to collaborate with us. He had a project combining bioscience and tech. I thought it was a pretty cool thing and I realized “I want to do this!”. I fell totally in love with it.

Sophia: Is this how you answered “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Diana: I always thought that’s a wrong question. I’m sure 95% of the people never guessed their career twists. I myself never imagined ending up where I am right now. I’ve always aspired to develop, to be challenged. Eventually, “challenging” is what being a woman in high-tech feels like for me. And I don’t mean only the great responsibility of answering demanding scientific questions. A great challenge I face is that I am the lone woman.

“It’s not necessarily ugly*, but it can feel lonely”

Diana's MALDI SpectrometerDiana's MALDI sample plate

Diana: It’s a lonely number and an important point is that it feels lonesome in terms of communication, too. It’s no secret that women and men communicate differently, especially when in large groups. I believe women are very feedback-dependent. During my meetings with investors, there is always a guy with a straight face, showing no emotion at all while I pitch. In the beginning this just made me feel more and more insecure, I thought “Oh man, this presentation is probably complete crap” “I screwed it all up”. But looking behind the curtain, I realized it’s not disapproval, it’s just the way it is. In the end, there is someone who shakes your hand and expresses acknowledgement.

Women often want to be perfect and I had to learn along the way that gaining more self-confidence and being unafraid is how you do your best. And this in the end has a lot to do with whether a woman would feel comfortable taking an executive position or responsibility within a company. If you want to be taken seriously though, if you want to be seen at all, a woman needs to understand and adjust to the communication of men. Yes, we should in the end meet somewhere in the middle, but someone has to make the first step. And since I meet only male investors, I just learn to talk their way.

“It’s not a question of whether a woman can do a job or not”

Diana's Mic
Diana's Mic

Sophia: So, your experience has not been as sexist as the confessions we read?

Diana: Not at all. I’ve had meetings with investors and potential clients – all predominantly men, but I’ve never had negative experience. I think the question is not whether women are suitable for working in technology, it’s a question of how well they are received in a team. The team is always the key to keeping people motivated and to making them feel trusted. My team counts on me – whenever they have a question, they come to me. If I wouldn’t have had a good feeling about the team, I wouldn’t have joined. Of course, the project was cool, but the team makes the difference.

Diana's ToolDiana's Pipette

Sophia: What could women learn from your experience?

Diana: I guess one just learns by doing. Apart from that, I think the higher your position, the lonlier it might get, no matter if you are a woman or a man. It’s tough and at the same time fun. Getting connections to mentors or talking to peers (like in workshops – but best when set up as a longterm connection) can definitely help overcome these feelings. This is also an important fact I want to point out- if you want to manage/lead no matter if it’s a project or people, it’s important to be able to solve your pesonal problems/weaknesses – you have to get your own shoes tied up first. That requires a hands-on mentality, to ask for coaching/mentoring. Or just discussions with peers can be of high value. That’s why women should always invest into their networks, to prevent that feeling of being lone with issues they face in a male dominated surrounding.

I think the industry is ever happier to see more women. I see University has a lot of programs for women in leadership, helping them with communication skills and how to survive in a predominantly male environmet. The regulations and the social pressure is pushing the industry to hire more and more women, especially when it comes to executive positions.

*Referring to Issie Lapowsky’sThis Is What Tech’s Ugly Gender Problem Really Looks Like
Photos: Personal Archive

If you are also a woman in technology, you should check out this list of women startup founders that has just been launched by the Berlin Geekettes and is currently growing. Contribute by adding yourself or someone you know. Cheers, @Sophia

Diana Hildebrand

Diana Hildebrand received her Ph.D. from the University of Hamburg, Department of Chemistry, in Germany. She brings a significant amount of expertise in the field of proteomics including purification, identification, and characterization of proteins and peptides. She was previously employed as a laboratory manager at the Core Facility for Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics at the Department of Clinical Chemistry of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany before joining Prospero Biosciences.

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