Guest Column | May 14, 2018

Cultivating A Culture Of Gender Harmony And Respect In Tech

By Jessica Rice, SHOP.COM

We The Woman

It is the Year of the Woman. As women across the U.S. and abroad have raised their voices in unison against misogyny, harassment, and violence against women, it’s difficult not to feel angry and discouraged with the recent stories of women continuing to be marginalized — especially when it comes to roles relating to technology and science.

Reports show the gender gap has not decreased as studies confirm companies are struggling to retain female talent in tech roles and in general. That is not to mean women in technology do not exist; We are here and you can still find examples of large companies supporting women and making a commitment toward inclusion that brings hope for a larger influence of change. It is more a matter of how that change is cultivated.

While technology largely remains a male-dominated industry, women technologists are becoming the catalyst for change within many company cultures where we see an environment of mutual respect and teamwork between mixed genders being cultivated — a gender harmony. Women in Technology, Girls in Tech, Girls Who Code, and many other organizations hold meet-ups and online communities to support and encourage other women pursuing careers in computer science. While large corporations are often the focal point of scrutiny when it comes to addressing social change in the work force, we are seeing large companies, as analyzed by Comparibly, making strides to bridge the gap.

It has long been known that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields carried large gaps when it came to women in those professions. The number of women in computer science began dropping off in the 1980s, which was described in the NPR article, When Women Stopped Coding, as being due to the rise of personal computers and the marketing of them being almost exclusively to boys. As tech companies flourished, the culture of Silicon Valley became predominantly what Emily Chang described in her book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, as remaining a place where women can’t participate in [tech careers] without becoming victims of a double standard”.

It is not surprising many women felt pushed out or apprehensive of pursuing careers in computer science and engineering despite having been major influences on the development of the industry in previous decades. Still, there were several women who did work in those fields during that era, blazing a trail for many of us to follow towards realizing our own career goals. I am ever grateful to them for making those decisions.

While the Silicon Valley is what most think of when discussing tech communities in California, nestled in the hills off California’s Central Coast and just 75 miles south of San Jose is SHOP.COM, an e-commerce company that has the feel of a start-up with the experience and history of 25 years behind it. What started as a grass roots endeavor transforming catalog shopping to internet retail, SHOP got its foothold in e-commerce long before it was known how technology would evolve. The company had major growth in 2011, following the acquisition by global internet marketing corporation, Market America, which helped to bring more opportunity for growth as positions for software engineers competing for jobs in the Bay Area became available. “We were looking for the best people to help the company grow, that was what mattered,” states our VP and one of SHOP.COM’s founding members, Vince Hunt. The proximity of Monterey to the Bay Area enables us to gather talent from the larger competing markets and reward them with competitive pay coupled with the serenity of the Monterey Peninsula.

As a woman working in technology, I have been lucky. I have not experienced what other women in my field have faced. That is not to say I haven’t worked in environments that weren’t male dominated or held a level of gender bias. In those roles, I still had to learn to assert myself, speak more concisely, talk myself through self-doubt, work more efficiently, and continually look for new ways to stay relevant. As more women are filling technology roles, becoming managers, and participating in the interview process, the gender bias seems to be lessening.

This is one of the reasons I love working at SHOP.COM — the culture — which exuded during my first interview. I was one week away from giving birth to my first child and was nervous about interviewing as a pregnant woman. There were mostly women managers who interviewed me, which was new to me. I met with each manager separately and answered tough questions about my experience and ability to perform for the position, but I was also asked how my pregnancy was going. My second interview was exactly one week after I gave birth and was with the Director of the IT Department, who was also a woman. I was offered the position and I decided to come to work for SHOP.COM two months into my maternity leave. It was worth it.

My experience at SHOP.COM is not unique. In a world where we mostly hear how women are struggling to succeed or are passed on promotions, we attribute our success largely due to the people-centric work environment we cultivate. If the idea is great and the work excels, then that is what matters. Women at SHOP.COM account for 57 percent of the total employees, with 40 percent being women who are in technical or engineering roles and 72 percent who are in leadership roles. Not only do we have a high ratio of women, our developers range in age. We have experienced developers who went to college during the 80s and 90s and experienced the Dot-Com Bust, along with younger developers who have grown up with computers and playing video games.

I asked a few women at SHOP.COM what they thought caused to the gender gap within the technical professions and whether they felt it had impacted their own careers. A common statement was it was not forefront on their minds since working at SHOP.COM, but some had experienced gender bias either in school or in previous positions. I asked a few men the same question and they did not seem to notice that they were working with “a lot” of women. Both parties expressed the desire to work together as a cohesive team. Perhaps, it is that we have an amazing group of interesting and diverse people.

Senior Software Engineer, Ilga Celmins, recalled, “I’ve always worked with a lot of women. I have also always been an athlete (playing semi-pro volleyball) and doing things involving math or engineering, so it’s not likely that I would really notice whether I was a one of the only women.” Later, she forwarded me an interesting article titled Why Women Choose Differently at Work, which dove deeper into the fabric of women’s lives and innate resolve to nurture their passions and relationships when given the opportunity.

As Susan Pinker, author of The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women, and the Real Gender Gap explains, “In places where girls and women feel they have the freedom to make their own choices, in other words, they are more likely to act on their personal strengths and interests. But in places where they feel constrained by cultural or financial strictures, they are more likely to go for what they consider a sure thing, which is a STEM career … Assuming that women are simply a tamped down, smothered version of men — and would always choose what men choose if they only had the chance —is neither respectful of women’s autonomy nor supported by the data.”

Most of SHOP.COM’s hiring managers are women. When I queried Senior Director of Engineering, Kitt Caffall, on whether SHOP.COM always hired a high percentage of women, her philosophy on bridging the gap on women and diversity in the tech world is that “you have to reach back into the community and pull the next generation of founders up with you.” Our focus is on hiring those who would work well with our team, to invest in their personal growth, and encourage a healthy work-life balance — which not only enables us to hire more women, it helps us find people who are diverse in their interests and talents. We realize the importance of harmony in the work place. The motto among SHOP.COM global teams being — One Team, One Dream — as the company extends across 10 global markets and is ranked 43rd on Internet Retailers Top Global Online Marketplace. Teamwork is what enables us to continue to grow and evolve.

If someone is looking to grow in their career or is open to new opportunities, we will find ways to make it happen. When SHOP.COM was in need of more project managers, management looked within the company for individuals who already had intimate knowledge of our tools, infrastructure, partners, and global teams. We found Teresa Wang, who was working on the marketing team and had been influential in our global market launches in Taiwan, and approached her about joining the PM team.

Teresa did not at first realize that she was directly being considered for the team. When she realized she was the one intended for the role, she worried about whether she would be qualified. SHOP.COM management reassured her, “We won’t set you up for failure. We are here to guide you and set you up to succeed.” Teresa blossomed in her new position; overseeing technical responsibilities, guiding deliverables, and subsequently launched Canada (Quebec), Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. She has helped with the communication of projects among our global markets, guiding requests for architecture changes, and translating project requirements for the SHOP.COM development team.

“The SHOP.COM team is responsible for delivering the site to over 10 countries and multiple languages, so making sure each country’s regulations and cultural requirements are met on all fronts is crucial.” Teresa says she has found mentors at SHOP.COM and on the management team who “demonstrate the emotional intelligence and grace required to reach decisions and manage crisis situations,” such as the recent Taiwan toilet paper shortage that left the country in a panic. Teresa’s note to women in technology is to “identify your strengths, be willing to open yourself up to new opportunities, and explore — which leads to better long term possibilities.”

This is just one of the many examples of women supporting each other and cultivating the type of environment we have at SHOP.COM. We have women who have journeyed from overseas to pursue careers in the U.S., women with backgrounds in archeology, chemical engineering, communication design, computer science, electrical engineering, telecommunications, economics, algorithmic design, and information retrieval all working in technical roles from quality assurance to software engineering.

We strive to remove the marginalized differences between genders; we embrace diversity and work as a unified team in each of our respective positions. When a skill is needed, we go to that person. We help each other, build one another up, and continually brainstorm on ways to improve upon our code stack, develop new and existing features, reach faster load times, and determine better implementation strategies. “Research shows that when SET (Science, Engineering, and Technology) women are fully engaged, and when leadership creates the speak-up culture, wherein their ideas might be heard, companies enjoy a ‘diversity dividend’ that translates into increased market share and entry into altogether new markets. To remain globally competitive, every company needs to harness the innovative potential of its highly qualified female workforce, but nowhere is that imperative greater than in the science, engineering, and technology sectors.”

What makes SHOP.COM special is we are striving not for just gender equality or placing women in tech roles, but we foster a culture of respect and equality — the embodiment of gender harmony. We have male engineers and female engineers who feel supported and encouraged in their positions — both being treated equally as technical authorities’ and valuable assets to the team and among their peers.

The customer experience is at the heart of every conversation. When the drive is delivering the best product, there are no barriers. It’s not something that comes up very often — the fact we have a balanced number of women developers and leaders. The measure of success is, as Emily Chang so eloquently states, “When women have an equal number of seats at the table and they are VCs and engineers and CEOs and movie directors and running the country as president and we’re no longer talking about these things as ‘successes’ but it’s completely normal, that’s when I think we’ll really have achieved success.”

This is SHOP.COM — a place where it is normal for men and women to come together to solve problems, find excitement in large and small successes, work hard to exceed customer expectations, and enjoy our daily lives … and what enables us to live in this beautiful piece of paradise.

About The Author

Jessica Rice is Manager of Front End Engineering at SHOP.COM. She blends her love of art and design with her drive for solving challenges. Her continued focus is on increasing user engagement and ensuring the full vision is realized from design to implementation of intuitive interfaces and modular architecture. When not on her computer, you can find her chasing after her son and the family German Shepherd, cooking up a new culinary adventure, or doing pretty much anything that is creative and inspired. Jessica is currently pursuing personalization as it pertains to unique customer experiences based upon buying behavior and preferences.