Teach a woman to code, and you start a revolution. While it may be a new take on an old trope, it’s the truth at the core of Women Who Code, according to the organization’s CEO and Board Chair, Alaina Percival. Dedicated to helping women succeed in every type of technology career, WWCode makes connections between those who are already succeeding in their fields and those who are just getting started, a snowball effect with the end goal of seeing females occupying the same number of seats at the tech table as their male counterparts.
In our ongoing look at the women who are leading the charge for gender parity, we recently chatted with Percival about WWCode and the efforts the organization is making to work toward that goal. With her deep-seated passion for the cause and her background in brand management, marketing, and development, Percival makes daily strides to see other women grow in their tech careers and, in turn, support even more women to do the same. Read on to find out more about this inspiring organization, what steps Percival thinks every company should be taking to help women thrive, and the advise she offers to those who want to take the next step in their own careers.
The Window: What are the overall aims of Women Who Code?
Alaina Percival: Our mission is to inspire women to excel in technology careers. We have two current primary program avenues: one is in-person events—we did 1500 free technical events for women last year in 60 cities in 20 countries around the world—and the other is a weekly publication call The Code Review, where we highlight the successes of women in technology, encourage them to engage in the broader tech community, and lower the barrier to them doing that. We gave away nearly $300,000 in conference tickets last year and almost $250,000 in educational scholarships, mostly around coding. That’s in one year alone. These scholarships have allowed us to really change the lives of the women who have received them and are learning this new skill.
And how did you get involved with the organization?
When Women Who Code was getting started, it was a community group and I was volunteering. But eventually, I was doing more and more, so I brought it into my day job by moving into a role that allowed me to spend about 20 percent of my time working on Women Who Code. In that role, I was working with a lot of engineering and technical executives—vice presidents of engineering, CTOs—and I saw that fewer than five percent of them were women. There were these amazing women in the tech industry who were really role models as well as executives, but far too few and they weren’t visible. I saw the potential in highlighting the successes of these women, visibly raising their profiles and showing that there are women who are successful and helping other women in the industry. By seeing them, other women thinking about pursuing tech as a career and the girls who are just hearing about it for the first time have that pipeline of role models to look up to. That’s where our mission around women excelling in careers came about.
You mentioned that you want to get above that 5% threshold of women in tech leadership roles. Is there an end goal in mind when it comes to that number?
Absolutely—50%! We want women to be equally represented. What happens is that, once you get above that 25 or 30 percent mark, women are no longer tokens—they’re just leaders. It’s important for companies to buy into this mindset because teams that are more diverse perform better. All industries are becoming technology industries. I mean, even something like Barneys is a technology organization, whether you’re talking about the shipping and delivery, the media buys, the marketing, or finance. Leaders in every category are more and more often going to have technical backgrounds. So if women aren’t participating as technologists in their careers, what we’ll see is that there will be a funnel and the number of women in leadership positions is going to shrink. It’s already too low.
There have been studies that have shown that there’s a mid-career drop off for a lot of women, where they maybe want to have children and they don’t have other women as leaders who understand what they’re going through or to offer support, so they just check out. Do you think that’s part of the issue?
That mid-career level is when a lot of women start to feel their momentum stalling. Especially in software engineering, where it’s only 10-20% women, you might get on a bad project or overlooked for a promotion, and you start to see women exiting. But there are things companies can do to build really strong plans around good corporate diversity practices. I personally think that paternity leave is incredibly important, because during this time is when you create lifelong habits, and if parental responsibilities can be shared between both partners, then that habit can continue that way moving forward. Anything less than a 50/50 split means that one family member is going to be less successful in their career.
Can you please tell me a little bit more about your own background? It wasn’t in tech, was it?
I come from more of the performance and also luxury fields. I started off my career at Puma, and went on to run all of their niche products—designer collaborations, non-core competency products. I went back and got my MBA, where I did my thesis on luxury brand management, then went to work for a really small women’s performance footwear company where we launched the first-ever women’s-specific volleyball and basketball shoe. I was at this teeny-tiny company and Nike and Mizuno were suddenly my big competitors. We had to think outside the box in every single thing we did. Social media was just really emerging as a tool, as well as all these sort of guerrilla tactics that are similar to working in a start-up. Seeing that, I decided to jump on an opportunity to move to San Francisco in order to transition my career into technology. I eventually found my way here to Women Who Code as part of my deep, deep passion for seeing women succeed in their careers.
How did that passion come about or when did you realize it?
It’s been a theme throughout my entire life—I have an incredibly strong mother. When I started really weaving it into my career, though, was probably around the time I was at the women’s footwear company. I saw that we were working with women who were starters in the WNBA, and I saw what sponsorships they were getting compared to the same tier among their male counterparts. Seeing that really drove me. And then getting involved with Women Who Code and falling in love with spending time with smart women and talking about technology. The thing that really drives me day-by-day are the individual stories that I encounter among our members.
There seem to be a lot of volunteers with the organization, including some who serve as mentors to younger members. Would you be able to share a significant mentor/mentee relationship from your own experience?
There was a woman named Soju who joined Woman Who Code because she was trying to transition from the hardware side to the software side, but she was quite shy and didn’t have the confidence to take the next steps. Some other members and I took her by the hand and encouraged her in her journey. I ended up having the chance to introduce her to someone that was looking for a software engineer apprentice, and that became the step that really allowed her to make the transition. The thing that makes it so amazing is that she then brought two other Women Who Code leaders through that exact same process, helping them to become software engineers themselves. All three of them have come back to the Women Who Code community as leaders, and that alone demonstrates the power that can happen when our mission resonates with someone. It’s something we hope you take with you for the rest of your life, that desire to see other women excel. It increases our impact exponentially.
We talked about the challenges that women can face that lead to mid-career drop-off. Have you had any challenges in your own career that you’ve had to overcome?
I don’t really like sharing examples about myself, because I’d prefer to share something that I think people can learn the most from, so I’ll share something that was shared with me: last year, I had a woman who was mid-level in her career tell me that she had been working for several months to get a high-profile project started. When it came time to launch it, though, all the sort of hotshot, senior people in the company wanted to be on that project. She didn’t get selected, even though she’d already been working on it for months. It was a huge opportunity to bring someone up, to elevate them through this launch, but she got passed over. It’s something we see over and over again. Companies need to look at the way projects are distributed. High-profile projects are the ones that lead to promotions and visibility within a company, and if you have a group of people who are constantly getting these high-profile projects and another group who consistently isn’t, then it’s going to dramatically impact the career progression and satisfaction for your employees. Especially for women and other minority employees.
There are a lot of anecdotal stories like that, where in groups, even if women are involved, they don’t get the same credit as their male counterparts. Unfortunately, some women think that that means they need to go it alone to succeed in the system, rather than working to change the system itself.
You definitely see situations where a woman will say something and the conversation moves right past her or a guy repeats it and gets the credit for it. It’s one of those unconscious biases, the little things that happen on a daily basis that you aren’t going to quit your job over or notify HR about, and even complaining about it would make you the crazy person. But those things add up.
You mentioned earlier that a lot of Women Who Code’s services are free. How are you able to offer that, especially as big as the organization has gotten?
Right now, most of our support comes through corporate sponsors. Usually, we work with companies who are looking to increase the visibility of the fact that they are a technology organization, even if they aren’t thought of as such. Like I said, even a brand like Barneys has a strong tech component to it today. Often companies support us to help with the diversity of their hiring.
How would you say that the organization has changed or grown the most over the last five years that you’ve been on board?
As we’ve grown globally, when we’re trying to introduce programming and manage our brand across 20 countries, every tiny change now is incredibly challenging. If someone says that they want to get their branch involved in some hot new social media component, we have to be aware that our brand is on that, so we have to evaluate and manage it. Or as we’re launching in different countries, if, for example, it isn’t same for women to go home by themselves at 9:30 at night, then we have to find different solutions for how we have our events, since they’re typically in the evening. We’re able to add on a lot more value now, as we keep adding things, but when I go an event here or in another city, it still feels like that intimate community group that we started out with. I was at an event in Delhi, and it had that same sense of community that it had when I’d go to an event in San Francisco in 2011.
What advice would you offer a woman who’s looking to advance her career, be it in tech or in any other industry?
Definitely learn to code. Even if your goal is not to become a software engineer, having a technical basis is going to help you in your career. We hear so many women who are product managers or marketers or whatever it is, and they say that they’re so much more confident in their role now that they understand technology better. Also, work to achieve your goal, even if it’s 10 years out. It doesn’t matter, you can change your mind, but work to figure out what your goal is. Say it out loud. Write it down. You’ll then be far more likely to achieve it. Then find people who are already what you’re working toward that and reach out. They don’t have to be a mentor—you can talk to them for 5 or 15 minutes—but they’ll probably be more than happy to talk to you. Or even one step down from that role. If your goal is to be the next Sheryl Sandberg, she may be a bit tough to get in touch with, but I bet there are 80 people who are just below her who’ll have way more time and are more accessible.