Women in Tech: Inspiring the Next Generation

  • Safia Ali

Returning to Pakistan after more than two decades, I see a lot more women in every field. According to Google, the women force participation rate has increased to 22.8%. The global average we need to aspire to is 49.6%.  It’s heartening to see so many women pursuing their dreams and breaking down barriers. Small businesses are also being run by women, which is a testament to their entrepreneurial spirit. However, there are still few role models for women in Pakistan. I write this article to inspire women in the early stage of their careers in tech who I often come across and seek my advice.

Speak up

Open & authentic communication

This is where I see the biggest need for improvement for South Asian women. Culturally we are taught to be respectful and polite to such an extent that we don’t ever say what’s on our mind. Conflict resolution is a skill I learned once I entered professional life in the U.S.

If you think you are not getting the best projects, talk to a mentor or manager and see what you can do. If you think you deserve a higher salary, make a case for yourself and talk to your manager.

If someone is sabotaging your work in the office, have a conversation with them directly in a non-confrontational manner and tell them how you feel. Sitting quietly and expecting to be noticed is not going to help you here.

It’s okay to say No: Understand and accept your limits. There are only so many hours in a day.

Early in my career when I was an individual contributor, I would say yes to every project and every request. This led me to be a very popular person but I worked long hours, compromising my social & family life. Then I noticed that when it came to promotions, people who did fewer projects than me were getting promoted. After some reflection and talks with mentors, I realized that I was doing a lot of work, but not all of that work was important to the success of the company. Smart people will pick a few things that are important to the strategy of the company and focus on doing those well. Saying “No” does not come naturally to a lot of women, especially to South Asian women. However, you cannot be on every project and some people will be disappointed when you say no, but that has to be the case for your personal and professional success. 

My advice is to stay aligned with your manager and ensure that at least 80% of the time, you work on things that will move the needle for the company.

Be really good at what you do

Success requires hard work and long hours

“How many A’s did you get? He got all A’s, she is an A+ student.” How many times have you heard these statements in social gatherings and weddings? South Asia is obsessed with grades. Academic success is great, but it's not the only form of success. I barely made it from one class to the next, and in the course of my career working in some of the top tech companies in the world, I came across many folks like myself; people who weren't always chasing the highest grades. I was good at Art in school so I would do my friend’s homework too. Art & Design came naturally to me and I enjoyed it. My mom recognized that and sent me to art school and an art education is what led me to where I am today. 

Rather than trying to be the best at everything, identify what you are really good at and enjoy and build a career out of that strength. Success needs hard work and discipline, and when you enjoy what you do it won’t feel like work.

Learn to delegate

This isn’t a one (wo)man show - you need to accept that you cannot do it all

In South Asia, being busy and having no time for yourself is glorified, especially for women. I blame it on the TV sitcoms that show women as martyrs, who go through life neglecting their own needs, desires, and ambitions to focus on their families. 

When someone tells me they have no time, I feel there is usually one of two issues: poor time management and/or poor prioritization. You need to accept that you cannot do it all. Focus on the things that only you can do and delegate everything else. It might not get done as well as if you would have done it yourself but you have to learn to let some things go. 

This is especially true for women who are raising kids and want a career. Create a support system that will help you focus on your work by having a strong family support system and/or hired help. 

There is no trophy for burning yourself out. Be self-aware about your limitations.

Be a Team player

We not Me mindset

If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go farther, go together. This is one of my favorite quotes, which was also turned into a mural in our Islamabad office. I live by this in my corporate life. 

Being good at what you do is just not enough today. Tech companies are cross-functional and you have to work with many organizations to achieve your goals. Whether you are a product manager, a project manager, an engineer, or a designer - to build a product you will need to work with many people and you will not like all of them. You can’t be best friends with everyone and you shouldn’t aim for that either; stay focused on your end goal, be amicable, and don’t let your ego get the best of you. You will not go very far on your own. 

The most successful people I have worked with have the ability to bring others along and influence others. They have the ability to communicate with people from different cultures, backgrounds, and expertise, a skill that is crucial to develop as you move forward in your career.

Work-Life Balance

It’s your responsibility, not the organization’s

A lot of women ask me which company has a good work-life balance or how I manage to maintain a balance.

There were times in my life when I could really give my career my 120% but there were times when my family needed me more and I needed to take a lateral move or a step back. You need to be in charge of your life and prioritize what matters most at that point in your life. Life events like weddings, births, deaths, graduations, and whatever is most meaningful to you should not have to take a backseat. A company that doesn't give you time for these is probably going to burn you out very quickly; avoid them. 

Similarly, on a weekly or day-to-day basis, figure out what gives you energy and make time for those activities. I am a big believer in self-care which is something that is not prioritized in South Asian cultures for women. The media, unfortunately, glamorizes women who prioritize men, kids, and families at the expense of their own sanity. 

Even taking 30 minutes a day to go for a walk, watch a show, or hit the gym will help you manage stress much better. Every year set 3 personal goals for yourself, and work towards them.

Take time to reflect

Balance personal & professional goals

Every year in December I scroll through all my photos to take a look at what I did that year. It’s usually a combination of personal and professional photos. 

It’s a good year for me if I do things at work that I hadn't done before, go on a few trips to at least one new country, and spend ample time with friends & family.

It’s very important to me that I am learning & growing at every stage in my career.
I have worked in a lot of great companies and done meaningful work like empowering small businesses (Google), helping people save money (Intuit), and creating lifelong memories (StubHub) but every time I switched companies it wasn’t because there was anything wrong with the work or people, it was a desire to do something new that would challenge myself. Like learning a new industry and creating products for a different target audience. 

I highly recommend doing this exercise every year. No one knows your aspirations and your goals like you do.

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