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Everything I Need to Know About Being a Woman in Tech I Learned from My Grandmother

Women in tech are still a rarity. Here's how we change that.

Some people have their “aha” moments while meditating. Others have epiphanies gazing at great works of art or reading great books. Me, I had mine watching a commercial on TV.

It starts off with Molly, a young girl, lazing on the couch one rainy evening. Her father asks her to take out the trash. She does it, but as she completes the unpleasant chore we see a lightbulb go off in her head. The next day, she devises a rope-and-pulley system to dispose of the garbage without leaving her bedroom. Before too long, she designs contraptions that help her do anything from mow the lawn to sell Girl Scouts cookies. By the time the commercial ends and we learn that it’s there to promote GE, we see Molly, now a young woman, working in one of the company’s advanced production plants, programming robots to complete inspections just as she had once programmed them to sweep the floor of her bedroom.

What’s remarkable about this ad is that it’s still remarkable. We applaud for Molly in large part because women in tech are still, sadly, a rarity: Women own only five percent of all start-ups, earn only 28 percent of all computer science degrees, and occupy only 11 percent of all executive positions in Silicon Valley. And according to a recent survey, an overwhelming 63 percent of women in tech earn significantly less than their male counterparts doing the exact same jobs, sometimes as little as half their male colleague’s salary.

What to do about it? It’s a complicated question, but, for inspiration, all I have to do is look at my own family.

As a young woman, my grandmother was always interested in science, but she wasn’t allowed to participate in the science fair until she reached high school. When she was finally admitted, she aced it, and went on to study biology and chemistry at Stanford. In those days, women students were few and far between, and were required to wear dresses except on Saturdays and while studying in the library. My grandmother hadn’t the means to buy a closet-full of dresses, so she put on a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a trench coat and went about her studies. When she graduated, she got a job programming computerized systems for hospitals, and was soon distinguished both for her technical skills and for her ability to communicate with the system’s end users, who were nowhere near as tech savvy as her. It was an empathic quality few of her male counterparts possessed, and it helped her build a robust career. Her daughters, my mother and my aunt, inherited her passion, and are both pursuing careers in programming. I’m fortunate enough to have followed in their footsteps and become a senior software engineer in Datto, the industry’s leading data protection company.

From my grandmother, mother, and aunt, I’ve learned a few priceless lessons that can help us continue and empower women to join the tech sector in far greater numbers. First, education begins at home. This may sound obvious, but I’m still disheartened by how many of us mindlessly assume that their young daughters are interested exclusively in dolls and dresses while their young sons are into robots and video games. Growing up, I was given Lego sets and allowed to build whatever I pleased. I would watch Star Wars with my father and discuss the intricacies of space flight and light sabers. These aren’t trivial things: They helped me to grow up and feel that a career in tech was a possibility well within my reach rather than a foreign and closed-off world, always out of bounds.

Second, I learned from my family that mentorship matters. My mother and my grandmother alike were fortunate to have generous and thoughtful colleagues in their lives who shepherded them through difficult times, gave them valuable advice, and helped them establish themselves in an industry that is often very demanding and not always very friendly to women. I try to do the same thing in my own career, and am delighted every time I see a female colleague join us and grow.

Finally, while we celebrate all the achievements women in tech have earned these past few decades, we need to have an ongoing and candid conversation about all that still needs work. The women in my family have always been committed to both, taking the time to feel grateful for all they’ve accomplished while at the same time pointing out everything that requires immediate attention, from a culture that is still sometimes unwelcoming to women to a pay gap that is too often discriminatory. This balance is hard to strike these days, when changes come swiftly and outrage is everywhere in evidence, but it’s essential to maintaining an environment in which we can focus on the only thing that truly matters, which is not a person’s gender but her or his ability to apply talent and hard work and create future innovations we’ll all enjoy.

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Kristen Costagliola is a senior software engineer at Datto.

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