Diversity talk: “Tech is one of the most flexible and evolving industries that can work in women’s favor”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Last year, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Sandra Persing, Global Strategist for Developer Outreach, Sponsorship and Events at Mozilla.
A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?
Last year, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Sandra Persing, Global Strategist for Developer Outreach, Sponsorship and Events at Mozilla.
Sandra Persing, Mozilla
Sandra Persing is the Global Strategist for Developer Outreach, Sponsorship and Events at Mozilla. Sandra serves on the Advisory Board for Women Who Code to fight for the advancement of all women in tech and is the founder of DevRel Summit, an annual leadership event that promotes the exchange of best practices to serve the developer community. Find her at most major airports catching flights and on the metaverse.
Follow her on Twitter: @SandraPersing
What got you interested in technology?
I think we, as humans, are always interested in technology! I remember “programming” games with our TI 81 graphing calculators. Or playing games on that first Apple II as a reward after being first to finish my assignment during first grade. Or taking apart a TV to see what’s really going on inside.
I was always a strong math and science student who had access to gadgets of all sorts. I just happened to love liberal arts more and decided to start my early career in publishing. We see tech as an opportunity to satisfy our curiosity, to connect with others, to do something better, and to stretch beyond what we currently believe ourselves to be capable of doing. I believe that technology definitely serves to improve our lives. Sometimes, our human nature skews this directive, and we can, of course, abuse this resource. Whether it’s software or hardware, it’s about the desire to know more about how it works, and having the drive to tinker with the status quo to hopefully make it something personal and unique.
I decided to get involved in the tech industry as a career switch from spending over 10 years in international publishing (it was years of understanding how to work with people and problem solve on a global scale). As with many others, I was attracted by the startup-life first, because it allowed programming and business management to all come together. I formed a team, learned how to code, and created a wellness web app-based platform to monitor and motivate people to lead healthier lives. When that first idea failed to fulfill that “J curve” success model, I turned to working with developers, instead of becoming a developer, as my full-time job, creating and producing events and managing an active sponsorship program with my current company.
I also serve on the Advisory Board for Women Who Code to make sure we are doing everything to advance the careers of women in tech. And finally, I run an annual Summit for tech leadership, DevRel Summit which is happening in Singapore this year.
We see tech as an opportunity to satisfy our curiosity, to connect with others, to do something better, and to stretch beyond what we currently believe ourselves to be capable of doing.
There are always obstacles for everyone in their paths to doing anything, but as we are becoming more and more outspoken about this issue these days, there are so many layers of blockers that compress women, and especially women of color. I once heard during a talk or a conversation that many successful women in high places have flat heads – from being patted on for so many years for doing a good job. There’s also lots of stereotypes and expectations people impose on me because of the way I look, the way I talk, even the things I like. I am always surprised at how these stereotypes are actually said to me, directly, with such a “matter-of-fact” tone.
I remember the first developer conference I attended. It was supposed to be a warm and welcoming open source event. The engineer who came up to introduce himself from one of the most prominent browser company looked me up and down and said with all seriousness: “Do you even belong here?” I want to share this moment because I know that many, many people have experienced this moment.
A strong support system
I would say my father encouraged me to look at the mechanics of everything, so in essence, everything is technical.
And my mother encouraged me to do whatever I want (with of course some quirkiness in our cultural expectations, like “do whatever you want, but it would be wonderful if you got married and had kids before you turned 30!”), which helped me get this mindset early on that I could do anything, but that I should also expect some contradictions on how society would react to my actions. And of course, that what people say and what people expect in reality may be misaligned.
I look at everyone who’s done greater things as people I can learn from every day. I also look now at the younger generation who have to have the tenacity to be brave and do more than what’s “expected” of them as role models.
Any bumps in the road?
I don’t think anyone has tried to stop me from learning and advancing in my professional and personal life, and I acknowledge this as a huge privilege in my life. I grew up working hard and making opportunities, but these opportunities were available to me. And again, this is a privilege that not everyone can even imagine.
My mother, who is Korean, and grew up as a young girl during the Korean War, was actually prohibited by her stepfamily (her birth mother died during the war) to continue her schooling. And when she was able to return to high school, the Japanese occupation prohibited her from speaking her language and using her name. So I have some understanding of what oppression looks like, but I cannot say that I actually know what it is in my life.
I am still learning to speak up and take more ownership of my accomplishments, and it’s hard!
I think there are moments in my professional life where I know that I didn’t advance as quickly as some of my colleagues. And there’s research to show how my face as Asian, my gender as female, perhaps even my small stature, prevents me from “fitting in” to what a company sees as a leader. I try to be with teams, with people, who help me receive recognition and support for my work. And I have of course moments when I know that my work and accomplishments may be bypassed because of things that I cannot control. I am still learning to speak up and take more ownership of my accomplishments, and it’s hard!
A day in Sandra’s life
I am currently at Mozilla as the Global Strategist for Events and Sponsorship, working with our Developer Outreach team in the Emerging Technologies group. I like to explain my day to day activity as a lot of research that leads to evaluating and deciding where our Mozilla team (both staff and contributors) should invest our resources (money, people, swag, etc). And I find Mozilla to be one of the most unique companies out there, as a not for profit organization that fights to keep the web and the internet through our active policy work, open and accessible for everyone. Working as part of a mission-driven company makes Monday mornings that much more exciting!
I started out at Mozilla creating an operational process to be able to review inbound requests for support developer events from all around the world. This led to making sure that a code of conduct was highlighted as a critical component for our team to decide whether we wanted to invest in an opportunity. Most recently, my team and I worked to create a developer roadshow program for regional communities to get to know Mozilla better and to get more Mozillians opportunities to speak and share their work with communities. And we even expanded our programming to include creative festivals like Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival to allow more people who may be creating with code but not necessarily call themselves developers, to get to know Mozilla. Needless to say, we were able to bring in more diversity and include more people in our events because we stripped away a lot of the stereotypes of who can be labeled as a someone who builds technologies that work to make the web a better place.
What I do best is navigate my team from desk to stage: to bring their work into the spotlight, whether that through our owned conferences, or through collaboration with other community organizations. I am proud of having the power to create these collaborative moments – some may see the browser vendors at “war” but it’s actually the opposite, where we are trying to make things work better for everyone on the web – to bring forth tech that helps our developer communities build better.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
I believe that current leadership, sitting in that C-Suite strata – must do everything possible to support women and keep women in the tech industry. This is one of the most flexible and evolving industries that can work in women’s favor. I work for Mozilla, where over 40% of our company’s workforce is distributed. We have the flexibility to manage life and work.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
It depends on how results are defined and measured. I think it’s never going to have a “mission accomplished” celebration moment. And I think that women have to keep working and striving to be actively part of the diversity movement and to become leaders to help others through the door, and rise to positions of power.
Being a woman.
I think there are definitely unique stories that serve as obstacles and challenges specifically for this industry, but I believe that women face in every industry the same stereotypes that keep them from advancing and succeeding. There’s blatant sexism in tech. There’s blatant sexism in society. People like to say we’re all working to be inclusive, but reality shows that there are biases and prejudice actively expressed every day.
I just go back to those moments (at school, during my past career in publishing, and now in tech) when someone will come up to me and brazenly ask (as if there should be an answer): Do you even belong here?
I believe that current leadership, sitting in that C-Suite strata – must do everything possible to support women and keep women in the tech industry.
Tips & tricks
Dear women who want a career in tech, please join us! We need you. We need more energy and support. Those who have been working (and fighting) in this industry take heart and inspiration from the women just starting their career. And we need fresh ideas and perspectives to help evolve this industry to become better than it is today.
There are challenges, there are bad people, but there are also good people and so many opportunities to shape tech into something that makes our lives better.
Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:
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- How to avoid the culture of male programmers
- Creating an equal playing field is about more than just teaching someone coding skills
- The more women you see in STEM, the less intimidating it is for others to join
- The tech industry tends to lose women along the way. Change is underway
- How to get (and stay) into the tech industry: Tips & tricks for women
- Transitioning into a tech career? Silicon Valley culture is one of the biggest initial obstacles
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