Women in Tech: “Diversity isn’t a debate, it’s reality”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Two years ago, 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 Laurie Barth, Staff Software Engineer on the GatsbyJS Learning Team.
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?
Two years ago, 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 Laurie Barth, Staff Software Engineer on the GatsbyJS Learning Team.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Laurie Barth
Laurie is a Staff Software Engineer on the GatsbyJS Learning Team as well as a conference speaker, egghead instructor and member of the TC39 Educators committee. As a technical blogger, Laurie is a contributor to various publications, including CSS Tricks and Smashing Magazine. When she isn’t writing code you can find her playing board games and eating cupcakes with her puppy, Avett.
What first got you interested in tech?
In high school I had to take a required computer class. One of our first projects was to code a little turtle that moved around the screen drawing things based on the path it traveled. We were meant to code 7 letters of the alphabet…I coded all 26. It was fun for me! But for some reason, I thought that was a fluke. That it didn’t count as real coding.
I continued to love math and puzzles through the years. Things that I now realize are closely related to technology. But it wasn’t until late in my college career that an internship boss pushed me to take a Computer Science 101 course in college. I loved that course, and started to fall in love with coding and technology. I took a bit of a detour before finally becoming a software engineer, but it was the right path for me.
How did you end up in your career path?
That intro computer science class prompted me to get a minor in CS. However, my first job was as a program manager in the technology space. It took me a few years to realize I wanted to be doing the work instead of managing it.
What obstacles did you have to overcome?
Companies focus on women in tech as a pipeline problem. They invest in programs for kids to learn to code, or scholarships for students, etc. But that’s always felt like the easy way out. They can support changes without actually having to make any changes.
I was lucky that I didn’t encounter many obstacles once I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a developer. However, I had some internal strife at various points. For a long time, I didn’t think I was geeky enough or smart enough to work in computer science. I bought into the stereotype and the fact that I didn’t meet it. I was too outgoing, and bubbly, and I had interests outside of tech. It turns out, that’s what made me most valuable once I entered the industry.
Did you receive support from your family and friends?
I had an extended family member that worked in the industry and pushed me to enter it as a developer, instead of an analyst or other business role. But beyond that, none of my family knew much about tech at all. They didn’t give me advice in one way or another.
Early on in my career I had a handful of bosses that I really looked up to. However, it wasn’t until I became part of the larger tech community that I found people I’d consider role models. There were great speakers, great bloggers, great teachers and I valued the impact that I had on the industry. I looked up to them and still do.
Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
No one ever stopped me. But I certainly left jobs over the years because it was clear I couldn’t progress much further. In those roles, I had a ceiling and that ceiling wasn’t high enough for me.
To this day, I’ve made hard decisions in my career, but I’ve never regretted them. It can be easy to stay where you’re comfortable. We like what we know. But I’ve found that growth requires risk. Not reckless choices, but calculated decisions to push myself out of my comfort zone.
As it turns out, there are a lot of people who will encourage you to take those risks. And maybe a few who won’t think you’re ready. But only you can make that decision.
A day in Laurie’s life
Realistically no day is the same. But it’s also a new role for me, so I’m still exploring! Some days I write, some days I speak, some days I’m in meetings, some days I do nothing but code. It all depends. But what I love is that it’s a product I’m excited about and a role where I can focus on teaching.
What are you most proud of in your career?
If we don’t have diversity on our teams we’ll only build for people like those in the engineering room.
That’s a hard one. I love the blogging and speaking I’ve been able to do. I see both of those as opportunities to teach others and I feel confident I’ve done that.
I’d also say I’m proud of the relationships I’ve created within the industry. I’ve worked for small companies over the years and meeting people outside of those roles required me to make the effort. I can genuinely say I’ve done that, and I count many of those people as close friends now. They’re the people who make my job and experiences in this community enjoyable.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
We don’t do a great job of keeping women in the industry. Plenty show an interest, plenty enter, but many leave. This affects everyone else. When you don’t see people in positions of power that look like you, it increases the likelihood that you’ll leave as well.
It’s frustrating because it seems most companies focus on women in tech as a pipeline problem. They invest in programs for kids to learn to code, or scholarships for students, etc. But that’s always felt like the easy way out. They can support changes without actually having to make any changes within their organization.
The reality of keeping more women in tech means making changes to how we assess and reward impact in companies. It means handling toxic situations instead of sweeping them under the rug. And it means changing the type of work-life balance we tend to glorify.
Could you name a few challenges women in tech face?
Lack of upward mobility is a big one. Toxic environments is another. And both of these center on a root cause of what we value in this industry. Things like “glue work”, communication, mentorship, those are all critical skills. However, we focus on rewarding male coded leadership skills, expert tool users, etc. This means teams are held together by people who don’t receive recognition. Promotions go to people who are contributing to harmful cultures. And we end up with management at the top that further enforces these decisions.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
I’d like to think diversity of thought would make tech less harmful and more representative of its user base. Things like the original Apple watch not taking into account pregnancy, or Amazon’s hiring AI throwing out applications by women come to mind.
It’s natural to center on our own experience. But as developers we build for everyone. And if we don’t have diversity on our teams we’ll only build for people like those in the engineering room.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
It pains me to hear that diversity can ever be a discussion. It isn’t a debate, it’s reality. All industries should represent a wide swath of the population. Especially an industry like technology that has a stake in every other industry. When it’s staffed with people who all look, think and act the same, we’re falling short of doing our job.
What advice would you give to women who want a career in tech?
Foster genuine relationships. Having a community of people who know you is invaluable. They’ll be the best people to bounce ideas off of, ask for advice, and pick you up when you’re frustrated.
Entering the tech industry is one hurdle, but that community may keep you in it. And right now, that seems like the bigger concern.
Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:
- Women in Tech: “Having more women in tech opens up the door to a more equal world”
- Women in Tech: Alyssa Simpson Rochwerger – “Accept opportunities, know your worth, and find mentors”
- Women in Tech: Hanna Stacey – “Diversity drives innovation.”
- Women in tech: Danuta Florczyk – “Professional competence against inequality — a perfect tool”
- Women in tech: Lina Zubyte – “We are building so many biases into technology”