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10 Tips for Female CS&E Grads

The transition from college to career is challenging — it helps to be prepared.

Posted on March 27, 2016.
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The transition from college to career is challenging — and for many female computer science and engineering (CS&E) graduates it can feel particularly daunting to be entering a field often dominated by men. It helps to be prepared. These 10 tips for college grads, curated from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In for Graduates, will help you identify and interrupt gender bias from your first impression through interviewing, negotiating your salary, and beyond.

Tip 1: Adopt the mantra “Proceed and be bold”

Being bold is especially important for women because we often fear putting ourselves out there. Men will apply for jobs if they think they meet just 60 percent of the job requirements, while women will apply only if they think they meet all of them. Now who’s got a better chance of getting that job—the man who applies for it or the woman who doesn’t? Exactly.

Adopt the same principle for opportunities at work. Let your manager know you’re interested in stretch assignments and keep your eyes open for projects that will allow you to make your mark. Shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that—and I’ll learn by doing it.”

Tip 2: Shift from a “what do I get?” to a “what can I offer?” mindset

Most job seekers fall into the trap of focusing on what an organization will do for them, when putting the company’s needs front and center is what really gets you noticed.

At every step in your job search, look for other opportunities to make a good impression. Weave a surprising fact or figure or recent news article into your cover letter to make it clear you’ve done your research. During interviews, go above and beyond what’s expected. For example, find out if the company hosts hack days to improve its products or services. If so, pitch a few ideas you have.

As a CS&E graduate, you will likely face a series of technical interviews. This style of interview may seem intimidating, but with a little preparation, you’ll be able to stay calm and talk through your answers. Check out these training modules from the Anita Borg Institute to get started, and make sure you practice responding to technical questions with your peers. Role playing will help you know what to expect. And don’t assume good answers are enough; think ahead and prepare thoughtful questions.

Tip 3: Negotiate—wisely!

The wage gap starts early. A recent study found that women in their first year out of college were paid eighty-two cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. In order to get paid what you are worth, learn to negotiate effectively.

You won’t get what you don’t ask for, so make it a rule to negotiate. But before you do, understand how stereotypes impact negotiations. We expect men to be assertive and look out for themselves, so there’s little downside when they advocate on their own behalf. In contrast, we expect women to be communal and collaborative, so when they advocate for themselves, we—both men and women—often react unfavorably.

One strategy to combat this is to use communal language; women get better results when they emphasize a concern for organizational relationships. For example, you might say, “If I join the team, I will do my best to contribute to its success. It’s important that my salary reflects the education and skills that will enable me to do this.” Another way to demonstrate a connection to others is to ground the negotiation in gender pay issues: “Given that women are generally paid less than men, we would both be disappointed if I didn’t negotiate for myself.”

Tip 4: Break long-term goals into short-term steps

Figure out what your long-term goal is—and don’t be afraid to think big! You might be passionate about UX design, becoming a senior leader at your company, writing efficient code, or creating apps that help people. These goals can feel daunting, so start by breaking them down into concrete steps you can take in the next year. For example, if you want to be VP of engineering some day, a great first step is to ask a current VP of engineering for an informational meeting to find out more about her career path.

Make sure that whatever you do, you continue to learn and grow. Start by asking, “How can I improve?” If you reflect on what slows you down, or what you’re scared to try, you’ll uncover valuable opportunities to build new strengths.

Focus on your goals, but stay flexible and open to new and unexpected paths. Women are less likely to take risks than men, but playing it safe holds you back. Seek out diverse experiences, especially if they’ll add new skills to your toolkit. The more weapons you have in your arsenal, the more likely you are to eventually reach your goal!

Tip 5: Sit at the table

It can be hard to feel confident when you’re just starting your career—and research shows it’s even harder for women. Men still dominate the computer science and engineering field, which can make female engineers feel like outliers on their teams. Also, women tend to underestimate their performance, while men tend to overestimate theirs. And while men attribute their success to innate skills, women often point to external factors like luck and help from others.

It’s difficult to change the way you feel, but you can change the way you think and act. When you walk into a meeting feeling insecure, remind yourself that you’ve earned your position. Then take a seat at the table, raise your hand, and surprise yourself. Likewise, when you’re faced with a challenge, remember that the man sitting next to you likely thinks he can do it. Odds are he’s right, and you can do it too. When you push past your insecurities and go for it, you gain more confidence, which leads to more opportunities.

Tip 6: Listen to your inner voice

As you shift from college to the workplace, your inner voice can serve as a powerful guide. It’s okay to freak out, worry, and wonder as you make the transition into the real world, but don’t let the opinions and voices of others drown out your own. Once you start tuning into what you think and feel, and what you truly care about, you can begin to forge your own path.

Your inner voice can help you figure out the answer to all kinds of questions: Do I want to apply for this job? Do I really want to live in this city? Practice listening to it—for example, the next time you have a conflict with a friend, find the courage to speak openly about how you feel. Each time you listen to your inner voice and act on it, you build a skill that will help you get closer to leading the life you truly want.

Tip 7: Don’t ask “Will you be my mentor?

Too many young women start with the question “Will you be my mentor?” If you have to ask the question, the answer is probably no. Studies show that mentors select protégés based on their performance and potential. So shift your thinking from “If I get a mentor, I’ll excel” to “If I excel, I’ll get a mentor.” And remember, mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback.

Despite young women’s best efforts, it’s harder for them to find mentors—men end up gravitating toward other men, and since there are more men in senior roles, women miss out. Fortunately, peers can be just as effective at offering guidance, and you can tap into the power of peer support by starting or joining a Circle in the Lean In Computer Science & Engineering Chapter. These Circles consist of like-minded, small peer groups that meet regularly to harness the experience and creativity of all their members. Research shows we’re more confident and are able to learn and accomplish more in groups. And we hear almost daily from members who’ve asked for a raise or taken on a new challenge with the support of their Circle.

Tip 8: Understand and challenge gender bias

Women walk a tightrope between being seen as competent and being well liked. If a woman is competent, she doesn’t seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she doesn’t seem as competent. This complicates everything, because at the same time that women need to sit at the table and own their success, doing so causes them to be less liked. Ask yourself: Who is more likely to get promoted, the man with high marks across the board or the woman who has equally high marks but is “just not as well liked”?

We don’t mean to do it, but we all fall into gender bias traps that disadvantage women. The good news is that awareness begets fairness, and small adjustments can make a big difference. You can comfort yourself with the fact that bias is not personal and learn to have thick skin and move on quickly. Women can team up and advocate for one another. When you reinforce another woman’s good ideas or highlight her accomplishments, you both benefit. If you hear a woman called “aggressive” or “not well liked,” you can find out exactly what she did and ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?”

Tip 9: Make your partner a real partner

The most important career decision you’re going to make is whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is. If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go farther.

Research shows that couples who split childcare and housework evenly have lower divorce rates and that children with involved fathers do better socially, academically, emotionally, and even professionally. Date whomever you like, but when it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner—and that means doing half the work at home.

Tip 10: Don’t leave before you leave

Without realizing it, many women start making career decisions based on family responsibilities they do not yet have. They turn down projects, don’t apply for promotions, or choose more flexible paths—all to make room for children they don’t yet have, in many cases with partners they’ve not yet met.

Don’t fall into this trap. Keep as many options open until the moment you need to make a choice. Instead of slowing down for fear of what’s ahead, keep your foot on the gas pedal until you have to make a decision. If you go for it, odds are you’ll end up in a more fulfilling position with more flexibility. And if anyone, including that voice in your head, insists you must choose between work and family, remember that men routinely assume they can have both—and you should too.

Congratulations, graduate! As a female CS&E grad, you’ve already overcome stereotypes and are well on your way to achieving your ambitions. It’s hard to feel like “the only one” on any team, but there’s strength in numbers. Connect with thousands of CS&E students and professionals by joining LeanIn.Org’s CS&E Circle Hub, Facebook Group, and LinkedIn Group. You’ll get free access to more tips, live webinars, and updates on events in your local area. When we come together to support one another, we go further faster.

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