An executive tells women that it’s okay to stand out in a male-dominated industry — people will remember you. And she advises managers that having a diverse workplace pays off

(This contributed article is by Natasha Lala, vice-president of engineering and operations at Toronto-based Oanda Corp., an online currency trading site.)

Arguably, women working in the technology industry may still face an uphill climb on the mountain of gender equality, but knowledge, confidence, and strong self-esteem can be powerful attributes to counter this challenge.

Although I have read about some women’s negative workplace experiences, I’m fortunate in that I have mostly had positive experiences throughout my career in tech. The few negative experiences barely register, in large part due to the role models who guided me at an early age.

I have found that it’s good to be different, and that as a woman working in a male-dominated industry, it’s okay to stand out in a crowd. Technology will likely continue to be male-dominated for years to come, so women will have to look for advantages as they present themselves.

For instance, I’ve found in both social and professional situations people will often recognize and remember you. If you find yourself in that situation, embrace it. That difference can be your fast track to visibility with your superiors.

Look at Where the Jobs Are

Technology offers excellent career opportunities in almost every business or industry. Companies need tech-savvy people and leaders, even if those businesses are not a pure technology play. Tech is also a constantly evolving and challenging career. Where you start is not where you’ll end up.

And there are more opportunities available today for women to build a rewarding career in tech at a time when statistics show organizations can’t fill science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) positions fast enough.

According to KPCB general partner Mary Meeker’s annual “Internet Trends” report for 2013, “America has a shortage of high skilled STEM workers”. The same report highlights five high tech companies that can’t seem to hire enough engineers: “IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and Qualcomm have a combined 10,000 current job openings in the U.S.”

And though it’s not all wine and roses, a separate global survey conducted in April 2013 by online staffing platform Elance finds 80 percent of female respondents from more than 7,000 participants are “optimistic about the future of women in technology.” When asked what technical skills they wished they had or intend to possess in the next 12 months, website design, programming, and mobile applications development were among those at the top of the list. This is an encouraging trend.

Mentoring Girls Early is Critical

During a Q&A session with attendees at the Google I/O 2013 developers’ conference following his keynote speech, co-founder Larry Page remarked that in order for more women to forge successful careers in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field, “we have to start early and make sure we have more young women and girls excited about technology. If we do that, we’ll more than double the rate of progress we have in the technology world.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Page’s comment. The technology field requires a lot of schooling. At an early age, you do have to encourage girls to care about technology and to get involved, particularly since that’s when they are more likely to be intimidated by others.

The one person who had a big influence on me is my mother. She didn’t have any formal math or technical training, but my father encouraged her to take computer programming courses in college. Upon completing her studies she got into database and mainframe programming, and she found she was quite good at it. As she relayed to me, in the 1970s there were literally no women to be found working in her field. With my mother serving as my role model, and my father encouraging me to pursue math and science, it never occurred to me that a career in software development would ever be a problem because of my gender.

In terms of career advancement, there’s no shortage of research that suggests having a higher proportion of women in executive positions can help increase a company’s operating margins and its total return to shareholders. Nevertheless, at organizations where the number of women in senior positions may be stagnating, it might be worthwhile to make women’s advancement a formal governance priority, to identify emerging women leaders within its ranks, and/or to establish companywide family-friendly policies for both genders to take advantage of. Implementing steps like these might just help to change workplace perceptions and help balance the promotions playing field.

Why a Diverse Workplace Matters

Recently, I attended an event that reminded me why I fell in love with science and technology at an early age and how workplace diversity is critical to an organization’s long-term success.

Building on our local technology community outreach efforts, Oanda is a sponsor of Girl Geeks Toronto. This informal meet-up group brings together women and men working in all areas of technology to discuss a wide array of tech-related topics. Sponsoring Girl Geeks Toronto is near and dear to my heart, because as a woman working in a senior technical leadership role, it is clear that gender has never been a barrier to my advancement.

As a general practice, diversity in any business brings unique perspectives that foster a balanced, holistic approach to organizational growth. In fact, one could argue that in the context of a global technology company, diversity in your workforce is a matter of survival in the same way that diversity in our gene pool ensures the human race is less susceptible to a single virus or disease that could wipe out the entire species.

I think the formula for success in the modern age looks like this: smart, dedicated people + a diverse team = a sustainable technology advantage for any organization.

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