How Alaina Percival Helps Tech Companies Close the Gender Gap
Hiring women is just the start. To truly close the gap, women must be retained, empowered and promoted.
Eight years ago, Alaina Percival transitioned from a career in women's footwear to the tech world, joining an industry where men hold four out of every five C-suite positions.
After overcoming her own imposter syndrome, she quickly rose to the top of non-profit organization Women Who Code, which supports women in the tech space through its wide network and its leadership program. As CEO, Percival encourages and inspires other women who are looking to break into a career in technology, and gives tech companies guidance on how to hire and retain more female employees.
Below, she explains why hiring more women for tech roles only solves part of the problem. To truly close the gender gap, organizations must also promote high-performing female employees and work tirelessly to eliminate unconscious bias.
MSF Hub: What led you to tech and Women Who Code?
Alaina Percival: I started my career working for Puma in Germany. When I moved back to the United States, I went to work for a small women's performance footwear company, launching products that were competing with giants like Nike and Mizuno. I had to really think outside of the box, which helped me develop a startup mentality.
When I moved out to the Bay Area about eight years ago, I was surrounded by tech companies and decided to give tech a try—but I realized that my skills didn't immediately translate. I started learning to code and getting involved in the tech community. Women Who Code was just coming to fruition, and I knew it had something amazing to offer.
I started to devote more time to Women Who Code and eventually moved into a leadership position there. I had to overcome my own imposter syndrome in doing so, because even though I knew how to code and had worked on some side projects, I wasn't a professional software engineer. But I knew if I stepped up and worked full-time to build the organization, I would help bring more success to the community.
I had to overcome my own imposter syndrome in doing so, because even though I knew how to code and had worked on some side projects, I wasn't a professional software engineer. But I knew if I stepped up and worked full-time to build the organization, I would help bring more success to the community.
— Alaina Percival, CEO, Women Who Code
MSF Hub: What are some of the challenges that women face when starting a career in technology?
Percival: Women don't just face challenges when they're entering the tech industry; they face them throughout their careers. Women are just as excited as men to succeed when they graduate. But as they move along in their careers, women report feeling like they're hitting plateaus just as their male colleagues' careers are accelerating. This stems from an unconscious bias that many people share—that men simply make better leaders.
MSF Hub: What can companies do to overcome unconscious bias, and how does Women Who Code help them?
Percival: The first step is acknowledging that it exists. And then you need to think about it on an ongoing basis. There's no training that organizations can just do once and check a box. It's something companies need to be working toward every day.
Companies often think a lot about hiring. But it's also important to think about retaining and promoting women within their organizations. We work directly with companies to help them identify where their leadership needs are and to help them recruit high-potential employees.
For example, Women Who Code has a job board that companies can use. Besides being a place where companies can post open positions that reach our community of 137,000 technical professionals, the job board also houses useful content, such as best practices for hiring, and pairs our members with opportunities to take the next steps in their careers.
MSF Hub: Can you share an example of how Women Who Code has helped its members?
Percival: Women Who Code helps women to achieve goals that are in their purview, but at a much more rapid pace. We are the largest and most active community of technical women in the world, and I'm most proud of our leadership program, which is a skills-based volunteer program that prepares women for leadership roles at their full-time jobs by giving them opportunities to lead within our organization.
What we've seen happen when women step into leadership positions here is dramatic career acceleration. It opens up a direct channel of communication with executives inside of their organizations, and it typically results in pay increases as well as rapid promotion.
Our director in Toronto, for example, jumped two rungs up the corporate ladder at her full-time job less than a year after joining our leadership program. It's those stories that make me most proud of our organization.