Emma Colner took a more circuitous path to coding. While working on a doctorate in psychology, she found writing computer scripts to run experiments to be more fascinating than the experiments themselves. Colner is now a software engineer at Stitch Fix, a San Francisco-based startup that uses algorithms to personalize clothing options for women.
The company is founded and led by a female CEO and is heavily staffed by women, but Colner said she’s part of an engineering team that’s 75 percent male.
The disproportionate representation of female engineers at Salesforce and Stitch Fix is reflected across the industry. The roster of eBay's tech jobs includes 24 percent women, while Apple’s tally, which includes engineers and in-store tech-support positions, amounts to 20 percent.
At Twitter, women hold only one in 10 tech positions.
It can be both intimidating and lonely for women who find themselves in the minority as engineers. “I looked around me, at the people who already knew programming, and they were so much more advanced,” Zoe Madden-Wood said. “I didn't think that I could ever catch up.”
Madden-Wood got into tech without formal training. She studied Chinese and literature in college and only started diving into computer languages after graduating. Eventually, she learned about Women Who Code, a nonprofit organization that offers coding classes and serves as a forum for like-minded women to share tips and network.
"The excitement that I got from these groups, the positivity, really kept me going," Madden-Wood said. "It was what put me over the threshold to become a software engineer."
But getting started is apparently easier than staying with a career in tech. According to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau analysis, “Among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in a STEM occupation at twice the rate of women: 31 percent compared with 15 percent.”
Conversations about gender imbalance and a lack of advancement for women in Silicon Valley became a focal point in March, when former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers employee Ellen Pao lost a gender discrimination lawsuit against the venture-capital firm.
Sometimes the challenges are subtle, Madden-Wood said. “Women are interrupted more than men. I've felt that and nobody notices it,” she said. “I've felt like I had to work much harder to get noticed for my work."
While a lot has been said about why women drop out of tech -- from hostile work environments to a lack of advancement opportunities -- Colner said there are concrete ways to help women stay in.
At Stitch Fix, for example, Colner said there’s a clear path for promotion. “They've actually thought about a timeline for different milestones that I should hit, guiding me along the process,” she said. “I wish more companies would do that.”
Colner is also active as a recruiter for her employer, knowing that women are more likely to join a company that already employs other female engineers.
Still, not too infrequently, when she mentions that she’s a software engineer, there's a double take. “It's always a positive reaction,” Colner said. “But there is that moment of surprise.”