November 2, 2023 | Diversity & Access

Women Builders in Tech: A 2023 Outlook

Martina Lauchengco

Written by

Martina Lauchengco

I had a meeting recently with a Chief Product Officer. When she joined the company, she was one of three female executives. She joked “With each woman who leaves, two guys replace her.” 

She’s now the only woman among eight.

While her situation is stark, it’s important to put progress in perspective. Costanoa has put on Seat @ the Table events for six years, and in that time, there have been real gains for women in the workplace. 

In senior leadership, women are 1 in 4 C-suite leaders compared to 1 in 5 back when we started. In the “broken rung”–the first level of management–87 women now get promoted for every 100 men, compared to 77 women for every 100 men just 7 years ago. This comes from awareness and real diligence on the part of everyone hiring and creating more balanced company cultures. 

But that’s women in the workplace writ large. The reality for most women in tech is more complicated. 

For women builders–those with product or engineering backgrounds and especially women builders of color–rooms look much more like that CPO’s: they’re the only one like them in the room. The hardship is real and can feel lonely, even when they embrace their importance as role models for others.

It’s even more stark when it comes to female founders: only 2.3% of venture capital goes to all-female founding teams and 10.4% for mixed-gender founding teams. These numbers have stayed at this average for the last 30 years. This, despite female-founded ventures performing as well as male-founded ones, controlling for relevant variables like sector, market, experience and hours worked.

And yet, each year, our Seat @ the Table and Women Builders events fill us with hope. Over 600 people directly participated or became a part of our community. They love that our speakers’ stories are honest, unscripted and raw. People tell us they see themselves or what their future could look like, and they appreciate a safe space to keep it real with fellow builders. And because of this, women feel assured that while the work and path for women builders is hard, they’re not alone. And, it’s worth it. 

The next generation of talented women leaders–those willing to make that first leap into management or daring to become a founder–see the opportunity ahead and the community that’s here to support them.

Here are highlights from what we’ve heard in 2023 that keep us optimistic.

Building is deeply creative 

  • Starting a company is being creative to the max and embracing what’s new.
  • Builders apply creativity every day–in how they build products, problem solve and the solutions they explore.
  • Don’t expect the connection between solutions and problems to be easy. Making non-obvious connections is creative and also makes you stand out.

Have your squad. Everyone else matters less. Feedback is how you grow.

  • There are two kinds of feedback: feedback that helps you grow and feedback intended to put you in your place. Ignore the second.
  • How do you know which is which? By having a trusted squad who can help you find the truth in it. Sometimes we don’t like what we hear but there is truth in it. Just because it’s negative doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Dig into it. Separate situational feedback from something caused by your environment.
  • Show openness to learning new things. Everything in tech changes so quickly, the most important skills are the ability to learn, adapt and have a flexible mindset about your job.
  • Be careful who you take advice from. Even when it’s well intentioned. You have to have your own true north, so when no one else believes, you know why you do what you do.
  • Use your sponsors to overcome inevitable obstacles or be a sponsor to help someone overcome obstacles.

No one is perfect. Accept you’ll make mistakes. How dare you have imposter syndrome.

  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s when growth happens.
  • Give yourself grace to make mistakes. You will make many along the way. It’s simply part of the journey.
  • Your impact is bigger than your title. Sticking it out and confronting obstacles through candid feedback and discussion yields enormous benefits, not just for you, but it inspires others.
  • If you’ve done the work and are prepared, how dare you limit yourself. How dare you have imposter syndrome. Your degree or background shouldn’t limit you if you’re doing the work.
  • Increase your funnel of information and allow yourself to fail. 
  • 80-85% right most of the time is about as good as it gets ever for anyone.
  • It’s okay to take care of your family and yourself.

On making those first leaps to management or trying something different

  • Think of moves as a series of small pilots. Iterating and learning is more rewarding than the discomfort or fear of the unknown.
  • It’s okay to be in denial about wanting to manage people. Programming is predictable. People aren’t. But that’s also what makes it fascinating, unexpectedly rewarding and fun. You’re able to accomplish more through others than you ever can just through yourself.
  • Showing excitement for what you’re working on – no matter what it is – is how you stand out and also how you learn to build the really cool stuff.
  • Stay curious.

Go all in if you want to found a company. 

  • There is never a perfect time, but don’t do it unless you’re ready to run through walls for your company.
  • You’re modeling choice, courage, and risk-taking for others, including your kids (if you have any).
  • Talk to lots of people! Angels, other founders, VCs. Everyone wants to help. Take advantage.
  • It’s about product market founder fit. Be honest with yourself on what your motivation is.
  • There are a lot of unqualified people starting companies. If you’re driving yourself crazy trying to decide if you should, just do it or don’t. But stop sitting on the sidelines.
  • Culture eats strategy for lunch.
  • Choose where you do it for the diversity, the energy and the perspective you can maintain while you’re building your company. You want to feel inspired by what and who surrounds you.
  • Surround yourself with only the best people, but also don’t get hung up on perfection (remember, it’s not possible).
  • Don’t hire anyone who hasn’t failed before. You don’t want them learning resilience on your dime.

This year’s speakers lit a spark for everyone who attended our S@T Women Builder events. We are grateful they shared so much of their life experiences for others to learn from. 

With deepest gratitude to:

As the year comes to a close, we encourage everyone reading this to put some of this advice into practice or be an ally in helping others progress toward whatever their next seat @ a table is.

If you’re a Woman Builder (eng/product/ML) and want to continue the conversation, we welcome you to join it at: https://bit.ly/Women-Builders-Slack

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