Meet Allison Esposito, Founder of Tech Ladies

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Allison Esposito is the founder of Tech Ladies, a community that connects women with the best opportunities in tech, and connects companies with the best women techmakers. Prior to founding Tech Ladies (initially as a small coffee meetup in NYC), Allison worked at startups and tech companies including Google and Foursquare. Now the community she started has almost 7,000 members and hosts events across the country. We chatted this past week about sexism in the tech world, keeping Tech Ladies accessible to all women, and simple action items men can take to promote gender equality at work. 

1. I wanted to start by taking a step backwards, and asking about your experience before you started Tech Ladies. When you were working full-time in tech, how did you see sexism manifest?

In all of the obvious ways that you read about. A lot of people have joined Tech Ladies because they see sexism playing out in everything from the wage gap to microaggressions in meetings. None of it is exaggerated. A lot of issues I’ve seen for women in tech, though, are issues for women at work in general. Before I was in tech (I’ve been working in tech for 6 years), I worked for the New York State government, and in journalism, and at a college doing marketing. Sexism happens everywhere. I’m glad people talk about them in tech, because the gender disparity is just so large in the industry. But it’s interesting to remember that we can get overly wrapped up in the tech world.

2. What’s the #1 downplayed form of sexism you’ve noticed in tech and beyond?

I think it depends which spheres you run in. If you’re a woman who works in tech and you follow the right people on Twitter, you’ll see stories about sexism come up. If you’re not -- if you’re a woman who doesn’t work in NY or SF, but works at a smaller tech company where you’re the only woman on the team -- you might have different questions. Maybe you’ll wonder if you should speak up about the sexist things happening at work. With Tech Ladies, this comes up over and over and over. The media will spill a bunch of ink every now and then on the pay gap or gender disparity, but they aren’t digging into what it’s like to be a woman at work everyday. If anything is downplayed, it’s how hard this still is in America in 2017.

3. What do you do when you encounter people who deny sexism? 

Here’s some advice I just gave. One woman told me a story where her colleagues were saying ridiculously sexist things, like straight out of a sexual harassment video from the '80s. She was wondering if she should unleash her inner feminist or shut her mouth and keep working, because she needed the paycheck. She was only planning to stay a few more months. The advice I gave her is that you really have to figure out who you are as a person, and what you want to do about the sexism you encounter.

If you don’t feel empowered to speak up, and you would lose more than you’d gain by doing so, it’s ok to decide to stay quiet.

My advice in general, as a founder, is not necessarily to speak up. We can’t tell women that’s what they need to do. It’s very personal. It’s your career. We need to decide for ourselves what we can live with, and there’s no judgment. If you don’t feel empowered to speak up, and you would lose more than you’d gain by doing so, it’s ok to decide to stay quiet. Earlier in my career, I stayed at a job I had for months while I was being sexually harassed, because I needed the paycheck. I would have lost my job by speaking up. So at Tech Ladies we understand this stuff is really personal, and we’re here to support you. We’ll even help you find a new job if you need one. That’s one reason why we built our jobs board -- because if things go south, you will need a Plan B.

4. I love the non-judgmental nature of your advice. When it comes to featuring employers on your jobs board, do you filter companies based on levels of female-friendliness and anti-sexism?

The first thing we do is get recommendations from our community. If a woman in our groups says, “My company is great, and we’re looking to hire more female engineers,” or, “My company is great, and I love my boss, but I’m the only woman and we want more,” -- that’s a great place to start. We’re not only looking for companies that are already 50/50 in terms of gender split. A lot of companies just aren’t there. Some companies come to us after starting a diversity initiative, and that’s a big signifier that they’re a fit. Of course we make sure all the jobs are really in a tech field, and that they’re in line with our brand. We reject companies that feel really “off.”

There are a couple of other groups -- InHerSight and Fairygodboss -- that are solving the problem of collecting employer reviews and crunching data. It’s good to know we can cross-reference an unbiased and crowdsourced platform. 

5. How has the mission of Tech Ladies evolved since you started working on the company full-time?

We’ve grown really fast in past few months since I started full-time, though I was already working like crazy when I was part-time. Right now, all the things we want to do with Tech Ladies, we are either doing or are in the baby phases of doing. That includes getting our job board up and running, pairing people to actual jobs, and hosting volunteer events. Currently, we organize events for NYC and SF, but we let volunteer organizers put on events in different areas.

If you’re job hunting, you shouldn’t need to pay to view jobs, so 100% of our job postings are free to access.

Earlier this month, we also released a founding membership package. We have close to 7,000 members now, so we wanted a smaller spin-off group with a paid memberships tier. We just onboarded 180 members, which is the perfect size. We want to know everybody’s names. That intimacy won’t last forever, but it’s nice to know who our first founding members are. We’ll open up membership again for a week later this year.

6. How have you managed to maintain accessibility within Tech Ladies while trying to earn a profit from your company?

We thought a lot what should be free vs. what should be paid. We were really nervous when we announced the founding membership, but people were overwhelmingly supportive. They understand it costs thousands of dollars a month to keep Tech Ladies running. The question is then: What do we want to offer to everyone with a lower barrier? If you’re job hunting, you shouldn’t need to pay to view jobs, so 100% of our job postings are free to access. We also host a lot of free events. We figured out we could really have one paid arm of Tech Ladies funding another, more accessible arm. We decided that if you really want to take your networking to the next level and you’re in a position to pay, Tech Ladies should have something for you. If you’re not in that position, you need to have Tech Ladies too. After deciding what was most important to keep free, we figured out what was really time-consuming -- partnerships, negotiating deals for members, giving 1:1 intros -- and put that into the paid tier.

7. I’ve also noticed that some of your events are co-ed. What’s the rationale there?

We have a lot of guys who reach out, asking to help. And although there’s something so great about female energy, as we saw with the marches, when I look back on my own career I realize that a lot of people who helped me step up the ladder were men. There are a lot of men in tech, who are still largely running the show. You have to network with men to take your career to the next level. Tech Ladies doesn’t want to leave them out, but we also don’t want to leave behind our identity as group for women. Co-ed events was our answer to the question of how we involve men while remaining a group for woman-identified members.

8. So let’s say I’m a guy, and I work at a large company or at a startup. Tomorrow, when I go to work, what are 3 things I can do (or not do) to advance gender equality among my colleagues?

This is such a good question! Number one would definitely be trying to pay attention in meetings. Really start to look at where women are sitting. Offer for women to sit next to you if they’re in the back and you’re in the front. Ditto if you see a woman get interrupted and notice that it’s part of the culture where you work. Try to make a point to say, “Hey, so-and-so was talking. Let her finish her thought.” That’s a great way to support women, and so many guys at work have made gestures like that for me.

If you’re close to women at work, tell them your salary.

Another thing: if you’re close to women at work, tell them your salary and how you got it. I didn’t start asking for more money until I talked to my male friends at work and realized they were making so much more than me. I needed to set the bar higher for myself. There’s something about actually hearing the number from a guy who’s doing the same job as you. You need to know if they’re making $20k more.

Finally, as much as you can, have the backs of the women you work with. When I was being sexually harassed at work, I wanted someone to know, so I told a male colleague. I said something like, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed how my boss is acting, but it drives me crazy.” Just having my colleague know made it more bearable to get through the day. It was really good to have a guy at work who didn’t blame me or judge me for the situation, but just knew it was happening. So make it known that it’s ok for women to confide in you, and that you will be their friend.

9. And to wrap up: How can readers support Tech Ladies? We love what you're doing!

Join us at hiretechladies.com/join. We accept anyone who identifies as a woman, non-binary and trans included of course. You must work in tech. Although people email me all the time saying they want to offer free work, we made a commitment not to let women do free work for Tech Ladies. So no pro bono offers. The one exception are our volunteer organizers who want to host events in their own towns. If any readers want to volunteer to host an event, that’s an awesome way to get involved. Other than that, I’d say just be present in the community and be helpful to other women in there. Members post asks and offers in our Facebook group, so dive in and see how you can help.