Women face barriers in nearly every professional setting. However, some sectors of government are more challenging than others, especially when they employ a dominantly male workforce and require skillsets traditionally associated with men. Civic tech is one of those sectors.
Jill Melnicki, as a technology consultant in state and local government, offers a unique perspective on the experiences of women in both the public sector and technology fields. She explained why she sees a real need to have more women participate in both.
First, she said that without leading examples women will continue to feel alienated from advancement. “Women make up almost half of the workforce, but I don’t see anywhere close to half of the top [government] positions being held by women,” she said. “It can be helpful to see people who are like us in a position that we might be interested in, in order to emulate what they’re doing.”
Additionally, Melnicki said that increasing female participation in citizen-centric design projects helps government better serve its mission. “It’s really a matter of utility. The more people we have in the room, the more diverse recommendations we have to create a lasting solution. If you don’t have everybody at the table, you might come up with a solution that just falls flat,” she said. “If we, as a country and as a government, want to be cutting edge, we have to enlist the creativity and different points of view of everyone.”
Given her assertion, we asked Melnicki if she had any tips for women who do want to lead the charge, and get involved in the tech side of government. She offered four pieces of advice:
1. Take your place at the table
First, Melnicki said that you have to put yourself out there. “Join the networks, the conversations, the panel discussions. If you have a chance to go out, go. If there’s something coming up, ask if you can speak at it,” she said.
This might be a particularly challenging task for women, given that the tech field is traditionally male-dominated. Nevertheless, taking a seat at the table will gain you recognition in the field and may even lead to opportunities for further involvement. “A lot of positions become available through networks, through people we know,” explained Melnicki. Asserting yourself as a player in the sector you want to work in is the first step to making that image a reality.
2. Round out your skill set
While networking in your desired field, Melnicki said women should simultaneously build a skillset that will prepare them for any opportunities they find: “Everyone needs to define what they have to offer. [Women] need to take stock of what their skills are. They need to know who they are, what their strengths are, and then they need to go out and sell it.”
In the technology sector of government, coding may seem like the priority skill to attain. However, Melnicki has found that other assets are equally important to success. “For instance, I would recommend adding negotiation ability to your regular set of technical skills,” she said.
No matter what field you’re trying to enter, focus on building both core and value-added abilities in order to offer a unique skillset to potential employers and partners. Then, market those abilities.
3. Secure your support group
Building yourself and your profile are crucial to personal success, but that doesn’t mean you have to advance in your career alone. “This is not easy, so it’s good to have champions that you know will support you unconditionally,” said Melnicki.
A support group provides needed backup when women face professional challenges in a difficult, male-dominated field. They can also offer advice and a different perspective to problems as they arise.
However, Melnicki said that even as women seek mentors to support challenges unique to their gender, they shouldn’t be closed to the support of male colleagues in their desired field. “Support can come in the form of a women’s group or from other key people—including men. It’s really just anyone who will be there for her if she needs it,” she said.
4. Stay alert to overt or covert sexism
Finally, Melnicki impressed the importance of knowing what discrimination looks like and how it can negatively impact your career. While many barriers to women’s advancement in the civic technology sector—things like gender-biased hiring or verbal disparagement of women—are obvious, other damaging behaviors are less overt. “Small or large instances of sexism can be detrimental to your career potential so you need to be ready to act, to address it as soon as it occurs,” said Melnicki.
For instance, being interrupted mid-sentence during a design meeting may seem like a standard aspect of creative sessions. You’re brainstorming, after all. Yet it may be the case that women are more often interrupted, as Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant point out in this article, and therefore have less input in the outcome of the design session. The first step to remedying this inequality and making yourself heard is to learn to recognize gender bias in the workplace.
For a full biography of Jill Melnicki, please reference her LinkedIn profile.