Dr Marily Nika is based in San Francisco. She has worked for Google HQ as a Technical Product Manager, also worked at Facebook and is now founding her own Machine Learning company. As a passionate advocate for women in tech, she is a mentor, an influencer through her three TEDx talks and the Director of the London Geekettes: a network that focuses on events aiming to inspire more women into the sector. Marily recently received the FDM everywoman in Tech 2018 Woman of the Year Award and in 2015 she received the WISE Influence Award. We talked to her about what it will take to achieve gender parity in the tech space and her optimism for the future. Know someone like Marily?
You talk of the need ‘normalise’ women in tech – how has the gender landscape changed since you have been working in the sector?
I started my technology journey ten years ago and I have to say that comparing the world now with then, it’s completely different. Ten years ago when I told my friends and colleagues that I wanted to apply to PhD programmes in a technical field they looked at me as if I was about to make a big mistake!
They told me that this was going to be really challenging, especially when it came to finding a job in this field as men are usually more ‘appealing’ for these jobs. I know that my friends and colleagues were coming from a good place, and they truly meant that I should reconsider, but these sort of interactions powered me, even more, to want to do this - and to do it well.
A decade later, I do see change. There are so many diversity-focused scholarship schemes and opportunities out there, unofficial and official networking and mentorship communities for women in STEM, as well as numerous inspiring individuals that have stood up over the years and that are shaping our world.
Obviously, we’re not there yet – if you look at conferences about technology and panels, the larger percentage of panel members is usually men and there are still salary gaps, but I do see a shift happening.
Silicon Valley’s very male culture has been in the spotlight recently with a number of high-profile books on it. Does Silicon Valley have to change first for the rest of the tech world to follow?
There are amazing tech hubs all over the world, especially in Europe. London is an amazing tech hub - Paris and Berlin are too. I feel that the shift is global and I’m very hopeful for the future.
Everyone everywhere should first and foremost focus on fully understanding the problem; listen to the stories, do the research and get educated on what is going on. I think a lot of people still don’t know the extent of the problem, but the fact that there are many avenues to openly discuss this is progress, I think.
Second, I feel if companies and start-ups want to take action they can increase the number and visibility of female leaders in their organisations; this will inspire and further motivate the younger generation.
Third, I am extremely passionate about mentorship for women, and I am setting up a company for this exact purpose: whether people are young, starting college or older workers who wish to change fields – mentorship can inspire and guide them through their journey.
In one of your TEDx talks you talk of the need for a “call for allegiance rather than a call for arms”. How important are male allies to advancing women in tech?
Being an ally is an action, it is not a noun - so men who want to be part of this change need to take action and drive impact. Men do need to be part of the solution, together with women. Gender parity isn’t going to be achieved by a single group, we will all get there faster together. Men can follow the five steps, too - increase visibility, do the research – but the other powerful thing they can do is talk to other men and raise awareness.
Ultimately, diversity and inclusion, and not just in gender but in all sorts of ways, increases performance. It makes everything so much better, it brings new ideas to the table and it brings talent – so why restrain the talent pool? I don’t think companies can perform well without diversity.
Will the next 10 years bring as much change as the past 10 years in tech?
I think the change is exponential. Once one person wants to make a change and another person joins them, then you form a community. And if a community has been formed, more and more people will join and over time cross-community collaborations will develop - and that’s when large impact can occur.
I hope that in 10 years we won’t be able to distinguish the female leaders from the male leaders and we won’t be able to name all women that are successful – just as we can’t name all men who are successful right now. We’ll be innovating and creating new technology with gender parity.
Mentoring is a pillar of change for you – what role do you try to play for your mentees?
The role I want to play is not a psychological disrupter; I want it to be as a person they can relate to, not some sort of power person that is impossible to become. I used to be intimidated when I was younger by some really amazing role models that were out there; I was so impressed, but I could never imagine myself being them. I feel that intimidation gets you nowhere so you need people to inspire you that can also remind you of yourself so you can take baby steps and slowly become who you are meant to be.
Can everyone be a role model to someone else?
Everyone can be a role model and everyone can teach you things. And sometimes the mentees teach things to the mentor! Last year I had a mentee in-house at Google for a month. She came in on day one and wanted to work on a huge project that basically translated to: “I want to reinvent the wheel”. I said, “Ok, let’s make the scope a bit smaller to be more in line with the timeline we have”. And she replied, “Nope, I can do it”.
So I provided her with weekly support and mentoring and she leveraged internal resources as well as student networks, found allies and was able to deliver what she said she was going to deliver. She embodied the idea of ‘when there is a will there is a way’ - I learned so much from my mentee.
Should we be encouraging more women to code to futureproof their career?
Absolutely. And I once developed a curriculum for a tech summer camp for teenagers around this, because that’s the age that needs inspiration the most. We need to address gender parity at the root; by going to schools and showing kids how technology can be so rewarding. This can inspire young girls to take computer science classes - and a class or two is often all it takes for them to get excited and realise that problem solving is fun and creative. For older ages, there are so many scholarships and opportunities of all sorts, as well as tech clubs for women. It’s never too late to start.
What is your biggest piece of advice for young womEn wanting to work in tech?
I’d tell them not to be afraid – more specifically not to be afraid to fail because failure is part of the game. When you code sometimes your code does not compile and but you adjust something and everything is actually fine. So failing is actually fine and you come out stronger, more experienced and more confident.
if you are looking for mentorship, or if you would like to learn how to be a mentor. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.