Books that empower: essential reads for women in tech

18 June 2023
When I was a kid, there were so many heroes around - in books, movies, songs. And no surprise, almost all of them were men. So naturally, wanting to be like them meant wanting to be a boy. I found it disappointing and uncool to be a girl, so I rebelled against femininity, refused to wear skirts (still don't, that much), played boys' games, and never cried.

As I grew up, I realised that this mindset was a product of traditional education, culture, and habits. I understood that one could be and do whatever they wished, regardless of their gender. What was missing during my early years is now available for girls and young women, and I am thrilled to see that teenage girls and young women are becoming more and more confident and empowered.

Over the years, I've read several books that reinforced my understanding of the importance of empowering women and girls to stand their ground and find their voice. And here, I'm sharing four of them with you, in the order they came to my table:

The moment of lift

by Melinda Gates a co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
In "The moment of Lift" Melinda advocates for all women on Earth, exploring barriers such as poverty, stigma, religion, and traditional family roles that prevent women - especially those in developing countries - from living prosperous lives.

While the book focuses mostly on women in impoverished countries, I believe we can all relate to many insights Melinda uncovers.
I've come to learn that stigma is always an effort to suppress someone's voice. It forces people to hide in shame. The best way to fight back is to speak up—to say openly the very thing that others stigmatize. It's a direct attack on the self-censorship that stigma needs to survive.
She highlights the shared unfairness women across the world face - inequality and unpaid homework that create a negative feedback loop. The first step to combat this is to acknowledge it.
The unpaid work a woman does in the home is a barrier to the activities that can advance her—getting more education, earning outside income, meeting with other women, becoming politically active. Unequal unpaid work blocks a woman's path to empowerment.
The book is not just about women, but about all individuals who have been excluded from decision-making, social and material benefits, and simply being heard. Including everyone back not only helps these groups, but is essential for achieving global progress and prosperity.
Whenever you include a group that's been excluded, you benefit everyone. And when you're working globally to include women and girls, who are half of every population, you're working to benefit all members of every community. Gender equity lifts everyone.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

by Sheryl Sandberg a former COO of Facebook (Meta).
In her book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" Sheryl explores the challenges women face in the workplace and encourages us to pursue leadership roles, overcome our fears, admit our biases, and dare to do what we think we are not ready to do.

She shares her own stories and tips, pushing us to grab chances, even when they feel a bit out of our comfort zone.
An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements.
Drawing on her experiences as a successful business executive, she offers practical advice for women on how to advance their careers, negotiate for higher salaries, and overcome gender bias. She shares stories of her own struggles with biases as well as empowering advice she received from her (male) managers, including Mark Zuckerberg.
Most people would agree that gender bias exists . . . in others. We, however, would never be swayed by such superficial and unenlightened opinions. Except we are.
Sheryl discusses people's expectation for women to be nice, polite, and humble. When a woman actively steps out, she's likely to be considered a bitch, but when a man does exactly the same, he's considered a leader. So women have to balance between being nice and getting what they want, often choosing to prioritize being nice over ambitions. I see that behavior in many women, and I see it in myself.
If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she is considered more nice than competent. Since people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women.
The book faced a significant amount of criticism based on Sheryl's privileges, which 99.9% of other women don't have. But despite this, it's a good book that raises many issues, biases, and prejudices that women face every day. It's worth reading.

The best quote from the book:
What would you do if you weren't afraid?

Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work

by Deborah Liu - a former VP at Facebook and the current president and CEO of Ancestry
"Take Back Your Power" is my favourite product-women empowerment book for two reasons:
  1. Deborah tells her story, shares vulnerable memories, and describes personal challenges, like being an introvert or being culturally different from those around you. I personally relate to these.
  2. She gives clear, practical advice on how to overcome daily work challenges, build the skills you lack, and see your differentiation as a virtue.
She explains the concept of a "free pass" - the act of giving ourselves permission to relinquish our power.
You let the ball go by and don't grab it to take a shot… How many times have you had an idea but were too afraid to voice it? How many times have you been hesitant to ask for a promotion or raise? How many times have you let your male colleague interrupt you without speaking up? Each time one of these things happens, you give up your power by giving yourself permission not to take the shot. You are giving yourself a free pass.
Deb speaks a lot about the impostor syndrome and how to function while acknowledging that you are not an expert in what you are doing. She advises reframing the challenge as a learning experience instead of dwelling on the idea that you are not yet the ultimate expert.
I often wonder if someone will finally figure out that I have no idea what I'm doing. But I decided long ago that letting that feeling dictate my actions is counterproductive. Instead, I choose to reframe my mindset from one of an impostor to one of an explorer because that is one area where I can truly be an expert.
Deb discusses the challenges of being different - looking different, speaking differently, and having a different background than your surroundings. It's tough to hold an unpopular point of view and find the guts to share it and stand by it. But she argues that this is not a weakness but rather a strength that opens possibilities and allows you to make a difference, provided you speak up.
Embracing what makes you unique means owning your individuality rather than conforming to the expectations of others. Amplifying your personal superpower is being unafraid to be different and not allowing yourself to be defined by the rules of others.
This is an inspiring book, written by a mortal woman - not a celebrity or a billionaire. She speaks to you as a friend, hears and understands you, knows what you feel, and faces all your challenges every day. She strives despite these and invites you to join her. I wish I had read it long ago, and I hope you find it as useful as I did.

My favourite quote from the book:
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.
—Alice Walker

All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis

Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
Perhaps the most powerful of all the books above, "All We Can Save" is not strictly a book about women, but it's definitely a must-read for women, as well as all individuals who need empowerment to act and stand for what they believe in.

It's a brave, honest, and inspiring collection of essays and poems from women leading the fight against climate change in the US: journalists, scientists, lawyers, teachers, activists, innovators, mothers, and entrepreneurs across generations, geographies, and races.
Some of these women are well-known, but others are people just like you and me. If you look for them on LinkedIn, you might be surprised by their humble profiles. They don't possess significant wealth or other privileges, but they chose to step up and fight for what matters. They have let their voices be heard and have achieved what they never dreamed of.

We live in a fascinating time. Humanity has come to realize the enormity of the problem we are facing - climate change. Despite being the biggest problem, it also presents the greatest opportunity for society to make things right. This includes elevating women across all countries and cultures. Empowering women is not only the goal but a key to solving the problem in the first place. I am fascinated to see that this is starting to happen already. So many women-led climate startups are being created, so many women climate leaders have emerged across all industries. I hear women's passionate voices, and I realize that this has never happened on this scale before.
Look around and you will see on the rise climate leadership that is more characteristically feminine and more faithfully feminist, rooted in compassion, connection, creativity, and collaboration. There is a renaissance blooming in the climate movement, and it has a few important characteristics:

First, there is a clear focus on making change rather than being in charge.

Second, there is a commitment to responding to the climate crisis in ways that heal systemic injustices rather than deepen them.

Third, there is an appreciation for heart-centered, not just head-centered, leadership.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, there is a recognition that building community is a requisite foundation for building a better world.

We have been conditioned to be nice and humble, to wait our turn, and let others decide what's best for us. We've done this for centuries and millennia, and now it's time to make our voices heard. There has never been a better opportunity for this. By empowering each other, sharing stories and knowledge, opening doors and supporting other women, we can accelerate this process. As a famous phrase says, "Behind every great woman, there are other women." Let's uplift each other and make it happen.

Happy reading!

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Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being