International Women’s Day: climbing the corporate ladder

Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2024, we sat down with Stefanie Valerio, Customer Success Lead at Topo Solutions to discuss her career in the tech industry and any challenges she faced in climbing the corporate ladder as a woman, in a sector that traditionally has been very male dominated.

What were some of the challenges you faced personally in your career progression relating to gender?

Over the course of my career, I wouldn’t say that I have had too many hurdles relating to gender. A large part of this is because I spent the first 15 years of my career in the apparel industry, which is very female-dominated and driven. A lot of my friends have had a bit of a different experience, however.

Way before my present role as Customer Success Lead at Topo Solutions, I was also in an internship for many years under a female VP. A couple of my jobs were in women-run and owned companies. So, I was very fortunate in that sense.

There was probably a handful of times along the way where I experienced discrimination, i.e., the odd time where an off comment was made. Or another time when I was selected over a male colleague for a project, he made a passing comment that they had chosen me because of my gender. I think there may have been more times, but it is entirely possible that I wouldn’t have even sensed it because this type of behaviour is so ingrained in my subconscious.

My advice is to not let it be your problem, just be you and be the best you can be at your job.

As you've worked on both the retail and tech side of the business, did you face different challenges or were they the same throughout? How were they different, and how can each side learn from each other?

One of the main differences between retail and tech is that, on the apparel side of retail at least, it is much more customer focused. In tech, this is much less the case.

I think tech could learn from retail on how to be more customer centric, which in the end would benefit their work. In recent years, this has started to happen a little as the tech industry grows and its workforce diversifies, both demographically and in terms of professional experience, which is great to see.

Equally, retail tends to be more female dominated, which is in many ways unique, whereas the tech side, and particularly the programmer side, is much more male dominated.

Once I entered the tech industry, I personally found it surprising to see so few females. There was even the odd time I was the only female in the entire room. There were moments when I would hear little comments, not meant maliciously but degrading, nonetheless. Thankfully, as mentioned above, this is also starting to change, although there is still a long way to go.

What can other women or even the wider industry learn from your approach? What advice would you give to young women just starting their career?

I’ve learned that when approaching your career, think of yourself as a person before you think of yourself as a woman.

Take in as much as you can to grow and never stop learning. Be the absolute best that you can be, not because of being a man or woman, but because you are standing tall on your work.

Aside from that, I have never been afraid of failure. Women especially should never question their capabilities and keep pushing as far as you can.

Finding mentors within your industry is also helpful, as well as collaborating with people that can help to elevate your career and teach you things along the way. It is important that these are people that can push you to be the best that you can be.

How is Topo making a positive difference/disrupting the landscape when it comes to gender discrimination in tech?

At Topo Solutions, we take diversity very seriously on all levels – not just gender but diversity in general. We have people working with us from every country across the world, and everyone blends in well together.

Having a diverse company brings in many perspectives, which helps us be more innovative and creative, resulting in better solutions for whatever issues our clients might be facing.

How do you balance the demands of a high-pressure tech job with your personal life? Any tips for others?

Personally, between three kids, work life and my personal life, it is important to go one step at a time, piece by piece.

I keep myself organised and know that if I need to spend two hours on anything, I will need to make it up. It is important to stay organised and understand time management, whilst making sure you do not overwhelm yourself and go one step at a time.

How do you see the role of women evolving in tech?

I think that because tech is an emerging industry, it will take time to start moving into the forefront and leadership roles. Soon more women will put themselves in those positions.

In a few years we are going to see more growth within leadership. People such as myself who shift over to the tech industry, will accelerate as more people choose to specialise in this industry.

What steps do you think the tech industry needs to take to attract and retain more women?

The tech industry needs to take into consideration: equal pay, inclusion, more flexible hours, and remote working.

With inclusion, this would involve, hiring more women in and promoting them. Remote working in particular would be most helpful for the retention of women, as they would also need to take into consideration that some of us are working mothers.