For five years, Annie Ta worked in corporate communications at Facebook—representing the company's burgeoning ad-technology business—before moving on to Pinterest in 2012 for a similar role.
Being at the forefront of the social ads revolution, with such rare expertise, she seemed like a prime candidate to someday move into an executive marketing position with a brand or tech firm. For decades, that's been the kind of move many PR pros have aspired to.
Instead, Ta last May became Pinterest's product manager, underscoring how—despite an ugly, persistent Silicon Valley-based narrative about gender discrimination—women are increasingly being acknowledged for their tech skills, even when they don't come from a traditional developer background. According to sources across the industry, it's a slowly-but-surely type of development, but amid all of the recent negativity, it's worth noting that it's actually happening.
"I wanted to be able to take what I learned from ad-tech PR for so many years and apply it to products here," Ta said. "There was an opportunity because we were so young and just really starting to enter into the [ad] space. It was an opportunity I couldn't miss. It was a chance to contribute something, learn more and challenge my thoughts."
She was welcomed into a department with strong female leadership, Ta explained, particularly with Joanne Bradford, head of ad partnerships for the company and a tech/publishing veteran.
"Joanne has been doing this for so long," Ta said. "I've worked in a lot of places that are run by men. But more women are increasingly entering the space."
At the same time, the hard data aren't always as kind as Ta's anecdote. Last summer, Google, Facebook, Apple and other large tech companies revealed stats that showed male employees outnumbering women four to one. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports women comprise 49.6 percent of the workforce, yet only 2.9 percent of ad-tech CEOs are female.
But there are other signs that Ta isn't alone in achieving this sort of career trajectory.
Take AOL, which says its AOL Platforms division is 41 percent female.
"The innovation is just amazing to see with these strong women coming up through the ranks," said Eliza Nevers, vp of product at AOL Platforms. "They have incredible work ethic."
Brittany Keller, client services for product and tech at AOL, added, "One of the things that really differentiates women from men is women tend to be incredibly supportive of each other, especially at AOL. It's almost like we have a secret nod and handshake."
New York-based AOL's programmatic advertising aims are well known, and CMO Allie Kline pointed to Nevers and Kellers—as well as Amanda Powter, who helps lead product TV—as key components to turning such ad-tech ambitions into realities. Kline said millennial and Gen Z up-and-comers will make women in ad tech more formidable.
"Companies are motivating and creating environments that encourage it and make it possible," she said. "So I think you'll definitely see an increase in the number of women in the field."
Another interesting case study is RadiumOne, which in April 2014 suffered from the sort of bad PR that could have made women feel skeptical about working there. The programmatic ad company's former CEO Gurbaksh Chahal was fired due to domestic abuse allegations by his girlfriend.
But in addition to ousting the executive, the company has also shown a recent track record of hiring key women, including Nicole Romano as data scientist, as more and more female candidates apply for ad-tech openings.
Eric Bader, RadiumOne CMO and a two-decade digital veteran, gave a historical perspective. "When I started at my first developer-led Web shop in the 1990s, there wasn't a single female developer or coder in the entire company," he said. "There were account executives who were women. But in [coding roles]—100 percent men. It's so refreshingly more populated on an even basis now compared to 10 years ago. It's very noticeable."
Romano, who started at RadiumOne last fall, has been working on consumer behavioral data that get down to the neighborhood level in terms of ad targeting. When asked about her data division's demographics, she said, "It's not a huge team, but I am surrounded by women. The thing about data science is you take a technical interview, which either gets you the job or doesn't."
So are things becoming more equal?
"I do know what people are talking about with all of that Silicon Valley boys' club [stuff]—I've definitely seen it—but I just wouldn't join a company like that," Romano said. "I'm hopeful most companies are like this one."