An International Women's Day question - where are the tech women who look like me?

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett March 7, 2019
Summary:
On IWD 19, a simple question for women in tech - where are the role models to whom you can relate?

women

Last July, I took part in a roundtable at the Women of Silicon Roundabout event in London, where women working in technology bemoaned the lack of relatable role models for the next generation of IT workers. In the lead-up to International Women’s Day (IWD) 2019, it seemed a good opportunity to revisit this topic, and ask new joiners to the industry whether this reflects their experience and if this idea of relatable role models is a red herring to balancing the gender equation in tech.

They don’t look like me

Unsurprisingly, not much has changed in a year – young women or new joiners to the IT sector are still finding they’re mostly a rarity.

Molly Elisha-Lambert has been working at AI firm Phrasee since graduating in Linguistics in 2016. During her 2.5 years, she has already progressed to the role of language technical lead at the firm, so as well as designing, building and maintaining its natural language generation systems, she’s also responsible for liaising with sales, client success and development, and training new language technicians. However, despite this broader role, she is not meeting a larger number of women out in the industry. She says:

I don’t come into contact with anywhere near as many women in development roles as I do men in the wider industry. Most of my team are women who studied languages or linguistics. However, Phrasee is pretty unusual in the number of women it has on the team. Because my role is brand new, there is no schema as to what kind of person you have to be to do it – so people aren’t battling the preconceptions or stereotypes that surround many tech roles.

Oceanne Gallagher, pre-sales consultant at Deep Secure, joined the company on a two-year graduate scheme in July 2018. She worked at various cyber security firms during her university holidays, and is also studying part-time for an employer-sponsored Information Security MSc. Despite packing in so much not even a year after graduating, Gallagher isn’t coming across many women in her position. She says:

As I’m still fresh into my career in the industry, I have yet to meet many women of my age and level in the industry. But thankfully, I've met several women of a higher level in the industry that I'm able to look up to as mentors.

It’s the same experience for those joining the industry at a later stage in their career. Billie Simmons recently restarted her career by taking a coding course and is now working as a technical associate with Barclays Techstars, helping startups build their initial ideas. On her coding course, women outnumbered men by 2:1, but this ratio hasn’t carried over into the workplace. Simmons observes:

I’m the only woman in the current programme at Barclays Techstars London who is doing any coding. Most of the women I’ve met at networking events are senior level, which is great but also quite intimidating.

Knowing women that are at the same career level as you makes it a lot easier to feel welcomed to the industry and means you feel less like an outsider. It can definitely be intimidating when your only knowledge of women in tech is at the ‘already accomplished’ stage.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that that put me off joining the industry as I’m just as keen to make my own mark in the world, but I was probably also helped by knowing personally a few women at junior or mid levels in tech.

What these comments highlight is the importance of viewing the gender imbalance in the technology industry not simply as a statistic, but as a factor having a direct impact on the choices women make in their careers. Christina Vlachou, a Research Scientist at Hewlett Packard Labs, recalls how she once travelled all the way to Sydney for a top networking conference, and was the only woman there:

This felt really bad. Despite this, I do meet a few women of similar level to mine; they are all smart and fun to talk to.

Having extraordinary role models does help, but for young people, it is difficult to relate to extraordinary achievements. Tech industry and research often involves moments of stress, which might have an effect on self-confidence.

As a young researcher, I often encounter these moments at a smaller scale compared to senior and powerful women. In such cases, my everyday role models are two to three years older than me and perhaps one to two senior levels higher than me. They remind me that working in tech is fun.

Everyday examples

The underlying issue here is that the lack of women working in an industry with an 80:20 male to female ratio inevitably means that the few examples we actually see are outstanding cases. As Elisha-Lambert notes:

This risks making it seem like you can only make it as a woman in tech if you are an absolute technical genius – but the more women that get into the industry, the more we will see ‘everyday’ examples of women working in tech.

This is key to getting young girls to view the tech industry as an exciting, achievable goal from a young age. The more exposure there is of women who work in tech now, the more women will work in the tech industry in the future.

While meeting women of similar experience hasn’t been necessary to retain Gallagher’s interest in the field, she does say she would be keen to talk with other women of a similar age who are interested in technology:

I already had an interest in the industry before I found female cyber security role models, however these women are in a different stage of life. A lot of what they focus on is balancing work and home life such as a family, which is less relatable to me right now.

It's important to have role models from various backgrounds within an industry, such as graduates or those that are up and coming in the field that young people can relate to before they enter the workforce. That certainly would have encouraged me.

So who are the role models inspiring these women, who we should start sharing stories about?

Vlachou has always looked up to female researchers and university professors, who are successful and great mentors: Andrea Goldsmith, Christina Fragouli, Kimberly Keeton; as well as powerful women in Silicon Valley, such as Meg Whitman and Sheryl Sandberg.

For Simmons, it’s Phoebe Greig (Women Driven Development, Lesbians Who Tech), Aubrey Stern (Nationwide Digital Accelerator), Martine Rothblatt (SiriusXM), Dr Grace Hopper, Katherine Johnson and Ada Lovelace. But her biggest role model is someone she’s personally connected to - Leah Scott, a software engineer at Greenhouse and one of her closest friends:

She is someone who really pushed me to get into programming and showed me how to exist in the industry without sacrificing your femininity or personality.

Family values

For other women in tech, their inspiration is drawn much closer to home.

Having parents who both ran technology companies during her formative years meant that from a very young age, Elisha-Lambert’s role models in the sector were her tech whizz father and her mother, who although not technically trained, worked wonders on the operational and sales side:

This early experience opened my eyes to the spectrum of jobs that exist in the tech sector. Having a strong female role model in tech from an early age gave me more confidence to enter the sector.

For Gallagher, whose parents and older brother all work within the tech sector, her mother is her most influential role model:

My mother played a pivotal role in my pursuit of a cyber security career. Without my mother’s guidance and encouragement, as well as teaching me to program from a very young age, I wouldn’t be as interested as I am in technology, let alone cyber security.

She came from a difficult background and managed to teach herself how to type and then program, and worked her way up the computing ladder right from the bottom to become a successful software project manager. She now runs an environmental technology company with my father and is currently studying the same Information Security MSc course as myself.

So having parents who work in the tech sector is certainly a useful asset in attracting young women to IT careers – but how about those without access to these early role models?

Joanne Murray is a perfect example of how the perception many women have of the tech sector can be offputting. An accountant by training, she switched over from PwC’s audit practice to working in its drones team a year ago after being persuaded by a female colleague. Murray explains:

Before joining this team, my thoughts on a role in technology were that it was way beyond my reach. That I would need an engineering degree, or a data science specialism, or to be an extraordinary businesswoman. I completely discounted it as a potential career route or change.

Elaine Whyte, who leads our drones team, quickly demystified that for me and made me realise that we need more diversity and differences in approach to make a new proposition a success. Now I would encourage everyone who has an interest in technology – males and females – not to feel restricted by their background or previous experience. There is a role out there for everyone if you are ok with not being an expert from day one but are keen to learn.

My take

There’s a clear message here for the technology industry: to achieve a real upwards shift in the number of female workers, it needs to work a lot harder to highlight relatable role models to ensure any negative perception is smashed. The women featured in this article, and their role models, make a great starting point – and hardly a Sandberg or Lane-Fox among them.

Check back later for part two of our IWD coverage, exploring the link between the gender imbalance and the battle for tech talent, and practical ways technology professionals and companies can help ensure a greater pipeline of women in tech.