Women in IT - Ada Lovelace would be horrified by the lack of progress, argues Red Hat's Margaret Dawson

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett October 8, 2019
It's Ada Lovelace Day - time to up the game when it comes to getting women better represented in the tech sector.


Margaret Dawson
Red Hat's Margaret Dawson

Ada Lovelace Day, which is held each year on 8 October, was started in 2009 with the aim of celebrating women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). In raising the female profile here, the hope was that new role models would be created, which would in turn woo more girls into embarking on a STEM career and encourage those already in one to stay.

But according to Margaret Dawson, Vice President of Portfolio Marketing at open source software provider Red Hat and who was  named ‘Business Role Model of the Year’ at the inaugural Women in IT USA awards last year, believes that if Lovelace, whose work with Charles Babbage was so pivotal in creating the first computer, were to come back today, she would be “horrified” at how little progress had been made in terms of female representation in tech:

Ada and so many other women like her, who broke through barriers even if they didn’t know it at the time, would be mortified. She’d assume that if she came back 200 years later there’d be an incredible difference and women would be everywhere. But the fact that we have to make such a big deal about her says that things haven’t changed much…In the entire time I’ve been in the tech industry, there’s still only usually one women on stage or in a conference room. If I’d seen a massive shift during my career I might think differently, but things have only changed in such small, incremental ways.

Looking on the bright side though, Dawson says that at least people are now talking about the issue in a way that was simply not the case a few years ago – and that the debate has now broadened out to cover not just women, but also other underrepresented groups, such as people of colour or those from deprived communities.

Nonetheless, she believes that until women “intentionally support” each other, there is unlikely to be a fundamental shift in the tech sector. She explains:

Women who have made it to the top have not traditionally empowered or helped other women to rise – in fact, they’ve done the opposite. I don’t think this happens across all industries, but in tech, women have been much more competitive rather than cooperative or nurturing. We’re quick to point the finger at men keeping us down, but most women in tech say it was men, not other women, who promoted, mentored and gave them raises.

Strong, aggressive culture

Much of this Dawson puts down to the sector’s “strong, aggressive culture”:

If you can’t survive it, you can’t get ahead. So the women that survived are either naturally like that or were athletes or tomboys when they were younger so they’re not intimidated by it....But there’s also the fact that the women who made it were the ground-breakers and they felt they fought so hard to get there and to fit into a man’s world that other women who made it would knock them down. It’s unconscious behaviour, but I have seen it – although it’s changing as each generation changes.

In fact, she says there is now a “hunger to change”, even if people do not necessarily know how to go about doing so. As a result, Dawson feels it is vital to have positive role models who “intentionally support and empower” others, both male and female.

One such role model for Dawson was her first boss – and only female mentor - on starting her career in the automotive industry in Detroit, which she describes as similar in many ways to the tech sector:

She was tough but incredibly compassionate and the things she taught me I’ve never forgotten and have passed on to others. She said that a combination of femininity and competency equals power not weakness…so no matter what your expression of being a women is or what femininity means to you, be you. That combination is so powerful, you will be successful.

This philosophy gave Dawson the confidence, for instance, to respond in kind if men at the time “smacked her on the butt”, which did happen. She explains:

She taught me that you can flip things back on them and you don’t have to play by their rules. That stayed with me and taught me not to be afraid. So it’s about what femininity, and feminism, mean to you. They’re words packed with controversy, but if you internalise what they mean to you, they become your source of power.

Intentional support

Dawson also acknowledges at the same time, however, that for this approach to work, it is necessary for individuals to benefit from both self-awareness and self-esteem – although in her experience, the single most common issue affecting both young and middle-aged women today is lack of confidence. But it is here that approaches, such as coaching and mentoring, fit in.

On the downside though, research by the Finding Ada Network,  which provides members with peer-mentoring opportunities, indicates that a huge 80% of women in STEM have never had one. A key reason for this situation, believes Dawson, is that people are simply scared to ask, which makes it imperative that organisations introduce official programmes and encourage both mentors and mentees to use them.

She herself currently mentors 22 people, but is convinced that if everyone, no matter what their age and experience levels, committed to mentoring, coaching and training others to help them move forward, the situation in the tech industry could change dramatically.

Another small but important step in this direction is to encourage every woman to declare “intentional support” for others rather than just saying, 'I’m going to try'.

Other considerations, meanwhile, include deliberately hiring a more diverse range of people. Doing so, Dawson says, generates a kind of “natural momentum” in that the more diverse a team is, the more a diverse range of people will be attracted to work for it.

As for leaders, her view is that it is up to them to create a more level playing field, not least in terms of renumeration by ensuring that pay gaps do not exist within their team and they do not hire at the lowest rate just because they can. She also believes it is their duty to call out bad behaviour, such as bullying or an overly aggressive attitude, and to be accountable for the behaviour they want to model, such as respect and inclusivity.

Ultimately though, Dawson feels that the secret of true leadership is about encouraging people – both men and women - to be true to who they are and to live their lives accordingly, a philosophy she has branded as “letting your true life shine”.

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