A few years ago, during the first semester of my Master of Computing, I walked into a tutorial class just as I’d done for my undergraduate years of study. I took a seat and set up my laptop, then had a look around the room. I then had another, slightly more incredulous look around the room.
Why I’ll Always Take Time to Talk to Women Studying Tech
There were about forty men sitting around me, and I was the only woman. A lot of them were staring back at me as though they thought I’d gotten lost on the way to the bathroom. I was unnerved and intimidated.
I attended my first Systems Architecture lecture in the same week, and a student asked the question: “Why aren’t there many women in tech?”
The male lecturer responded: “Well, there’s always been kind of a female issue in the tech industry. If you walk up to any IT floor in a company, you can just smell the testosterone. I only know two successful female systems architects; one has a stay-at-home husband and the other one’s parents look after her kids.” The also-male industry guest lecturer standing beside him nodded sagely in agreement.
“It was as if a group of women had come together to unanimously decide that yes, this will be one of the problems that we have chosen to be annoyed about for the next few lifetimes. We’ll slot it in somewhere between the wage gap and being catcalled.”
I was appalled. I’d only just started studying computer science and already I was thinking, “Why would I want to work in an industry that literally smells of testosterone? One where my success is only deemed possible if I lock down someone to care for the children, which I, as a woman, will undoubtedly need to produce?”
Mostly, I was confused as to why this had been identified as a ‘female issue’. It was as if a group of women had come together to unanimously decide that yes, this will be one of the problems that we have chosen to be annoyed about for the next few lifetimes. We’ll slot it in somewhere between the wage gap and being catcalled. Time to make a big old fuss about it!
Despite successfully finishing my Masters and finding my way into what I like to think of as a strong career in the tech industry, these incidents, along with others throughout my studies and first few years of work, have stuck with me. Being in an industry dominated by men is hard. I’ve walked into meeting rooms and been on project teams where everyone else identifies as a man. I’ve struggled to find women in a senior role to mentor me. I’ve had heated discussions with male colleagues who can’t comprehend why it’s inappropriate to make complaints referring exclusively to ‘the females of the office’. I’ve been told that I probably got hired due to affirmative action policies. The list goes on. Being a woman studying or working surrounded by very few other women can be isolating and disheartening. Not that many women start tech careers; of these, many leave what can sometimes feel like an unwelcoming industry.
Yes, things are better now than they used to be. I’ve had exceptional experiences with colleagues who not only tell me that they appreciate my outspokenness, but have tried to actively change their behaviours because of it. I’ve been given the opportunity to write this blog post for ThemeKeeper, which means that people are listening. People of all genders are actively trying to enact change. But equal representation and treatment are still a very, very long way off. Moreover, these acts that enforce discrimination against women in certain industries, whether they be conscious or unconscious, start very early. Think about the types of toys that are given to young boys and girls; the range of subjects offered at single-sex schools. Women are taught from a very early age that they just don’t belong in technical fields.
This is why I will always try to take the time to speak with students, especially those who identify as women, who are studying in fields typically popular with men, particularly tech. I’ve had numerous opportunities in my career to present on my work at recruitment fairs and industry events to students from high school and university. Sometimes there are as many women as men in the groups with which I speak, or more, and it brings me more joy than I can let on at the time. I’ll find that some girls will put their hands up and ask questions in front of everyone, and I’m so glad that they feel empowered to raise their voice in a group. Others prefer to remain quiet and listen during the group sessions, but will come up to me afterwards to directly ask questions. I will always try to make time to answer them and to let them know that they are welcome to get in touch with me if they have any other queries after the event.
“Women are taught from a very early age that they just don’t belong in technical fields.”
I feel a fierce pride in the girls who tackle their studies in development or design or databases because I know that their time at school and university will almost undoubtedly be that extra bit harder. They will have to deal with students and teachers and friends and family members who don’t think they can succeed at what they are doing. Some, for whatever reasons, will actively try to stop them in their paths. Feeling like you’re not really part of a cohort during your studies, or that if you speak you’ll be judged on something other than what you have to say, can really challenge your self-confidence and push you to query whether you should keep going. I’ve felt it myself, more than once. I’m so pleased that these students attend industry events and that they reach out and try to make those connections with myself and other women working in the industry, because having that extra bit of support or encouragement can make a huge difference. I didn’t really attend or even know about those kinds of events during my studies, and I wish that I had. It’s not just about me trying to support students either; they reassure me and encourage me to push harder in my own work as well and to become an integral part of the driving force for equality.
To any women who might be reading this and are spending most of their time studying with a big intimidating group of guys, to those women who might not be receiving the support and respect and encouragement that they deserve: I support and respect and encourage you. Keep going. Reach out to one another and laugh bitterly about the unequal treatment you might receive, and use it to strengthen your resolve rather than letting it challenge your confidence. The tech industry is a wonderful, exciting, turbulent place to have a career. It’s full of intelligent, open and innovative people. And it needs more of you to keep it great.
This article was originally published in October 2016 and has been updated in August 2017.