diversity, boys club featured

How women can beat the ‘boys club culture’ in tech

diversity, boys club

By Alison Mulder, Reporting Analyst, Simpson Carpenter

I have a confession to make - I’m rubbish at conforming to stereotypes.

A reporting analyst with a side career as a competition level glider pilot, I’m used to being outnumbered by men.

Yet, when I compare my experience as a woman in these two areas, my greatest challenge hasn’t been learning to fly, but rather negotiating the barriers and obstacles to forge a career in the tech space.

Don’t get me wrong. Competing as a glider pilot has required real grit and perseverance. But once I slip into the cockpit to compete against my male counterparts, the test is one of skill not gender.

By contrast, as a woman working in the tech scene, despite high profile women in tech such as Kathryn Parsons, Eileen Burbidge and Amy Chang, my gender has been a real issue for some of my male colleagues. Unfortunately, these colleagues have often been the gatekeepers to progressing my career.

The challenges began when I discovered my fascination for data analysis after writing code for market research questionnaires early into my career. From a lack of management support for helping me acquire the necessary skills, to having colleagues take credit for my work, I felt that my tech aspirations were not taken seriously simply because I was female.

Even though I’m very technically minded, the gender-based assumptions my colleagues and superiors made about my capabilities meant that I have worked extra hard to get where I am today.

I’d love to be able to say my experience is the exception, not the rule, but it’s simply not the case. Despite all the awareness around gender equality and equal opportunities, deep rooted and pervasive gender bias continues to exist in tech, especially when it comes to the data space. At Simpson Carpenter, I’m part of a team that values a person’s skills rather than what gender they are.

So how can women beat negative gender stereotypes to progress their tech careers?

Here are three insights I’ve learned along the way.

Invest in your skills

A company I used to work for made the decision to switch its programming language to Python and, naturally, I was keen to get myself trained on it. But the company wouldn’t agree to this and said it wasn’t necessary for me and my role. Today Python is considered one of the top five coding languages every techie and data analyst should know. Missing out on Python training could have been a potential career blocker. I wasn’t prepared to be held back by this decision, so I took the initiative and learnt about Python myself online, along with other programming languages.

With new coding languages emerging all the time, learning the right one at the right time can open up doors and opportunities that give you a real edge in this field. If an employer is not willing or able to offer you the training you believe you will need, look into alternative sources.

For example, Code: First Girls offers coding courses aimed at female professionals while 23 Code Street runs classes and workshops in London in addition to an online webinar. If you are not able to pay for training, check out this list Geek Girl Rising has put together on free online coding courses.

Finally, to stay at the cutting edge in tech, we need to continuously assess our current skills versus the skills we are likely to need in the coming years. This means reading as much as you can lay your hands on about current and future tech trends in your sector, particularly around emerging technologies and the skills likely to be required to work with them.

Find a tech mentor

Whether it be learning from their achievements and mistakes, or being able to tap into their network, having a trusted mentor can help fast track your career progression. But the lack of women within the tech industry means it can be hard to meet and get advice from a woman who has walked in your shoes.

Thankfully, there are now organisations set up to connect aspiring female tech talent with experienced mentors. Some of my favourites include London-based Girls in Tech, which runs six evening speed mentoring sessions, along with MentorSET that helps to match mentors with rising female professionals in STEM. And if you don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face, there are also a slew of podcasts you can tune into like Women who Startup or Fearless Women, which invite real female leaders on to share their stories and offer essential career advice.

Join your own ‘girls club’

No matter how much I got along with and respected my male colleagues as professionals, being the only woman on a tech team can sometimes be a lonely experience - from occasionally being excluded from post-work drinks to not always picking up on the male banter. Pixar’s “Bro Co”, a fascinating short animation perfectly captures what it can be like for women in the workplace.

Thankfully, there are now a growing number of groups that bring women in tech together and help them to grow their support network such as Girls in Tech and Girls Who Code. Tapping into these can help to make you feel part of vibrant and motivating networks of like-minded women.

Our future

Today, in the UK alone, it is estimated that there’s a shortfall of 173,000 skilled STEM workers. With new STEM roles expected to double in the next 10 years, the tech skills shortage can only deepen. The sector urgently needs to encourage more women to fill these roles, and give them the training and support they need to succeed.

But in order to do that, harmful gender stereotypes and sexist views around the roles women can and can’t do need to be weeded out of all organisations. When I’m competing against male glider pilots in the air, gender is not seen. Other pilots, the judges and spectators recognise and celebrate my flying skills - nothing more, nothing less. This gender-blind perspective is something talented women in tech could really benefit from.


creative engineer, architect featured

"Engineers aren't creative" and other misconceptions

creative engineer, architect

Article provided by Alison Horton, principal engineer at built environment consultancy Curtins’ Birmingham office.

I think there are still a lot of misconceptions about the engineering industry today.

These are definitely tied to it being a male dominated industry. I think many people still see engineering as a dirty, noisy industry, and a ‘geeky’ one at that.

One problem in the UK is that the title of ‘engineer’ is not protected. In other countries – like Germany – only people who hold certain qualifications can call themselves an engineer. However here, anyone can call themselves an engineer. This means that many jobs that would be called ‘mechanic’ or ‘technician’ elsewhere, become classified as an engineer – further feeding confusion over what an engineer is and does. For example, someone who comes to repair your boiler may quite happily refer to themselves as an engineer, but the main differentiation is that he fixes the boiler, he hasn’t designed the system. Engineers are the designers.

Once you understand that engineers are designers, you can begin to see why creativity is such an essential element of what we do. Engineering is one hundred per cent a creative industry and we are designers in every sense of the word. People don’t realise that a lot of us spend our time in an office in front of a computer – and part of this is using the latest and most exciting technology available to make the buildings and infrastructure you see and use every day possible. If engineers weren’t creative, buildings that are both functional and beautiful would never come to life and we would never be able to solve the problems that inevitably arise when designing new infrastructure.

Some of the best all-round engineers I know have an aptitude for creativity, with an artistic eye and a love for architecture just as much as structure. Engineers explore ideas, create models, produce sketches and work iteratively, constantly adapting and working as a team. The industry is embracing the most cutting-edge technology as part of this, allowing creativity to thrive. Our designs can now be expressed through virtual and augmented reality, producing better – and these days more sustainable – buildings, for a brighter future.

For more information, please visit www.curtins.com

About the author

Alison Horton is a senior engineer at the Birmingham office of built environment consultancy, Curtins.

Horton is also a STEM ambassador and is passionate about encouraging more people - both male and female - into STEM related jobs.


Claire Murray featured

Breaking the stereotype of women in science: Dr Claire Murray, Chemist working at a particle accelerator

 

I’m guessing most people wouldn’t guess that my response to this traditional conversation starter at parties would cause me such consternation. In a way it feels a bit like a party piece-cum-confession: ‘My name is Claire and I’m a chemist working at a particle accelerator’. I’m clearly a little uncomfortable with saying this and I’ve recently been reflecting on why this is the case.

I’ve worked hard to get through my degrees and am now an active scientist managing different strands of projects including one where over 1,500 secondary school students are completing real scientific research, called Project M.

I’ve published many articles, given many talks at conferences and to the public and regularly chat with some of the top academics in the UK. Yet I still feel uncomfortable when someone walks up to me at a party and asks me what I do.

The origin of this discomfort is perhaps not where you might assume it would be. Many people think it wouldn’t be surprising for a woman like me to declare that I struggle with an inferiority complex. I actually find this terrifying - that it has become a norm to expect women to have inferiority complexes - but this is another article unto itself. The origin of my discomfort lies with the fact that I am going to be navigating the tricky waters of explaining what I do.

Given the fact I’ve mentioned already that I am au fait with public speaking, you would quite rightly expect that it should be no bother for me to discuss what I do. I relish the chance to discuss my science, which I love, but the challenge I face is working out in less than five seconds how interested someone is and how much they know about science already.

More often than I would like, the word scientist creates an automatic disengagement – you can actually see people physically shirking back from the conversation. I’ve only told them my name and job title and this is enough information for them to disconnect. Why? Well I think it is fair to say that science STILL has an image problem. Rather than being seen as interesting or fun, it is difficult or hard. We also are living in a society where being an ‘expert’ no longer means people will trust you.

To be fair, scientists are perceived to be less likely to lie than the police or the clergy but only 12 per cent of the public are likely to seek out scientific information.

Add to this that many people reinforce the negative stereotype by recounting their woes with science as a child when prompted.

It’s very easy therefore to see how this stereotype perpetuates itself in a constant loop and why I end up standing on my own in a corner at parties!

This reluctance to engage with science is a big problem in the UK, as society as a whole is increasingly sceptical about scientists and their work. This is particularly ironic given that the UK punches well above its weight in science and has won many Nobel Prizes to date.

However, science still isn't seen as part of everyday culture. In fact it is more often seen as a stagnant insurmountable pile of facts that is only accessible by the academic elite. Just look at women's interest magazines for example. They apparently cover everything under the sun that women are interested in, apart from the science of the sun. Or any science, directly relating to women or otherwise! This reinforces the message that science is difficult, science is hard, science is only for the chosen few.

So what can be done? The answer is actually a lot easier than you might think.

My personal recommendation is to open yourself to the joy and beauty of science. Allow yourself to revel in the unknown, in the new discoveries. Don’t be afraid to grill people like me on what we do – if you don’t understand then I’m not explaining myself very well!

Hold me responsible and ask more questions. Attend one of the many free talks run by Café Scientifique and the Institute of Physics. There are also many science festivals that run fantastic programs for both adults and children.

You can listen to one of the many podcasts or watch some of the fantastic Youtube Videos.

Come see us at Diamond Light Source (our next column will be about this!) Most of these suggestions won’t cost you a penny but they will entertain and astound you. However, please stop the negative stereotypes and assumptions about science. Don’t automatically assume it is hard, it is boring, it isn’t for you. Because you imprint those beliefs onto yourself and the people around you and one of you could be the next Nobel Prize winner.

About the author

Dr Claire Murray is a chemist working at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator in the UK.

She is passionate about chemistry and science outreach, and actively promotes women in science. Claire is leading @DLSProjectM, Diamond’s biggest ever citizen science project for UK secondary schools.