It’s pretty common knowledge that some industries are still very male-dominated. I myself am very aware of this, working for a tech company that is 90% male. I would say, however, that I have never felt held back or intimidated by my co-workers (I wonder sometimes if perhaps some of them are actually intimidated by me, ha!). BUT, I know that my experience is, unfortunately, not necessarily the norm. I am all too aware that many women, particularly in male-dominated industries, feel marginalised or discriminated against in their workplaces.
The tech industry is one of those male-dominated industries and I got to thinking recently, “I wonder how other women feel about this?”. I recently had a chat with one of our Senior Software Engineers, Dr. Jocelyn Graham (who’s been working in the industry a bit longer than me), to get her perspective of what it’s like working in such a male-dominated industry. She was also kind enough to provide some advice for women considering or just starting (or even her younger self when she started) a career in tech.
What does your job role involve?
I’m a Senior Software Engineer. Ultimately my job is about problem-solving. You work to get each step of the system sorted. It’s extremely gratifying when it all works together. The focus of any project needs to be the product or service; ensuring the system is configurable and delivers the right information to clients. You know you’ve done something right if the system is still being used 5 years down the line.
What inspired you to choose a career in technology?
Strangely, I didn’t actually choose a career in technology as such. It’s more that I had to use technology to achieve my aims (for example in controlling robotic equipment during my Ph.D.). Once I became proficient in a few technologies I realised I had a marketable skill, which was great. I realised that I really liked being able to build and control technology without being dependent on help.
Have any hobbies or interests impacted your career in a positive way?
I think my hobbies have been really influential and have helped me a lot actually.
I play the electric guitar and have played in bands since school. My first band was spotted by a producer. Everything that went into getting an EP together in a 24 track studio was a super induction into what technology can do for you musically.
I’ve gradually built up my own home recording studio, which has allowed me to have creative control in a way that has vastly improved my technical ability and arrangement skills. This helped when I was doing some contract work for Nature Magazine who needed a voice-over on a project and I was able to get a really professional job done for them.
Other hobbies I have are skiing and scuba diving. I also play ladies’ football; I find this is a great form of stress relief after a busy or hectic week, so I love it!
Can you tell us a bit about a “typical” day for you?
Hmm, we always have a short morning meeting – this allows the team to be aware of what work is going on and to flag up any potential blockers to progress. Usually, I look at the work planned for the week and pick something to work on. This might be testing something built by another dev, investigating new technology, or even trying to make 2 systems talk to each other or creating a new feature. There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t pick up a new trick to use.
Did you study an IT or technology-related subject at A-Level or University?
I studied Maths, Chemistry and Physics at A-Level, then Chemistry at University. I went on to do a Ph.D. in the mechanical engineering department of Imperial College London, sponsored by Ford. This included working at the Ford research department in America, near Detroit, as part of my research. As I mentioned before, I sort of fell into a career in technology as a result of the skills I picked up along the way.
Did you get any work experience in IT or technology before this role?
Yes, but perhaps not in the traditional way that you’d expect.
During my Ph.D., I was using robotic kits to simulate different engine actions. My chemistry knowledge was being used to formulate different oil additives to reduce friction within the engine. I quickly realised that I couldn’t do the exact experiments I wanted unless I learned how to program the robot so I could do some non-standard tests. This was around the time the internet was just becoming important. Companies were clamouring to make efficiencies using the internet, but the developers simply were not there. So, during my Ph.D., I had a lucrative (we’d call it a “side-hustle” now) side-line in developing small internet sites for banks and various other clients. This ended up being so successful I had to employ other students! I ended up forming a business doing this on the side for about 3 years. Not bad I think!
At the end of my Ph.D., I worked for the Global advertising agency “Publicis”, a company I’d carried out some contracts for during my Ph.D. The role wasn’t quite as technical as I’d like but it was a good opportunity to learn branding, web advertising standards, and so on. I then went to work for Merrill Lynch investment bank. I did this because I had no formal training in a programming language and, despite banking being a cutthroat industry, their hiring policy was forward-thinking; they wanted bright STEM graduates and offered training. Other companies wanted 3 years in x or y language which would only have been possible with a degree in computing. At Merrill, I became assistant vice president of the Prime Brokerage division.
Do you think there are a lack of females in the IT and tech sectors? If so, why do you think that is?
Yes. The IT tech sector (in fact any sector) should represent society. At the moment it does not, and the sector is all the poorer for it. Originally software engineering was pioneered by women like Katherine Johnson (NASA computing expert) or Ada Lovelace (who published the first algorithm to be used on a general-purpose computer). At the moment there is a cultural barrier to diversity in the industry that wasn’t so much there in the past. We just need to bring the cultural thinking back to what it once was.
Do you find there is a stereotype that a career in IT or technology is just for men?
Without a doubt!
I also find that the view of women and what we can bring to a role in IT or technology is fundamentally different. There seems to be an assumption that you’ll be tangenital rather than integral to cutting code.
Also, an overconfident (more of a traditionally male trait) person is seen as technically superior while, admitting you don’t know something and will need to check before confirming (generally more of a female trait), is perceived negatively. However, if you are willing to admit you don’t know something you’re able to learn and check your facts before potentially making any mistakes. It should be seen as a big strength for someone to have the courage to check facts rather than making off-the-cuff guesswork in the moment.
What do you think is the best part about being a woman in tech?
I definitely think I get more of a mental workout than women my age who work in other industries. Although, I suppose you could say that’s the case with men and women in other industries. They have a skill(s) and perform that skill over and over all day (al)most every day. Over time, they just start to come home absolutely frazzled by the repetitive nature of the job. As a result, they feel too tired to hear about their family’s woes.
I get to solve problems and use more of my brain than other women (and I suppose men too) my age who work in other industries.
What would entice women to study technology-related courses?
I think we are improving the numbers of women who study STEM subjects. Could more be done? Yes, I think so. I think it’s getting that first job in tech that is more problematic.
There are plenty of reasons to study STEM; ultimately it IS a meritocracy at university. If you can work out the answer you get the points, there are no marks taken off for an incorrect “style” and you don’t need to 2nd guess what the examiner’s opinion is on anything. Also, the value for money; if you take STEM you get hands-on technical experience, whether that is chemical synthesis, electronics or direct computing you already have some marketable skills. Courses where it’s simply tutorials and lectures – well… it’s hard to know where your course fees are actually going.
Are there barriers when it comes to women getting into tech?
Yes undoubtedly, you just have to look at the figures. The split of studying a STEM subject at university is 30% females and 52% males. So, given this, we should be seeing 3 female CVs for every 5 male CVs. In practice, we are seeing far fewer than this. I believe this is for 2 reasons:
- Job specs – I think the way they are laid out and worded often puts women off (women are often far harsher on themselves about what their skill set is and tend to be less inclined to “talk themselves up”)
- Job interviews – the nature of tech-related interviews (e.g. being subject to a 2-hour grilling on language syntax), just tend to favour the male personality, similar to the reasons I gave above
What advice would you give young women today at the start of their career?
Stay technical. There will be many, many pressures for you to take on roles involving more soft skills: technical client manager, technical marketing, project coordinator, scrum master, business analyst the list goes on. ALL of these roles disappear in the event of a recession. In the 2008 crash, 90% of all employees let go from Goldmans were women. This speaks for itself. Just consider marketability and job security, as well as what you enjoy doing most when thinking about your career goals and prospects.
What would you say has been your most exciting project so far?
Most exciting was definitely when Publicis won the contract for the website to launch the Euro currency. I was Technical Project Manager on this project, and I found it fascinating. Our website was the go-to location for all businesses to find out how to switch currency, how to file taxes that year, how to detect a counterfeit note, and so on. The Greek government changed their mind 3 times on how they were going to write “Euro” and there was an incident where some of the vector graphics got scrambled and many Greek islands got dragged inadvertently towards Turkey!!! I got to see the currency over in Brussels before the launch (before anybody in the EU) and it was amazing to see the site up and running and the entire EU using it.
What would you say has been your biggest success?
At Merrill Lynch, one of my first projects was in the compliance department where we had just started trying to implement the concept of ethical investment into portfolios. The users wanted to define complex parameters in English e.g. “Invest only up to 5% in fossil fuels unless this is balanced by more than 15% in sustainable energy fields”. I had to take the contracts we had and build a system to turn these limits into saveable, reusable, alerting systems so that the investments met the ethics of the investors. Unknown to me, the bank was skeptical about someone early in their career taking on the project and had a fall-back position budgeted so that they could hire staff to do this work manually. Since they didn’t have to use this contingency and the system was a success I had effectively saved the bank quite a bit of money.
What would you say has been your biggest learning opportunity and why?
I think my current job has been my biggest learning opportunity. In this role, I’ve moved from backend development to full-stack, which means having a hand in development from the front end all through to the backend and really every part of the system. In a large company you rarely get this chance so it’s often difficult to see the benefit to the end-users. In telematics, we deal in big data and contribute to the knowledge of IoT (internet of things), which I think will be the future of quite a number of companies. How we handle massive amounts of data and deliver targeted information to clients is a massive challenge and keeping order in your data with that volume is no small feat!
Top skills that anyone, who wants to work in Tech need?
I’d say first build a website for something that interests you – if you have a hobby or you know someone with a business, create something that adds value to that venture. Even better, also build a database to store information – you’ll soon learn the value of storing your data in an orderly fashion.
These 2 things can probably count towards a computing GCSE if you are at that stage but if not, might be the only way to get experience to put on your CV. Finally, I’d say a nice-to-have is to be able to mock up some UI in a graphic design package. Schools are pretty good now at getting this into the curriculum.
If designing some UI doesn’t appeal, at least be able to do some cool birthday cards for friends – play with photos that kind of thing – it’s surprising how often you’ll need design skills in the workplace.
Your biggest role models?
I think it’s hard to look back at my school life and think of career role models – my job didn’t exist, and the internet wasn’t widely used until my Ph.D. years.
Dr. Phillipa Cann (AKA: international grease expert) who I had the pleasure of working within my Ph.D. was always an inspiration. Doing a career that didn’t previously exist and becoming a leading expert in oil technology is not easy, but she made it look extremely good fun. I would also say Joan Jett (of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts) was an inspiration.