The topic of gender diversity has become so popular in the tech community recently that it seems like it’s the only thing anybody can talk about… except perhaps Donald Trump!
During my 11 years as Software Engineer, I have never been aware of lack of females in IT, although that may be because I was lucky enough to know a lot of them. But let’s start from the beginning.
Starting out in technology
As a child growing up in Ukraine I was reasonably good at maths. I was not the best in my class, but I did manage to win a couple of regional competitions every school year or so. All of the best students in my maths and physics classes were girls—seven girls to be precise, and they were constantly winning most regional and countrywide contests in maths, physics, chemistry and biology. I wasn’t one of them, so I never considered myself smart enough to study physics or mathematics in University.
That wasn’t a huge problem though, because I wanted to be an archaeologist, travelling around the world, digging up old graves. I saw my future self as the next Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Unfortunately, in Ukraine, with a degree in archaeology the only job you were likely to get was as a teacher at a primary school. So when I started looking at University courses, my (extremely wise) mother suggested studying computing instead. Rather prophetically, she thought that “those devices” would play a big role in our future. I was good enough in mathematics, we already had a computer at home, and I had learned some basic programming skills at school, so I enrolled at the National Technical University Kharkiv Politechnic Institute (http://www.kpi.kharkov.ua/en/) to study “Computer Systems and Networks”.
Out of 120 students in my stream there were only 20 girls. At the first meeting with our faculty lead, he welcomed all the girls in the audience with a message something like: “You, who wears skirts today, I know that the only reason you joined this faculty is to find a good husband here. Please don`t mess with the boys and don’t distract them from studying”. A very inspiring speech!
To my surprise, in my first year I discovered that I was the best in my class at programming, probably because my school had had programming as a mandatory subject for the previous three years! It didn’t take me long to complete my tasks in Pascal and then C++, so I was asked by my teachers to help other students. Unfortunately, most of other girls in my stream turned out not to be interested, or they really struggled with the technical subjects. Some of those girls were also sexually harassed by faculty teachers and peers.
Which brings me to tip number one on improving gender diversity: “To increase the number of women in IT, stop harassing and insulting them.”
Don’t underestimate a desire to learn
I was lucky enough to have inspiring teachers around me, and most of them were challenging me to be the best in my class. I ended up winning the prize for the best Master’s degree research for my work on Automated system for gathering data for NMR spectrometer. My dean told me that I had to be at least twice smart as the boys to get a job in IT and to be taken seriously. I would need to keep learning new things in this profession every day. He also told me to find a job as developer as soon as possible. I listened to him and got my first job as Software Engineer before starting my third year in University.
My first job was unpaid and I was working there from 2 PM to 11 PM after classes on weekdays. On the weekends I was working in a cafe to earn some money. My workplace was a boys’ club, with the sole exception of the system administrator—she was a very intelligent woman, loved and respected by everyone. I wasn’t contributing much back then, nobody was keen to mentor me, and collaboration wasn’t part of the culture. People were working on individual tasks without much interaction. Consequently I learned to work independently, using the Internet as source of documentation and help. I managed to launch my first project, which brought down our server within an hour of release—fun times!
My first real paid job as a junior developer started in 2005. My boss didn’t want to hire me at first because of my knowledge gaps and general lack of experience, but he was tired of guys swearing all day, so he chose to hire the office’s first female to change their behaviour. And it worked, they stopped swearing out loud!
So that’s my tip number two: “Value ability and desire to learn above current knowledge and experience when hiring”
Constructive criticism is better than staying silent
I worked in that company for almost two years and helped to hire other women as software developers, which changed the culture a lot. I also had the privilege of visiting our headquarters in Canada. Even there I was surprised to discover that the only women in the office were accountants and receptionists.
I was changing jobs roughly every two years, to get more knowledge and stay up-to-date with the latest shiny tech. My managers from the early days always expected me to write the best possible code and were giving me hard time during code reviews. At the last company I worked at in Ukraine there were only two female developers in a team of 30. Even with that balance, we had a great culture, and I was respected and was promoted very quickly. My colleagues always valued my opinion and gave me constructive feedback, though sometimes hearing “your code is a piece of bullshit” was a bit upsetting.
When I came to Australia in 2012 I was lucky enough to join an IT consultancy just one month after landing in Melbourne. I found out about gender diversity, what real agile is, and had the chance to meet many smart people. This was a big shift for me in terms of working environment and culture.
Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to adapt. The most challenging thing for me in Australia is getting valuable, timely feedback. Back in Ukraine every colleague would inform me straight away if my execution of any task was less than perfect. Here, everybody is happy to tell you how awesome you are, but no one will tell you to your face if you screw up. We are too afraid to hurt each others’ feelings.
The truth is that it is impossible to deliver constructive criticism without hurting feelings or at least making the other person uncomfortable. We should not be scared of that—it is small price to pay. Sometimes hurting feelings can be good for a person in the long run. As humans, we tend to learn more from failures than from successes. And hearing “your code sucks” is way better than “you’re fired”!
Tip number three: “Women, like everybody else, need constructive criticism on a regular basis to grow”
Promotions aren’t gender specific
I have heard people saying that women are least likely to ask for promotion and that is why they rarely get promoted. I don’t think that it applies to women only. As an introvert it is much easier for me to find another job and get a pay rise than ask for it at the current job. And most developers that I know feel the same.
Another pattern that I have observed: most people got promoted only when they are already doing 90% of duties of the new role. People that got noticed and recognised sacrifice a lot of their personal time, sometimes doing things that are completely unsustainable for a healthy lifestyle in the long term. For some people it is much harder to invest personal time, especially when you have a family and other interests outside work.
Tip number four: “Maybe, we should also reward and promote people who are doing a great job from 9 to 5 and delivering amazing project on schedule”
Unfortunately, for big companies it is much easier to have standard process and rules that apply to all employees. But I believe we can do much better. Maybe it is time to disrupt company-wide bureaucracy and become more diverse?
Anyway, that is my 5c to the discussion. Australia’s tech community still has a long way to go to reaching gender equality, and no company is perfect, but at least we’re making progress.