Last month we had the pleasure of chatting to Sarah about her experience being a woman in tech. Sarah is an Engineering Team Lead who has continuously levelled up throughout her career and has been advocating for equitable environments for both women and men to thrive in.
30% of Sarah’s current role is dedicated to women in tech; she’s involved with public talks, podcasts, and the writing of blog posts. Sarah’s ambition is to change the culture and industry she’s working in to teach people how to be good allies and create supportive environments.
Welcome Sarah, thanks for joining us! Let’s start with your experience going into tech…
My tech career started with completing a computer science degree at a Russell group uni. By the time I had graduated, more than 2/3rds of the women had dropped out, largely due to the culture.
It was an overtly sexist environment. I once heard a group of male peers say that there was ‘no point’ asking a female teaching assistant for help as ‘she won’t be able to help because girls just don’t think right’. I had finished the coursework early, and when they realised and asked for help, I pointed out that as I am a woman, I couldn’t possibly ‘think right’ to help them.
I lost male friends at uni because I got an internship, and they didn’t. They said I only got it because I’m a woman with a service dog, so I look good for company diversity. There have been many times in my career where I wanted to quit but I didn’t because I’m stubborn and I have a good support system. My mum has always been a role model for being a headstrong, independent woman; she is a chartered accountant and obviously faced sexism when working within financial institutions which taught me from a young age how to stand up for myself.
What I’ve found being a woman in tech is a lot of people don’t realise their behaviours are discriminatory. They don’t realise they’re creating a culture of isolation. Women aren’t often given the same baseline respect and support in the workplace which means we’re forever fighting for it. This then trickles down, meaning our level of expertise is not respected and we’re not taken seriously.
Women are rarely considered average. It’s always that they’re ‘amazing’, they’re ‘wonder woman’; they can’t just be your average Joe. They have to go above and beyond because it’s only when they’re over-performing do they start to get recognition and some level of respect.
It’s really sad to hear how prevalent sexism is within the tech industry despite being in the 21st century. Do you think sexism is one of the largest issues facing tech?
The biggest issues are micro-aggressions and a normalisation of low-level discrimination. Tech companies who think of themselves as ‘more modern’ pretend there aren’t any issues because ‘they’ve moved past it’. These issues need constant attention, not just on the awareness days.
The idea of what sexism is has changed. Companies cling on to the idea that ‘there’s just not enough women’. No, that’s only one part of the problem. The issue is women aren’t staying. It’s all good and well getting women into positions and internships but the issue is they are 3-4x more likely to leave the industry than male colleagues.
Women reach a breaking point where they think ‘Do you know what, I have transferrable skills, I’ll go somewhere I’m better supported’. Something I like to focus on is not just getting women in but keeping them. There has been a huge shift in the last 10 years on getting more women in whether it be through education or career. When I was at an all-girls school around 2010, I couldn’t take IT for my GCSEs, yet it was offered to the all-boys school.
Whilst there’s now greater diversity than there was, we haven’t changed our culture to get ready for women and more importantly, keep them. When women aren’t overachieving, it’s always believed ‘maybe they’re not the right fit’ but never do they think whether they’ve curated a culture which women can thrive in.
It’s good to hear times are beginning to change, but it’s surprising to us how common this discrimination is. As a woman who has levelled up in the tech industry, what has been your experience so far leading your own team?
I’ve only been a team lead for a year, and I am lucky that Dojo are incredibly supportive. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still face the aforementioned micro-aggressions. For example, when I’m in meetings it’s often expected that I assume certain roles, such as notetaker and peacekeeper as I’m the only woman, and I know this isn’t just happening to me.
On top of being the technical team lead and people manager for my team, I also head up the Women in Tech function. The approach I have taken is two-fold. Firstly, working top-down with execs, VPs and high-level management to change their behaviour and the culture they are creating. Crucially though I am spending time with the women at Dojo and hearing the problems they are actually facing which might be contributing to them leaving. I then anonymise and aggregate the data to help enact change, shape policies and ultimately try and build an empowering environment for them.
A big part is support. It’s equity not equality. It’s about understanding the individual needs of women, and particularly those coming back from maternity leave. What can we do to support women coming back? Do they still want that job? Do they still want that level of responsibility? Do they want flexible working? Is it they need different work hours or time to transition back to prevent being overwhelmed? I’ve found a lot of these important discussions aren’t happening across the industry.
You mentioned there equity not equally and understanding the needs of women. How do you feel a lack of diversity is impacting the workplace?
Something I read a while ago which really resonated with me was how we taught women that they can be independent, they can be the bread winner, they can have jobs and be a stay-at-home mum if they want. They can be whoever they want to be. We did not teach men and young boys what this meant for them. We didn’t teach them that women aren’t taking opportunities away from them, but instead raising the competition. This is evident throughout the culture within tech; the passive aggressive behaviours, comments about how women only got a role due to ‘positive discrimination’, and the idea that mothers can’t have the same career progression as men (regardless of if they are a father).
In terms of the workplace, the more women you have, the more women will come. The more diverse your team is, the better product you’ll create. Everyone has different life experiences and perspectives which will feed into your product. If you’ve got a group of people who are the same demographic, it’s likely they’ll have similar experiences. This product will then only cater to one demographic, which cuts off a huge portion of the market. Our population isn’t 81% male, so why should your workplace?
That’s great advice. As a recruitment agency, we’re always trying to keep the office 50:50 split as much as possible to create a diverse environment where everyone can feed in their personal experiences. Before we go, of course we can’t mention tech without AI. We’ve seen a lot of news articles surrounding Ai being discriminative, what are your thoughts on it all?
If we’re feeding biased data into these systems, it proves we’re not learning. In 2016, Microsoft created an AI bot called Tay which became Neo-Nazi and was shut down just 16 hours after launch. This was 7 years ago and still chat bots are producing discriminatory content. Social media is still riddled with sexism, racism and homophobia. We need to do better at scrutinising the data we feed AI to ensure that it isn’t taught discrimination from the get-go.
Wow we did not know about that! Thank you for your time today, Sarah it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Hopefully with all the awareness you’re doing, everyone can go away and do their part to make a difference.
Read our previous blog interview here: ‘Meet Dan | LGBTQ+ role model in Tech‘