Addressing the elephant in the room

Aug 27th, 2021

It’s no secret that female representation in the IT sector leaves much to be desired. When searching “Gender representation in tech” on Google, one is met with headlines like “Women remain under-represented in emerging tech” (PWC), “Women in tech statistics: The hard truths of an uphill battle” (CIO), and “Are we really closing the gender gap in tech?” (Forbes). Female representation in the IT sector is no longer a taboo subject reserved only for male-dominated conversations, and while previously and consistently questioned, women have proven their capabilities time and time again, and more than earned their seat at the table. Yet inequalities persist, proving that addressing the elephant in the room is no longer the polite thing to do – it’s imperative to the future of the industry.

No, not all female professionals work in HR

“I remember the first few times I interviewed older male candidates who had applied for a job with BBD. I could always tell that they thought I was from HR and wondered when the boss was going to arrive so that we could begin the interview,” tells BBD executive, Charlene Cooke. “At first, I felt weird about it and made sure I invited some older male colleagues to the interview, in case the candidates were put off by me interviewing them.” Similarly, BBD business analyst, Lerato Khabo shares that “I have experienced a few instances at previous workplaces where I was the only woman invited to a meeting and was asked to go and make tea. As women, we have to work harder than men. We need to learn to speak up for ourselves while producing excellent work to back up our claim.” These stories are two of countless instances where women in tech have been undermined or treated in line with a perception rooted in bias, when the reality is that their presence on technical teams alone is confirmation of their ability to meaningfully contribute to a project – and not with morsels of hospitality like tea, but with hard-earned expertise that can take a solution from ‘good’ to ‘excellent’.

“But the statistics show…”

According to recent studies, code submitted by women is more often accepted compared to that of men. However, it happens only when they are not identifiable as women, as found in research from GitHub. After obtaining data from 1.4 million users, the researcher discovered that the acceptance rate of women’s code was 78.6% compared to 74.6% of those by men, but only when their profiles didn’t contain information on their gender. By comparison, when women did identify their gender, the rate dropped to 62%, revealing not only that code written by women is more likely to be approved by peers than code written by men, but that the tech community at large (where women only account for 19% of the workforce) is biased against women. And this reality has gone unchecked for so long, that it has affected women in the industry and how they identify themselves in relation to their male counterparts. “The gender gap in the industry can affect you in multiple ways. It can make you feel out of place,” says junior software engineer at BBD, Lauren Mitchell. “People’s attitudes to women can come out even in the little comments or subtle ways in which they treat you. I’ve seen how badly this has impacted friends. I have also been told by more than one previous colleague (fortunately not at BBD) that they simply do not believe women should work in the technical field.”

Growth from the root up

Historically speaking, STEM-related degrees have been pursued largely by males, but this is steadily changing as talented young women dive into the world of tech despite a legacy of under-representation. “The gender gap in this industry is huge, in part due to the fact that few women in the past studied anything IT related – but this is changing” says Khabo. As the discourse continues to shift at university- and entry-level, it is important that the industry at large sees shifts in attitudes towards women simultaneously, at an organisational and inter-personal level. “An internal ‘women in IT’ group is a great start. This helps provide a line of sight to women who have made it to technical leadership or have had great growth in their career. Depending on your team, you may not have had exposure to these type of role models” suggests Mitchell. “This also creates mentoring opportunities that helps reinforce a feeling of belonging and strengthens connections between women in a company.”

Creating a legacy of growth

We are famous for continuous delivery for over three decades, and our people are at the heart of that legacy; a legacy so deeply rooted in growth that from graduate to executive level, every BBDer’s career goal is fostered and met. “I’m working on a great team that encourages training and technical growth. It’s still early days in my career, but I’m happy with the opportunities I have had so far” shares Mitchell. Further to this, BBD prides itself on an equal and inclusive workforce, and culture of “can-do”, regardless of gender. “My career at BBD began with them throwing me in the deep-end from day one, just like all the other grads. There was absolutely none of that “Go gentle on the skinny blonde girl, start her on the easy stuff”– and I LOVED that!” reflects Cooke, “It felt great to work for a company that saw past my skirt and my age and appreciated me for my professional abilities. When I interview candidates now, I am confident knowing any potential employees who have a problem reporting to a younger female have no place in our business. This business is about talent, skill and attitude, regardless of your age, race, gender or religion.”

An environment in which to thrive

Creating safe and empowering working environments not just for women, but for everyone, helps ensure that organisations are getting the best out of their people, as they are assured of the security of their careers beyond the politics associated with gender identity. “I appreciate that there is an open-door policy and there are a lot of ways to speak up that will never be used against you” says Khabo about her experience at BBD.  “And I have personally used these opportunities to bring change.” In contrast, Cooke recalls from a previous workplace “when my boyfriend proposed to me, I remember my boss calling me into a room and asking me what my career plans are now that I am engaged. He didn’t seem to understand that my career plans were not changing and had nothing to do with my impending marriage. He said he assumed that I might want a different career path now that I am getting married and if I plan on having kids. This type of behaviour continued, and I began to suffer from anxiety. I dreaded going to work every morning and began to get physically ill”. Creating a safe workspace extends to ensuring gender stereotypes are avoided, and bias behaviour dealt with firmly and proactively for the wellbeing of all employees.

“Hopefully, all in the world will soon be equal” says Khabo, and while the wheels of change are definitely in motion, we have a long way still to go in creating an equally-representative, empowering working environment and levelled playing field in the tech industry for all, where growth is a possibility regardless of gender.

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