Women in tech in the 80’s
‘You were a female software developer 20+ years ago? You were actually coding back then in what must have been an extremely male dominated industry…because it still is today! We’re all still struggling to recruit women in tech roles now. Do you mind telling me your story?’
This was the opening conversation at a recent demo of Engage, a new employee engagement app I’ve co-created with Axiom Communications. The objective of he app is to drive up engagement, help address the top-down hierarchical structures and bring transparency to communications between leaders and employees across the board.
Up until this point I hadn’t considered my work history to be anything out of the ordinary. But telling my story that morning it struck me at just how unusual my career to date had been. Because you don’t do you? When you’re on a mission, when you’re driven and determined, working against the odds and swimming against the tide. You keep your head down, your mind on the job and your focus on the upcoming goals. You don’t keep looking back over your shoulder.
But women in tech are still today under-represented, under-valued and under-paid. So here it is, my women in tech story, highly summarised in a trilogy of blogs. Candidly told alongside lessons learnt whilst climbing up through the white, male, middle-class dominated hierarchies in Information Technology.
Though a straight A-streamer throughout most of my time at school I was always extremely independent and strong minded. No surprise then as the hormones kicked in during my teens I went a little off the rails before leaving school at 16 with no formal qualifications.
However, I did possess the ability to challenge authorities when needed together with the sure knowledge that rules sometimes needed twisting (or breaking) and the gutsy confidence that comes with such enlightenment at a young age.
Lesson learnt: Women in tech need to not be afraid to challenge the status quo
Stumbling into tech
By the time I was 22 I’d done a year at secretarial school, worked as a data entry clerk for 3 years, got married, had my first son and gained 5 O-levels and 2 A-levels as a mature student at college whilst also holding down a part-time job.
I applied to a government sponsored scheme to help get people into tech roles which had been advertised in the Nottingham Evening Post. I’d never even considered IT as a career but on the promise of above average earnings and a great career I signed up to take the pre-requisite entry level tests.
As one of the top 10% performers who took the entry level assessments I was offered a place on a 15-week intensive computer programming training course. Although it was a daunting initially to be a young Mum working alongside single male university graduates, my confidence soon grew as I out performed most delegates and would often spend time helping my co-trainees get up to speed.
Lesson learnt: Not all bright and talented people have University degrees
Lesson learnt: Use innovative ways to identify and recruit a diverse workforce
First signs of women in tech challenges
Despite an outstanding performance on the course learning languages such as Cobol and Fortran, I was competing against male graduates on the job market and the software development role I was so set on by now was just not open to me. My male co-delegates all found development roles very quickly.
However, before long I was offered a computer operator job by a wonderful lady tech boss called Diane, who ran a computer centre for Remploy, an equal opportunities employer. Finally, I was on my way and although it was not the role I’d wanted, it was a foot in the door, a decent salary and I was on my way.
Lesson learnt: Sometimes it can take a successful and confident woman tech boss who has had to prove herself the hard way to spot, take a chance on and recruit an outsider
Lesson learnt: Don’t judge applicants on their personal situations, what you think might be a drawback might could be the one factor that drives them on
I worked shifts which worked well while my son was still pre-school but within a couple of years I needed to move on and secured another position in the ops team of a local brewery. I’d spent over two happy years at Remploy and on handing in my notice was offered a promotion to stay, running the ops centre down in Bristol. But I was a single Mum and good, affordable childcare was hard to find. To relocate at that time would have been a huge risk for me and my son, so I decided to stay local and move to the brewery which had a much bigger IT department with more opportunities.
Role stereotypes by gender
My role at the brewery was still in computer operations. Again, I was recruited by a strong and confidant woman in tech, the ops team manager who headed up a team of 4 women and 1 man. Incidentally by comparison the software programming team ratio of males to females was roughly 15:1.
Lesson learnt: Women in tech tend to fall into traditional supporting roles such as operations, support, analysis or training rather than leading edge technology roles
It wasn’t long before I challenged the IT Director. How come the only male team member got to go out on the road installing EPOS systems into pubs and restaurants whilst the women were office bound with the more mundane day to day duties?
I was soon sent out a couple of times with Mike to learn the ropes of EPOS installations before being given a couple of pubs in Leeds to do on my own.
At the end of the week the IT Director called me into his office and handed me two bottles of wine. He’d received rave reviews from the pub managers for the installations I’d done, and requests from other managers in the area specifically asking for me to do theirs due to the neatness of my cabling. From that point I was put on EPOS installations full time.
Lesson learnt: Don’t assume some roles are more suited to a specific gender, give everyone a fair chance and pick the right person for the job
Find out more about my journey in the next edition of my ‘women in tech’ blog: Women in tech part II: Diversity through the ranks
Helen Reinson: Providing consultancy in technology and creating innovative, intuitive software and mobile apps. Contact me to find out more at firstname.lastname@example.org.