Personal insights: women in IT

August 21, 2014

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Endocode and newthinking are partner companies who campaign for gender balance. The following interview is also available in German on the newthinking blog; it was conducted in March 2014 with Jennifer Beecher. Jennifer is Senior Product Manager at SoundCloud, Senior Software Engineer as well as a Trainer and Coach – and last but not least: The chairwoman of the supervisory board f Endocode AG. The trigger for the interview was a conversation of the Endocode shareholders about gender balance in our company.

Jennifer, you are working now for many years in the area of communication technology. How is it to work as woman in such a male-dominated branch?

Engineering has traditionally always been very male-dominated. In a way I am used to it because I was the only girl in my computer science class at high school, and then I went to university and studied computer science where the gender balance wasn’t much better. So I don’t always notice it. But sometimes you realize it, especially when all of a sudden you are among women, and you notice how different it is. Sometimes I go into a meeting and I’ll be like, “Wow. There are 10 men in here, and I am the only woman.”

Can you elaborate on that?

When you are a woman in IT, the pressure from society can feel like you can’t be a ‘normal’ woman. For the longest time I stopped talking about things like shoes or lipstick or make-up even though I may have been interested in them, because I knew if I say something somebody is going to think “Oh, she is a cliché woman”. I also felt like I have the whole reputation of women in tech to defend. All that pressure is on me. So I didn’t dare to behave in a very feminine way. What I learned in the last three years is to not care and just be myself.

It’s a shame that our society shapes the perception that way. If I as a woman get assertive, if I actually fight for my opinion, I get perceived very differently quite often. For a man that’s perceived as normal, as a woman I sometimes get perceived as bitchy because that’s not a quality that a woman is ‘supposed’ to have.

What do you suggest to other women in the same situation?

It’s a difficult choice to make as a woman sometimes, but the choice I’ve made is: I refuse to put on that act. And I do realize that in some situations it might give me a disadvantage. But it gives me just as many advantages in other situations. That has a lot to do with authenticity and how you’re perceived. I get a lot of positive feedback in terms of trustworthiness and all these things and that comes from being authentic.

I wish we would have more diversity in leadership roles so you don’t have to fall into this clichéd category: what’s valued is the decision maker. “Yeah, I’ll do this! I’ll get it done!” that kind of thing. But I think another kind of perspective is just as valuable, one that says “How are we going to solve that problem together?” – a more indirect leadership that tries to bring people together and bubbles the decision to the surface.

How can we change the behavior of others?

Sometimes people ask me “How do you start changing these things?” Sometimes what makes work uncomfortable for women are rude remarks that people make without thinking about them. For example, a friend of mine told me very recently that she happened to be carrying some papers and somebody told her, “You’d make a good secretary”. People don’t think about it. It is not that they mean something bad. But the only way you stop this is by actually bringing it out in the open in a nice way. Saying “Hey, I know you didn’t mean that in a bad way but it would be nice if you’d stop saying things like that because it makes me feel uncomfortable”. I’ve gotten feedback from quite a few men who told me “Wow, you really made me think. I never thought about that.” So quite often it’s not about bad intentions, it’s just people aren’t aware. The only way to change this is to make people think about it.

The other side is much more difficult to tackle, and that’s unconscious bias. The solution is still basically the same: bring it out in the open and educate people.

Unfortunately bans are often the reaction from our society to problems. For example Berlin’s district Mitte had discussions about forbidding advertisements with women in stereotype situations.

When it comes to advertising I don’t think prohibiting anything helps. The problem is not that women are pictured in a kitchen, it’s when they are only pictured in these traditional roles. And you can get bias the other way. There is the extreme other end where women who choose to stay at home and take care of the kids get attacked by more career-oriented women. So where we need to get to is the point of a healthy mix of everything. So that we all perceive that we have all of these options.

And I think we are only at the beginning. In a way I sometimes feel that the pressure is almost stronger on men. There are just as many kinds of preconceptions about how a man has to behave: “You have to be a strong person and you have to support the family.” The difference is that those generally happen to be the more privileged positions in society. But that’s just the gender aspect. As a team it’s important to create more diversity also into other directions. It’s about creating a culture where people can have respectful conversations about these things and can be vulnerable.

I am also a little bit of an outsider at Endocode as I am not a programmer. I try to help create a company culture that welcomes not only programmers. How do you see that?

That’s actually something I keep talking about. Quite often you do things that you’re trying to do to help gender balance, and it helps create a nicer workplace overall. Because it’s not just women; a company monoculture hurts personality types – male or female – that aren’t part of that. That might be more introverted versus extroverted, that might be more reserved versus assertive. If you get that environment right, it will benefit all of these people and will be a much nicer place to work.

This interview was conducted by Andreas Wichmann. Andreas is a partner at Endocode AG and an expert in collaboration. As a consultant he helps clients with their processes concerning teamwork and cooperation. In addition to his work at Endocode, Andreas is active on projects at newthinking in several capacities, including as an expert for open innovation projects._

Find all articles in the gender balance series here:

  1. Personal insights: women in IT – with Jennifer Beecher
  2. Just do it! – with Cecilia Palmer
  3. Free Software, Free Society? – with Silke Meyer
  4. What women want – and what they have to learn – with Jutta Wepler
  5. Endocode wants gender balance: How to start? – with Jennifer Beecher