I’m a “woman in technology” (apparently). You could argue that I have been since I was 15, when I started working as a light engineer. Thankfully I didn’t become aware that this was a thing until much later, when I was asked to do an interview about being one of the first in the world to achieve a particularly hard to obtain certification. It turned out that the interview was all about “what is it like as a woman in IT”. I was 29 at the time. It was the first time I felt just how much some other people looked at me as being “different”.
Recently I’ve been thinking about why I not only didn’t hesitate to get into technology, but why the fact that I would be one of few women was never an issue. Of course, this is all with the benefit of hindsight.
Growing up I was never a girly girl. I wasn’t interested in dolls, princesses, dressing up or make-up. My favorite things to do were building Lego villages (including an extensive train track), reading and playing sports. The one Barbie doll that I owned was always dressed in jogging pants and spent most of her time watching me read.
I was bullied in school between the ages of 10 and 14, because I was tall and skinny, too smart and unwilling to compromise on that, and very shy. When I started as a light engineer in school my confidence grew. I felt very much at home and I got a lot of support from the teachers who worked with the technical team. Being a light engineer at plays and concerts was a lot of fun and it turned out I was pretty decent at it.
Because I wanted to be a professional light engineer I went on to study Electrotechnical Engineering. I was the only woman in a group of 75 students, but I never really cared about that and as far as I could tell neither did my classmates. The ratio was about the same in physics in my year, but a lot better in the studies that focused more on business and a little less on technology. Of course, it’s hard to determine whether this is because girls don’t like hardcore technology, or whether they prefer to be around other girls.
During my studies, I changed my mind and instead of becoming a light engineer I started my own software company. At first with a group of fellow students. We taught ourselves to build websites that slowly got more sophisticated. After a while I moved on to building more complex applications and working on my own. When I got tired of my own solutions and company I took a job at local Microsoft partner, became an expert in a product called SharePoint, started to become involved in the community by co-running a user group, speaking at events, writing articles, a book and publishing a magazine. More recently I moved away from technology a bit and I’m now the Operations and Capability Lead of Avanade Netherlands, the company that I’ve worked for the last seven years. In this role my main responsibility is to ensure that our people are able to keep their skills up to date and that they continue to develop the skills that our customers are asking for (or that our customers need, but that’s a different conversation altogether). The best part about the role is that I get to play a role in helping our people grow.
None of the choices that I made were particularly logical and they definitely didn’t follow any stereotypical patterns. When I started creating websites, I was learning the technology as I went. When I took up my role as Operations and Capability Lead I didn’t know what it would entail exactly. With every step that I took it was fairly certain that I would be part of a female minority. Yet I’ve always had the confidence that I would be able to make things work out.
One of the things that gives me the confidence to follow my own path and make my own choices are the examples of the people in general and more specifically, women that I saw around me growing up.
When I was born my mum worked as a developer for IBM. At that time, it was even more unusual for a woman to work in technology than it is today. For us it was just her work though. My dad owned an insurance brokerage firm and worked a lot, so my mum took care of most things around the house. She also played several sports and coached my sports teams. Apart from lifting heavy things on her own, I’ve never heard her say that she needed my dad, or another man to get something done. She would take on whatever she needed to get things done. The same is true for several other women that I spend time with while I was a girl, like some of the babysitters we had, the volleyball and tennis coaches and trainers, and my math and economic teachers in high school.
Of course, I’ve been incredibly lucky to be born into a very supportive and relatively wealthy family and to have inherited some of the positive traits and intelligence from both my parents. This is not something I can take credit for. All I had to do was to grab the opportunities that were presented to me and to work hard to make the best of them.
Another important piece of the puzzle is that no one put any focus on the fact that my choices weren’t exactly mainstream choices for a girl until I was grown up. My parents never suggested that I should maybe play with dolls more. The teachers in high school never suggested that I might be better off with more alpha subjects, rather than the beta direction I had taken by choosing mathematics, physics and chemistry.
I feel that to make girls feel confident enough to follow their own path, we need to show them that they are empowered. That they can at the very least try anything they set their mind to. They need to see other women try things they have not done before, take a risk every now and then and be bold. As a woman you can choose to play any sport you like. Women can coach their kids’ sports team and they can be a referee if one is needed. They can paint a wall, drill a hole in a wall to put a painting up and put the trash out. Everyone in their lives should tell girls this. But as women we should also show it to them. Set an example. Don’t just tell them that they are empowered, but also show them that we feel empowered ourselves. I’m calling on all mums, aunts, grandma’s, big sisters, nanny’s and teachers to step out of your comfort zone if you have to and show your little girls that being a woman is not a limitation. That you are confident enough to try something new, that you can be friends with anyone you want to be friends with and being a girl means that you have a lot of opportunities.
I’m not suggesting that all of this will mean every girl will go into technology. All that I’m hoping is that it will make more girls feel empowered and less subconscious about choosing a direction that might not be the most common or logical one. For some this might mean going into technology, some might become a writer, or a musician and others might feel very strongly about becoming a teacher, a nurse, or a lawyer. It’s all good, as long as they feel free to make choices based on what they like and love, rather than based on what others might be expecting of them, or what’s the “safe” option that most girls are choosing.