Yang Lyu, a back-end engineer at Australian technology services company Kablamo, is one of the few women on her team in the male-dominated field of software development.
But that wasn’t always the case in the early years of programming. During World War II, a majority of women operated some of the world’s first calculators used for code-breaking. Today, according to some industry estimates, only 25-30% of software developers are women.
The industry can do even better when it comes to gender diversity. The lack of awareness of the IT profession among students and unconscious biases are just some of the challenges that need to be overcome before women’s representation in software development teams can be improved.
During a BrightTalk webinar today, Computer Weekly brought together a group of women technology leaders and professionals at different stages of their software development careers to explore some of these issues and what the industry can do to close the gender gap.
The discussion covered a range of topics including the challenges of greater gender diversity and the importance of having more role models, support systems and building skills and confidence for women to thrive in the tech industry.
Role models are in demand
The lack of role models is a key challenge, said Rachel Teng, junior front-end developer at Acronis, a provider of cybersecurity and backup software.
“There are many successful and respected ones [male] Software developers and men in IT. When I see the lack of women, I think, “Are there any real career paths? [for women] that’s going to take 20, 30 years?’”
Archana Manjunatha, Executive Director and Head of Platform Transformation at DBS Bank’s Consumer Banking Group, agreed that the lack of female role models is a major problem that gets worse as you move up the corporate ladder.
“It gets lonelier at the top because there are even fewer women up the corporate ladder…Having more role models means other women don’t feel as lonely and don’t feel like they can’t do it. To a certain extent it’s hard to become what you can’t see. That’s how people choose careers and paths, when they see someone, it’s easier for them to say, ‘I want to be like that person,'” Manjunatha said.
“If you think of an SRE today [site reliability engineering]As an architect or engineer, you often conjure up a male image. We need to start replacing that with more female imagery so that women entering the industry are not at all deterred.”
On the other hand, progress has been made in enrolling more women. Kwong Yuk Wah, Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore’s School of Computing, pointed out that there are now more initiatives to highlight female role models and encourage women to enter the IT industry.
For example, in 2020 and 2021, the Singapore Computer Society celebrated Singapore-based women who have inspired their communities and made significant contributions to the technology industry with the Singapore100 Women in Tech list.
Another challenge is an unconscious bias that sets in early on, when even elementary school children see math and science fields as more suitable for men, Manjunatha observed.
Yang from Kablamo, who also attended the webinar, said parenting through family and school can help change this bias. She grew up thinking that the tech industry was more for men, but over time family, school and teachers have helped change that perception.
Yang also noted that the road to a technical career can sometimes be a scenic route, with multiple paths available. She had a degree in architectural design but only discovered her flair for programming when she landed a job as a telecommunications engineer, which eventually led her towards studying computer science.
Now a back-end engineer at Australian technology services company Kablamo, she describes her journey as “rewarding and amazing”.
have support systems
Another challenge women face is thriving in their careers through the different stages of life, when they have to balance childcare and work, or even take time off for family, before re-entering the workforce. Kwong suggests that setting up support systems can help women through tough times.
Manjunatha added, “Don’t hesitate to lean in and ask for help. Because you’d be amazed how many want to make it easier for you so that you probably don’t have to go all the way down, but even then you can come back at some point.”
Teng shared that her family has been very supportive, including her husband who works in cybersecurity. He has helped her with advice on how to improve her role and navigate the tech industry.
key elements to success
The discussion then turned to the key elements critical to the success of women in technology.
Regardless of gender, it boils down to competence and confidence, Archana said. “Building your competency is extremely important, and with that competency comes confidence. Keep learning, keep building your skills, have confidence and don’t worry about too many setbacks,” she advised.
“When you’re a subject matter expert, the agenda at the table is almost invisible because people are listening to you for your expert opinions, for your expertise in the field. And you want respect for it.”
While more could be done to encourage gender diversity, Manjunatha urged women to engage in advanced education frequently.
“Stay tuned in,” Manjunatha added. “Technology is constantly evolving. What got you here won’t get you there tomorrow, so keep yourself updated. The growth mentality and the ability to want to keep learning is very, very important when you are in this field.
While upskill, e-learning, or reskilling can be achieved without taking a certification course, Kwong noted that certification is a means of assessing one’s competencies and skills.
For example, Singapore is currently working to develop ethics and governance skills for AI (Artificial Intelligence) and such a certification program can help encourage individuals to develop new skills.
In addition to competence, women must be comfortable working in a predominantly male-dominated environment, Kwong said. “We shouldn’t doubt ourselves, but be comfortable and comfortable so that you can speak up in situations like meetings where there are a majority of men.”
Teng agreed that confidence and competence are important, but women can be more shy and less willing to be assertive.
Both Kwong and Manjunatha noted that more gender balance on tech teams and the industry as a whole would deliver better code, products, and technology.
“We live in a world where the gender distribution is about 50/50,” Manjunatha said. “For example, at DBS Bank, our customer base is almost 50-50. Therefore, products cannot be designed and developed by an unbalanced technology team… No matter what field of technology, diversity of thought is very important. Otherwise you end up only feeding part of society.”
Stronger advocacy would help, Archana stressed. “We live in much better times. But there’s still a long way to go… If only the 20% of us try to solve the problem, the problem won’t be solved, or it will take longer. The remaining 80% or so must become part of the solution. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of women talking about needing equality and parity.”
While there are challenges, there are many opportunities for women in tech. Yang said, “Often I was unsure if I was smart enough to do it. But one thing my art teacher said is that it matters more than talent inspires me. Instead of asking if you’re smart enough, just put in the hours, be willing to learn, really try.”