Imposter syndrome; a lack of helpful role models ; female students discouraged from tech subjects; unconscious bias: these are all common themes that recur during discussions around diversity and gender in technology.
At the recent Women of Silicon Roundabout event, Nicola Marie Beste, Senior Director Projects & Programs at adidas, presented some practical ways women working in IT can overcome these challenges. Beste has encountered plenty of the above during her 20 years working in IT. Her aim now is to help other women succeed in the tech sector, but also to encourage organisations to embrace flexible working for all staff.
Here are her top tips for surviving and thriving in IT.
Call out casual sexism
Beste’s first experience of sexism at work came in her 20s, when she was working as a coder and risk assessor. She was invited to work with a team of 30 systems and manufacturing engineers, tasked with designing a manufacturing simulation system and developing its engine:
I researched, I read about it – I didn’t know a lot about engines so I really studied. I wanted to make sure I was going to be the best risk facilitator there so that I was able to help these people with their great minds come up with a solution.
Beste’s efforts paid off and she managed to help the team find a way to do the project. After the session, they all went for lunch. During the meal, a senior member of the group turned to her to offer some feedback:
He said, ‘When you took your jacket off, people listened to you much more.’ I took a deep breath and said, ‘You have deeply offended me. I spent ages working out how to make this group come up with the solution that we have and it’s not ok and I am offended.’
Then I ran to the loo, had a little bit of a cry.
I decided right there and then that’s enough. It’s not ok to have sexism in the workplace, it’s not ok to make little jokes like that and it’s certainly not ok to say something like that to a young woman in a lunch break. And it is ok to say ‘I’m offended and don’t say that again’ and it’s best to say it out loud and publicly.
Protect your time
Beste insisted that nobody should be working 60 or 70 hours a week. Instead, we should be more clever with our time, and this means starting the week knowing what you intend to do and protecting that time.
Finding your supporters within and outside the workplace is vital to proper time management. One of Beste’s key supporters is her husband, who also works in tech. They sit down every Sunday, get out their calendars, and plan who’ll pick up their two teenage children, drop them off and take them to their doctor’s appointment.
It also pays to seek out employers who truly embrace the concept of flexible working. Before starting at adidas, Beste was working from home and was very nervous about taking a job back in an office with two small kids to look after. But she took the plunge and decided to join adidas after a promise of flexible hours and an on-site kindergarten.
Beste organised a summer play scheme for her kids so she could fully focus on those first few weeks at work – but then on her first day realised that her childcare finished at 5pm rather than 6pm. Her new boss’s reaction proved she had joined the right business: the response was, block out 4pm in your calendar for the next six weeks, let your colleagues know where you are, and go pick up your kids:
You have to give everybody a break. When you’re talking about planning and having your supporters, you need to make sure that you’re not adding a little bit of that ‘She’s not doing her job, she left at 3pm again today’. Men have kids too – that’s how it happens. Make sure your guys also have that time when they need it.
Flexi hours for all – not just parents
Flexible working shouldn’t just be about people with kids, according to Beste. Everyone should be given the opportunity to take some time to do something different, and will become better workers for it:
Maybe you’re a single person, maybe you want to go to a theatre group, maybe you want to go for a run at lunchtime, maybe you want to learn a new language. Whatever it is, you need to make sure you leave time for yourself because if you don’t develop as a person, you’re not going to be a good employee either. We really believe that at adidas. So think about making sure you plan your time. It’s not a crime to go home on time.
Of course, not all employers are as supportive as adidas, so what was Beste’s advice for those women working at less forward-thinking employers? Start working for someone else, in short. All companies should promote learning for their staff, Beste maintains, as if they’re not savvy to the latest trends, how can they be the best person at work and outside it.
We spend too much time trying to get a certain look or be a certain way, and feeling like a failure if we don’t achieve it, Beste said:
I feel guilty I ate that muffin but it tasted delicious, I feel guilty that I didn’t do sport this morn, I feel guilty that I didn’t have time to talk to some of my team leaders who are going through a difficult situation, I feel guilty that my son wasn’t there when I called last night and I didn’t call back to talk to him, I feel guilty that I’m feeling a bit nervous if I’m doing a good presentation right now.
We have to stop feeling guilty. You can’t do it all. Things go wrong all the time and that’s ok. You can fail. Stop feeling guilty all the time, when you leave on time, when you’re giving your kids time, if you want to go and do something that isn’t your job. It doesn’t mean you’re not passionate about your job. You’re looking after yourself and you’re looking after your company.
Beste noted that many of the women in the audience during her session were sat at the back, despite lots of empty free seats at the front. She urged everyone to sit at the front and be visible rather than hiding at the back.
And women need to “stop taking the minutes” – it might be you who has the next idea on how to make your company’s API integration faster, or how to connect that back-end ERP system to the finance system and make it work smoothly:
How can you say that if you’re always the one taking the notes? We’re not a bunch of secretaries, we shouldn’t be doing that. When you come to a meeting, sit at the front of the table and make sure people know you’re there.
Being visible comes with a caveat though – don’t sit upfront and push your ideas if you don’t know the answers. IT is constantly changing, and therefore you have to constantly learn. Beste said:
I want to encourage you all as technical women to never stand still with that. Plan your hour of power.
The hour of power is a scheme initiated by adidas’ CIO for everyone to have an hour in their week to learn something, with the time blocked out in their calendar as an out of office. Beste explained this could be anything from what Google or Uber are doing, to digging deeper into an emerging technology like blockchain or researching a buzzword you heard and want to learn about:
Make sure you learn. As women we need to promote ourselves as technical people and the way to get to the top of your game is to know what you’re talking about, understand the latest trends and make sure when you do sit at the table, you’re able to articulate it and be the best. If you’ve got your devices with you, why don’t you plan [your hour] now?
Image credit – Women of Silicon Roundabout
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