What it is like to have worked in the tech industry over the last 20 years as a woman?
I became a web designer when there weren’t many, if any websites around, it was mainly oil company intranets and such likes…. But we knew it was going to be big and the excitement and rate of change as to how we could build a web page was electric.This was 1995.
Interestingly there were not far off an equal number of girls and boys on my BTEC and Uni courses but once entering work in tech this diminished to me and the guys. Where they all went I don’t know.
Still, there was never any difference between me and my co-workers, I felt one of the team and as far as I am aware I was paid the going junior salary. Sadly this wasn’t so for those further removed from me, I did get harassment, put downs and plain right ignored but it was always from the older generation. They were shocking in some cases… asked to wear a blouse and make the tea as a senior designer, exposed to strong come ons from a married man and one time the man in question, MD of a well reputed very traditional Mayfair company, couldn’t even bring himself to acknowledge I was in the room directing questions, and even answers to my questions, to my colleague next to me.
Along the way I also work in rare all women teams, but I have to say it wasn’t all plain sailing either. Women tended to bring their home life to work, they were much more close knit, shared more, but took things to heart more, which all caused conflict and personal competitiveness. Men just got on with the work. It sounds so cliche now and things have changed but it made clear in my mind at the time - so late 90’s - that a diverse team did work best. Generally speaking men brought an even keel and logical mind, but women brought empathy, and the ability to want to learn and understand through well ‘chatting’. Together I think we had the birth of our softer user-focused products and the industry of UX as we know it. And I strongly believe a) that both women and men have changed considerably in the workplace, as in life generally, over the last 20 years taking on a bit of the opposite make up, and b) that it is ok, in fact worth celebrating that we are all different.
So, by the time of the first dot.com bubble burst the industry was filled with very young intelligent, dynamic guys and girls (possibly who had just been handed way too much investment) but interestingly with this younger workforce I began to experience shall we say ‘differences in attitude’ much less. Was this just due to my growing seniority or confidence? I hope not.
But the break through I believe in this new industry is that as it gets older and younger people are entering we are wiping out inequality in the workplace. The gender pay gap is closing as we get younger, and men and women are working in tech as equal peers. If you take a look at the funky names given to each generation here you will see there is a direct link between generation and workplace etiquette
Traditionalists Born 1945 and before - the workplace had been very male with women knowing their role at home to look after the family, however with the war needing women to go out and work in the factories there had been an awakening.
Baby Boomers: Born 1946 to 1964 - Stemming from the aftermath of war the Baby Boomer women were realigning who they were and what they stood for giving birth to the women’s rights movement.
Generation X: Born 1965 to 1976 - This is me, we had the internet virtually as we started work, clunky, but a new age. Our older colleagues and bosses were still struggling with the transition of women in the workplace and perhaps it was not fully acknowledge that we could do the same job so pay was lower and it was often thought we were playing at this before we went off and had babies.
Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 to 1995 - The generation before was not scarred by the realignment of women so now jobs started to be granted to any gender at face value, the explosion of everyone going to university meant that there were a lot of highly educated, career oriented women. The fight continued... and I would say broke the back of inequality for which we are now reaping the benefits with the gap closing year on year.
iGen, Gen Z or Centennials: Born 1996 and later - You would need to ask them, but I think the work place is a level playing field for women… however this may well not be the case for ethnic and other minorities. With less people shouting about each (women were about 50% of the population of course) the path, although in line with this movement, has been slower. But let’s look to the next generation where I believe we will see here too a far better mix of diversity in the workplace as the complete norm.
Does size matter?
Personally I have chosen as I progressed through my career to work in smaller agencies. I have found this suits me better, I like the feeling of all mucking in, that we are all responsible for the end product and we can actually see it through from start to finish understanding everyone’s role on the project.
Perhaps it is small companies and the mucking in that does away with any gender difference, I cannot vouch for working in a large company but my experience has been that gender inequality and harassment is shrinking as the last pre-internet generation heads towards retirement. The pay gap is definitely closing for millennials and below. Perhaps the board room still isn't equal but as I say wait a little.. it's happening. And what we lack in numbers we make up for in vocality!
But, as I moved from post bubble burst to running my own agency I was faced with the very real issue that I couldn’t find any women to hire for the roles I had, this wasn’t discrimination there just weren’t any. In fact in London in early 2000’s it was easier to find a diverse group of men, strangely something that became harder as more people entered the industry - I expect due to the glamourising of tech and the promise of big money and cool workplaces.
However I do believe the later advent of UX in product and digital design is what has drawn most women into our industry and from within are making the most change which is reflected in that equality I mention. Here is an area that really suits and sells itself to women.
There may be fewer girls in the workplace but they tend to get their voices heard, much more likely to speak out in or for a group and get the ball rolling. All women groups may talk too much but the balance brings quieter members out of their shell and having men and women in a conversation seems to anchor it in work related subjects. This can be very productive.
This is all ok, and it isn’t always men and women that have these traits we all have different ways of being, nature and nurture. And instead of all trying to be the man, or all trying to be the boss let’s rejoice in our differences as only then will we get truly diverse products.
What if we don’t have a diverse pool to choose from?
We all now agree that the more diverse our teams the more rounded and all encompassing our end product will be, we all want a mix of people at our company. That is huge progress in itself, but what if we live in a predominantly white rural location, the appeal to a diverse mix of people is not huge. Many of us have spent the best part of our careers in a large city and we come back to .. yes have children… raise a family. What if we have a very similar set of people applying for jobs and not much possibility in the vicinity to find others. What if the lack of diversity in the workplace is not ‘bias’ but just a lack of different people in our area. What then?
I find now there is a lack of women in the workplace not because they are not being considered for the job but because women, as they get older, on the whole have a much more flexible approach to work than men. Many of us like to dip in and out, not the rigid routine. We are having or have had children, there is no sin in that, so we may not be available as much as men. Isn't that ok, isn't that our choice? Do we need to force equality when a lot of us actively don’t want to be married to our work... I am part of this crowd, career meant so much to me before but now I get to see the seasons, hang out in the garden with my children, still do great work - possibly even the best work of my career, but on my terms.
So what about men, have we actually got our rights and now flaunt them, do we as women have a much easier ride than men in the work life balance? Let’s forget women, ethnicity, diversity for a moment, can't we just think of people as people, has the political correctness gone too far? How do we respectfully remember what previous generations fought for, for us, but not be shackled to it?
Bringing more diversity into tech
I am as keen as the next for children of all walks of life to take up STEM subjects and become developers, data analysts, engineers, systems administrators, but just as I say it even the job titles make my heart (as a girl) sink. Maybe there lies part of the problem, the barrier to encouraging girls into this workplace is purely to do with the lack of excitement about the name! Ok this is half a joke, but as children it doesn’t take much for us to pin or dash our hopes on something. I know these jobs are incredibly exciting and rewarding but as a 14 year old me I would hear dull, grey...and switch off. Let’s face it the only reason I wanted to be a designer was so that I didn’t have to wear a suit! Oh and so that I could do my hobby as my job.
But it is incredibly heartening to find that children as young as 6 are being taught coding as part of their curriculum at school. The Bee-Bots are fun, exciting, colourful and accessible to all. This makes my heart rise, I am also as you know quite an advocate of certain video games as logical building blocks. It is again so cliche but bringing visual aspects, colour, design and personality into these subjects will do a lot to excite girls about the prospect of a job in tech.
Training in our image
So, I have always tried to hire interns from local universities giving all walks of life a chance to work in our agency and learn the ropes. But there is the thing, if you take on someone young and train them, you train them in ‘your way of thinking’, so in effect our team irrelevant of where we started all begin to think and feel the same… how do we stop the company culture from clouding our judgement and hold on to our roots and differentiation. How do we train people to not think like us, yet still work to the standard we expect?
In fact if you look at our industry as a whole we are all becoming ‘people like us’ and it shows - our products, our vision our goals are very aligned so much so that sometimes it is difficult to tell work apart, and that is something we need to be careful of.
In a world of ever growing globality there is a backlash on wanting to belong, to be part of a community. It may be a running group, a neighbourhood group, book club, whatsapp group, social media bubble, everyone these days wants to be part of, and aspires to be recognised in that community. There are huge benefits, finding like minded people, not being lonely, getting support, bonding, confidence to start on a journey, but there is also the down side, not being or getting as many likes as so and so, not living up to what on the surface is the norm for that group, irrelevant as to whether that is the reality or not. There are apps and platforms to suit every sort of interest out there, these are a burgeoning market. Sometimes I wonder if they are really made for us or just the idea that ‘needed’ to be had to create the next big tech thing.
And in our community we need to be careful not to be designing for us and expecting everyone to be like us, they are not… we need to look out to other industries,. We go to tech Conferences, UX Meetups, Hackathons, Makerspaces, but occasionally we also need to put ourselves outside our comfort zone and join other communities to listen and learn and bring back with us the diversity and differentiation that is out there to enrich and enhance our work for others.
To sum up….
I have talked here about my experience over the years of women in technology and I don’t know enough to talk about the journey of other minorities in the workplace. However I truly hope that, as with women’s inequality, ethnic, disabled, LGBT and all the wonderfully diverse people that make our planet the awesome place it is are closing the gap of inequality too, and that maybe we really can congratulate the next generation on accomplishing true diversity.
I need to say as well that I am talking from a very British point of view, all countries have their own issues that together we must fight to resolve. Working for women is certainly not a god given right in so many countries I know nothing about but would love to know more; for example I wonder with the tech boom how India deals with its rigid caste system?
Countries, cities and large corporations can all fall foul to the equivalent of playground bullying, which is a very serious offence and certainly not always constrained to women. This venom can be extended to anyone in a business and destroy their confidence.. and worse their lives. So let us all work towards a more comfortable work life balance and happier workplace where we - as the recent brilliant poster doing the rounds sums up -
It’s not difficult, weak or detrimental to our career to just be nice! We’ve come a long way, we shouldn’t forget that, so let's continue together.
I am a freelance UX Consultant, Website Designer, Logo Designer and Graphic Designer based in Woodbridge, Suffolk. Contact me for more information.