Close

Why companies need to practise what they preach when it comes to women and tech

A lot of tech companies will talk about the importance of having more women and treating employees fairly. But few can actually back it up like Wellington’s Springload can.

It seems a day doesn’t go by without reading several stories about misogyny in workplaces, and the serious issues with the male-dominated, “bro” culture in tech. From start-ups to giant corporations like Google or Uber, it makes for depressing reading about the inability of people to treat others as equals in 2017.

We also know that a lot of companies will talk a good game when it comes to gender diversity, but still are just as horrific places for women and non-cisgender white men to work (here’s looking at you, Thinx, and allegations that former “SHE-eo” Miki Agrawal sexually harassed employees). So when a company can back up its empowering talk without the “femvertising,” it’s pretty damn refreshing.

A few thousand kilometres from Silicon Valley right here in the Land of the Long White Cloud, Wellington-based Springload is one of those organisations that’s actually practising what it preaches. Jenny Adams, a junior front-end developer for Springload, says diversity is something every organisation needs to embrace. “My first reaction would be that I think having gender diversity makes the industry itself more inviting for a broader range of people,” she explains.

She adds she’s thankful to work for an organisation like Springload. “The fact that my place of work has a female CEO and an unusually high number of female web developers was a hugely appealing to me and a large contributor to why it was my top pick. As a female junior in the industry I feel that if a tech company only has male tech employees (i.e. excluding the receptionist, accountant) then they're doing something wrong/not doing something right. I think gender diversity also helps when it comes to relating to clients.”

A lot has been written, of course, about the problems of discrimination against women and non-cis men in tech. Adams says it’s important that we tackle discrimination – and the causes of it – in order for individuals and organisations to thrive. “I think we're still battling issues of outdated perceptions in New Zealand, be it of women’s roles or how ‘real men’ should be,” she says. “I think it’s something that starts at the root level, the conversations that are had between friends, family and colleagues and also how we raise our children (if we choose to have kids, which is something that’s also been pretty topical recently). I think these problems start way before we even get to work and we need to make a conscious effort as a community to question and contemplate our gut reactions to what we consider to be unusual situations or people. I think what’s coming up in the tech industry is just a manifestation of these wider underlying problems in our community, which are cropping up here because tech has historically been a male-dominated industry – so the impact of change is more pronounced.”

Bron Thomson, CEO of Springload says there are several things businesses can do to promote diversity in their workplaces, and to make sure all employees are treated equally. “Flexible working hours are important - especially for staff with young families, and so is allowing team members to work remotely. At Springload we believe in treating people like grown ups. We’ve all got lives outside the office, and by looking after our staff as whole human beings, they’ll be happy, loyal and engaged employees and our company will be more successful as a result.

Adams agrees. “I think a general recognition that people do not live to work but work to live and have a life outside of their workplace is a good starting point to think about. I think more and more businesses are realising that they need to look after their people to get the best from them and that people’s needs range from person to person. Respect, communication and benefit of the doubt is important on both sides. Even the traditional office set-up is worth examining and the messages it sends. Why do we still have separate male and female bathrooms? What happens if you have an employee (or client) that has a non-binary gender? I think we really need to think about things like this.”

Claire Campbell has been a front-end developer for Springload for the past two years, helping build and maintain websites for clients. She also says diversity is incredibly important for problem-solving. “I think that the wider spectrum of views you can have, the better,” she explains. “This is especially the case in working environments. I like to think that a large part of our role is around problem solving, and the more angles that you can have looking at problems the better. We have a team of 50/50 men to women and we are proud of that. But even more so, it wasn't done purposely. We were all the best person for that role and push each other to be the best as possible.”

Like her colleagues, she also says she has had to overcome numerous obstacles to get to where she is today. “Growing up my favourite thing to do was tinker around on the home computer,” she says. “However, as I grew older, I saw society play an impression on what a girl should, or in particular, shouldn’t do. Computers were a ‘man’s world,’ and I think the stigma of a woman being intellectual was deemed unattractive and unwelcome. I believe that there is this wonderful shift happening, and it's gaining momentum, but there are still remnants that are around, sometimes almost without people realising it. I was told when I applied to study web development that it was likely that I was going to be the only female in the class. It was conveyed to me in a tone that made me question if this is what I should be doing. That right there [is an example of] the things that need to change.”

And her advice to other women in tech? “Follow your passion, and follow other passionate women in those fields. Talk to them, be inspired by them, and if you can – be mentored by them. Confidence is a huge issue facing women in the IT industry, so too is imposter syndrome. You are not alone, but when you gain that confidence, it's worth every damn thing! So stick with it.”

With seven years of experience in the tech industry, Katie Day says some things companies can do to encourage diversity would be to allow flexibility in work hours, remote working, and more equitable maternity/paternity leave. “I think the old saying ‘treat everyone the way you would like to treated’ is a good one to keep in mind,” she says.

Front-end developer Laura Bunea also says recognising bias is critical. “I believe the main issue is ignorance of bias,” she says. “Most of the time I have found that guys aren't aware that they are being discriminative.”

She also has another piece of important advice. “Make sure there are women in your workplace and that some hold senior roles.”

Springload web developer Lydie Danet says businesses could also consider people with diverse backgrounds. “I know a bunch of women, myself included, who ended up in the tech industry only after having changed careers,” she explains. “I’m not too sure about NZ, but in France it can be hard to find a job when you seem ‘unstable’ because you switched careers or haven’t studied for five years and have a degree in the field. Maybe a career in IT doesn’t seem like a valid option for young women at the beginning. I don’t really know why I didn’t consider computer studies myself as a possibility at the end of high school. It felt like it was ‘not for me,’ and I didn’t give it any more thought at the time, even though I had spent quite some time programming my calculator. I guess it comes down to making tech studies look like a valid option for young women.”

Adams concurs. “I think I lot of problems we're seeing today in various workplaces are reflections of inputs that have occurred way before someone enters the workplace,” she says. “I think we really need to take a hard look at the conversations we are having with each other (friends, family, colleagues) and with our kids. Why are we buying Bob the Builder clothing for boys and Barbie for girls? What subjects are we encouraging our kids to do at school? Are we basing these on their gender? E.g. why did my husband’s boys-only high school (Wellington College) not offer cooking as a subject and why did only one other female complete the web development course with me this year? Is the advice we give our kids being unjustifiably skewed by our own views and experiences and restricting our children's own horizons?”

Many of the problems, Adams says, boil down to bias. “I have worked as a volunteer youth worker for a number of years, and I am repeatedly shocked by how such a strong perception of the world and gender roles have already been formed in teens’ minds before they’re even old enough to start a part-time job,” she says. “Often it seems due to input from parents and wider older family members. I have encouraged them to take all advice on board but to remember that it’s just that: advice. The fact is there are jobs and industries that exist today that did not exist ten years ago, some even five years ago, and a lot of advice that kids are going to receive has a best-before date (especially with the rapid rise of AI) that needs to be taken in to consideration to be of true worth for the present and future. I think if we can work on solving issues like this at the root like dispelling notions of gender-based job industries at a school level as well as addressing symptoms that crop up in the workplace and wider industry this will all contribute to a far more long-term positive outcome for industries like tech.”

It's well-known that the more diverse a company is, the more money it makes on average. But Adams, Bunea, Campbell, Danet and Day all say what’s more important is equal opportunities and equal treatment – which is what feminism, of course, is all about. As Campbell explains: “To me, the word feminism translates to equality and respect. I want women to feel empowered to do or be whatever they truly feel passionate about, without having to justify or fight for it any more than someone else.”

Says Adams: “Plain and simple: the advocacy of gender equality.”

Day’s definition is even simpler. “Equality for all.”

A-freaking-men.