Horror stories of women in tech: The worst advice I’ve ever received

Women share experiences of being told to think like a male, keep your head down, and to not even bother with a career in tech.

It is widely known that women only make up 17% of those that work in technology sector. This low figure appears to be down to two factors. Many females do not yet find a career in technology an attractive option to them and the women who do want to join the sector are not made to feel welcome when they enter.

Unfortunately, the tech sector has a high female drop off rate – why is this? Computer Weekly asked the females in the industry, that thankfully did decide to stay put, what type of advice they had been given during their time in technology.

Eliza Rawling, chief business officer at Cloud Direct, shared an experience she had whilst studying electronic engineering at university. She said one of the male lecturers walked into the lecture theatre and seeing only a handful of girls, amongst mostly male students, very seriously said: “Ladies, what are you doing here? You are wasting your time. There is no place for you in this industry. I mean it - don't waste your time here. The industry doesn't want women.”

“So, his advice was to quit and to not waste our time in doing a technology degree. To be fair though, I have had much more constructive and positive encouragement over the years than negative,” said Rawling,

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Forget your femininity

Béatrice Piquer-Durand, vice president marketing of Ipanema Technologies said in her career she has been told to stop thinking how a woman would react and think like a male. Forget her femininity and intuition. Be rational - not emotional or creative. "This is completely crazy, because the key difference for a company is for you to be a woman.”

Piquer-Durand said  studies in Europe and the United States have highlighted the success of enterprises run by women. She said a survey conducted in Europe, of nearly 600 technology companies and funded by venture capital, showed that businesses run by women achieve much higher performance despite a more limited access to financing.

“In my opinion, one explanation for this is that women leaders are often subjected to higher stresses than their male counterparts. I can say that the presence of women at the head of companies boost results. 

“I do not think women are better than men but rather that the diversity maximises creativity. Otherwise equally qualified, sometimes we see men being preferred for high level positions. I think in general, when women reach the executive they are highly motivated and effective. It’s important to remember this – and to harness these skills for business purposes.”

Jacqueline de Rojas, vice president and general manager CA Technologies UK and Ireland, said the advice and guidance given to her during her career ranged in its helpfulness from “positive intent to absolute sabotage.”

This includes: “Why don’t you wear spectacles in meetings, to make you look more intelligent?”

“Don’t worry; it is a level playing field. (Just before being beaten to a bigger job by a male colleague much less qualified or experienced)”

“Just so that you are clear, we do not employ women on the management team. This comment was by my new boss on day one of a new job – obviously this wasn’t CA Technologies.”

De Rojas recalled the time she met a customer during the Grand Prix, in the late 1990s. She said the customer was asked if he wanted to be introduced to the managing director: “He said yes, turned around and gasped out loud: Oh my God, you’re a woman!”

“We subsequently sat down over lunch to discuss the merits, or otherwise, of possessing differing body parts. My astonishment was not that he had had the thought, but that he had actually made the comment out loud,” she said.

“You dress too sexy.  It distracts men.”

Another female who has had similar experiences is Kate Brew, product marketing manager at SolarWinds. She shared some of the advice she has received in the past: “The only thing wrong with you is your language.  Cursing is just not acceptable from a lady in a business environment.”   

“You really need to fit in, so enthusiasm and positive energy will not get you ahead.  You need to fit in.”

“Wait until you are asked a question to speak.” 

“You dress too sexy.  It distracts men.”

“You need to look older.  Maybe put your hair in a bun.” And then years later: “You need to look younger.” 

Just keep your head down

Kate Craig-Wood, managing director and co-founder of Memset’s, says women often just keep their head down and work hard: “But that's not enough in a male dominated field,” she said.

“You need to shout about your success and achievements and work hard to get noticed.  Don't just beaver away and hope you get noticed.  Men are very good at singing their own praises and we need to compete with that.  For example, never be afraid of asking for a pay rise,” advised Craig-Wood.

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Petra Opelova, account coordinator at LEWIS PR, said she received some advice from her IT teacher back when she developed websites. Echoing Craig-Wood, Opelova was told: "Do not stand out" and "don't be too ambitious, people may start hating you."

“I work in tech PR thanks to going after what I believe in and I love tech with my whole heart. There is literally nothing, except video games. that excites me more. Some girls have chocolate, I have video games and tech,” she said.

Daryn Edgar, senior director at Avanade UK, said working in the technology sector is all about solving problems: “One of the major differences between men and women is the way they approach problems. Men tend to look for answers that point towards a solution from a technical perspective, whereas women tend to ask more questions to better understand the problem.

“This could be why we’re seeing many women gravitate toward project management and men lean towards solution architect roles.”

A piece of advice given to Edgar, which she chose to ignore, was to “blend in and try your best to fit into an organisation.”

Edgar feels that in technology it is becoming more and more important as a woman to stand out from the crowd, and to show off your skills and expertise.

“It’s all too easy to do what you’re told and what others want you to do.  Often it can actually be beneficial to take a risk and offer something new that could be better for the customer in the long term,” she added.

Become a secretary

Lesley Cowley, the chief executive officer of Nominet, said her longstanding career as a woman in IT has been both challenging and fulfilling, but noted that being a woman in a predominantly male IT industry has not been easy: “I’ve had to constantly prove myself. When I first joined Nominet back in 1999, as operations director, there were hardly any women senior managers, chief executives or board members in the industry. This situation has improved, but not as much as it needs to.”

Cowley said she is determined to encourage girls to consider the potential of a career in IT and to encourage women in IT into management and board roles “so that as an industry we can better reflect the diversity of our customers and stakeholders.”

She explained that like many young women she was not encouraged to fulfil her potential at a young age. She said she was once told to learn shorthand to improve her chances of becoming a secretary.

“Just so that you are clear, we do not employ women on the management team."

“I didn’t and contrarily opted to do an engineering class instead. My most interesting bit of career advice was from a careers advisor when I was at school, who recommended I become an air traffic controller – not entirely sure what the basis for that advice was!”

Cowley did not take a traditional university route into her career – she left school at 17 and went straight into employment. She later completed an MBA whilst she was Registrar at New College Swindon.

“Despite the terrible advice I received, at the beginning of my journey into the IT industry, I’ve been able to craft out a successful career in a very vibrant and fast-paced industry – one I am very proud to be a part of,” she concluded.

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