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How to attract more women into software development

Having role models, support systems and upskilling opportunities are just some of the ways to attract and retain more women coders in the industry, according to a panel of women tech leaders and professionals

Yang Lyu, a back-end engineer at Australian technology services firm Kablamo, is one of a handful of women in her team in the male-dominated field of software development.

But that wasn’t always the case in the early years of coding. During World War II, a majority of women operated some of the world’s first computational machines used in code breaking. Today, just 25-30% of software developers are women, going by some industry estimates.

The industry can do 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 must be overcome before women representation in software development teams can improve.

During a recent BrightTalk webinar, Computer Weekly brought together a group of women technology leaders and professionals in various stages of their software development careers to unpack some of these issues and what the industry can do to plug the gender gap.

The discussion covered a range of topics, including the challenges to greater gender diversity, and how having more role models, support systems, and building both competence and confidence are vital for women to succeed in the tech industry.

Role models needed

The lack of role models is a key challenge, said Rachel Teng, junior front-end developer at Acronis, a cyber security and backup software provider.

“There are many successful and respected [male] software developers and men in IT. Seeing the lack of women makes me think, ‘Are there even actual career paths [for women] that will last 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 big problem that is compounded when one moves higher up the corporate ladder.

“It gets lonelier at the top because there’re even fewer women as you climb the corporate ladder. Having more role models means that other females won’t feel so lonely and don’t feel that they can’t do it. To some extent, it’s hard to become what you cannot see. That’s how people choose careers and paths – when they see somebody, then it’s easier for them to say, ‘I want to become like this person’,” said Manjunatha.

“Today, when you think of an SRE [site reliability engineering], architect or engineering lead, you often conjure up a male image. We need to start replacing that with more female images, so that women entering the industry are not deterred at all.”

On the other hand, progress has been made to welcome more women. Kwong Yuk Wah, adjunct professor at the School of Computing, National University of Singapore, pointed out that there are more initiatives today to highlight female role models and encourage women to enter the IT industry.

For example, the Singapore Computer Society has, in 2020 and 2021, celebrated women based in Singapore who have inspired their communities and made significant contributions to the tech industry, with the Singapore100 Women in Tech list. 

Another challenge is an unconscious bias that sets in early, where even primary school-going children view math- and science-related fields as being more suited for men, said Manjunatha.

Kablamo’s Yang, who also participated in the webinar, said that education by family and schools can help to change that bias. She grew up thinking that the tech industry was more suited to men, but over time, family, school and teachers have helped to change that perception.

Yang also noted that the path to a tech career may sometimes take the scenic route, with the availability of multiple pathways. She had graduated with an architectural design degree, but only discovered her flair for coding when she landed a job as a telecommunication engineer, which eventually set her in the direction of a computer science degree.

Today, as a back-end engineer at Australian technology services firm Kablamo, she describes her journey as “rewarding and amazing”.

Have support systems

Another challenge for women is to thrive in their careers through the different life stages, where they have to juggle bringing up children and work, or even taking some time off for family before re-entering the workforce. Kwong suggests establishing support systems can help women through difficult stages.

Manjunatha added: “Do not hesitate to lean in and ask for help. Because you’d be surprised at how many people want to make it easier for you, so that you probably don’t have to drop off entirely, but even if you do, you can make a comeback at a certain point in time.”

Teng shared that her family has been very supportive, including her husband who works in cyber security. He has helped her with advice on how she can improve in her role, and how to navigate working in the tech industry.

Key elements to succeed

The discussion then turned to the key elements critical for women’s success in the tech industry.

Regardless of gender, it boils down to competence and confidence, said Archana. “Building your competence is extremely important, and with that competence comes confidence. Keep learning, build your competence, be confident about yourself, and don’t be worried about too many setbacks,” she added.

“When you are a subject matter expert, the agenda is almost invisible at the table because people are listening to you for your expert opinions, for your knowledge in the area. And you want respect from that.”

While more could be done to encourage gender diversity, Manjunatha called for women to upskill often.

Keep yourself updated,” added Manjunatha. “Technology is constantly evolving. What got you here is not going to get you there tomorrow, so always keep yourself updated. The growth mindset and that ability to want to keep learning that’s very, very important if you’re in this space.

While upskill, e-learning or retraining can be achieved without going through a certification course, Kwong noted that certification is a means to benchmark one’s competency and skillsets.

For example, Singapore is currently working to develop artificial intelligence (AI) ethics and governance skills and having such a certification programme can help to encourage individuals to develop new competencies.

Besides competency, Kwong said comfort is another important factor, adding: “We shouldn’t doubt ourselves, but feel happy and be comfortable, so that you can speak up in settings like meetings where the majority are men.”

Opportunities

Both Kwong and Manjunatha noted that achieving a more balanced gender representation in tech teams and the industry as a whole would deliver better code, products and technology.

“We live in a world where there is somewhat 50-50 parity in gender representation,” said Manjunatha. “For example, at DBS Bank, our customer base is nearly a 50-50. Therefore, products cannot be designed and developed by an imbalanced technology team...whichever area in tech, diversity of thought is very important. Otherwise, you end up catering to only one section of society.”

Greater advocacy would help, emphasised Archana. “We are living in much better times, but it’s still such a long way to go. If it’s only the 20% of us who are trying to solve the problem, the problem is not going to be solved, or it will take longer. The remaining 80% or so must become part of the solution. Otherwise, it’s just women talking about needing equality and parity.”

While challenges exist, many opportunities exist for women in the tech industry. Yang said: “There were many times when I felt unsure if I’m smart enough for this. But one thing my art teacher said about putting the hours matter more than talent inspires me. Instead of asking if you are smart enough, just put in the hours, be willing to learn, really try and give it a go.”

Read more about gender diversity in APAC

Read more on Diversity in IT

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