Women in IT role models need to be more accessible

The few female role models the tech sector does have seem miles apart from young girls in school, says Expedia’s director of technology

The technology sector needs more role models who are accessible and from a wide range of upbringings, according to Elizabeth Eastaugh, director of technology at Expedia.

Eastaugh told Computer Weekly she went into technology due to a love of robotics, but was not encouraged at school to consider IT as a career and struggled to find any role models she could relate to.

“No one at school told me to go into technology. I took business studies at school and it wasn’t until university when I took computer science that I realised I loved it,” said Eastaugh.

She said at primary school she was told to be a nail technician, because she liked to look after her nails. 

“There was no other careers advice on offer and it’s still the same today. You need to have people around you with similar opinions about having a career – any career – whether that message comes from school or home. There is a real problem with class and confidence, as I was told to never put my head above the parapet.

“In the tech industry there is no one to look up to. I’m still looking for a mentor – someone who can support me in my next steps,” she said.

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Eastuagh believes Karen Brady is a good role model because “she is down-to-earth and seems approachable, which makes it easier for young girls to relate to her”. 

“I want to be accessible. We all got here in some way, so I want females to feel they can talk to me or ask questions if they have them,” she added. 

Eastuagh mentioned a manager she had looked up to and learnt a lot from earlier in her career. 

“I had a female manager. She was great at her job and I could see what success looked like,” she said. “Women like Marissa Mayer are still alien to me, and to the girl from Essex there is a huge jump between them and her.”

She explained her background has been a bigger challenge than being a woman in technology.

“I have had more trouble being from Essex than being a woman in tech. If you’re making money, companies shouldn’t care where you come from or what gender you are.

“If you don’t work at a company invested in diversity then walk away. If I don’t work for a good manager then I leave. I couldn't work for Expedia if it was not supportive of diversity,” she said.

Eastaugh studied at the University of Essex and said she struggled to relate to some of the assignments. 

“We had a robotics project where we built a football team and I didn’t understand the rules of a football match, so the boys had to explain it to me. I couldn’t really relate to it as it wasn’t something I was interested in, despite being interested in robotics,” she said.

“However, I got on really well with the guys on my course and I remain friends with many of them today. There wasn’t an issue working in a male-dominated environment. I would advise young people not to be afraid of a tech-related degree. It may seem scary at first, but it is really fun and engaging to study,” she added.

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I'm still looking for a mentor as well, but I don't know how much that has to do with being a woman. I think it's a common issue. This is just my opinion, but I think that IT careers tend to attract people who are a bit more on the introverted side; people who are intrigued by technology and who are smart, but may have lower social intelligence. The ones who do well in their careers get promoted into management. They enjoy managing the technology but they have little or no interest in leading or guiding people. This makes it difficult to find a mentor in IT, male or female. 
It's an interesting idea. Role models are certainly important. Much like Ms. Eastaugh says, I grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood, and none of us really had strong role models. I was encouraged to go into science because it was a strong suit for me, but that was completely different from anyone I knew, and I didn't have a vision of what 'success' looked like for that career. Having an accessible role model/mentor might have made a difference, but it's hard to tell from where I am now.