One of the few: the insider on being a female software engineer.
"The male IT-whiz stereotype exists because it's based on the truth."
But change is happening.
When most people think ‘software engineer’, an image of a bespectacled man tapping away at his keyboard comes to mind.
How many movies have shown a cynical yet brilliant male IT-whiz who sits contentedly in a darkened room surrounded by screens, able to destroy worlds with a few well-placed keystrokes? Far more than those that show a girl at the centre of all those screens.
But we can’t blame Hollywood. More men go to university to study IT-related subjects than women. More men make it into the workforce and embark on careers in software-focused fields than women do. Last year, figures showed that just 4% of software engineers in the UK were women. The male IT-whiz stereotype exists because it’s based on truth.
But change is happening. People are waking up to the discrepancy and are doing things about it.
Awareness initiatives like International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) help to highlight the important role women can play within male-centric fields. As well as promoting equality and the idea that women make strong leaders, INWED holds aloft role-models for younger generations.
Applauding the contributions made by female engineers encourages women to follow in their footsteps. In addition, marking their success means companies more easily recognise the benefits of employing women and begin supporting their education at an earlier age. This increases job opportunities and diversity in the workplace, while injecting essential skill sets into businesses. Figures show that getting more women into work could boost GDP by just shy of 10%, so it’s a fantastic investment all round!
When I began to consider a career in software, I realised I might be about to enter a ‘boys’ club’. I knew from the gender spread on my course that it was likely I could be the lone female coder wherever I went to work. I wondered what sort of issues this might cause me.
However, when I started working for CRITICAL Software, my fear of being the lone girl in a software company dissolved. Not only were there quite a few women in the company in other departments, but there were also several female engineers in my office. And, they were smart, good at what they did and achieved just as much as the guys.
Despite this being a big boost, the interesting thing I discovered was that my initial fear had been unfounded: I realised that I could work happily as the lone female coder if that situation arose. It struck me that it’s not being of the same gender that makes a team work well, it’s an individual’s qualities.
Encouraging equal respect and fair treatment for everyone is what matters. At CRITICAL, I work with people of different backgrounds, ages and experience levels, but because we’re all committed to what we do and to our team, we achieve great results.
Although it’s true that there are a lot less women than men in the software sphere, women don’t need to be afraid of this.
Choosing the right company to work for is key. Good companies employ good people and it’s this that makes the difference.
A lot of companies are now supporting the education and career paths of female developers, so women are on the up when it comes to roles in software. In the UK, the gender split across students choosing and passing STEM GCSE subjects is somewhat equal. We are also seeing the number of women applying for technology degrees increasing and surveys suggest that a high majority of female engineers are happy with their career choice.
It might appear to be difficult for a woman to get into this sector and then a lonely experience if she does manage it. Based on my experience, it’s not like that at all. Moving from degree student to full-time engineer was the same as it would be in any other industry, possibly easier than in some.
Another positive aspect is the working style used by many IT companies. While there are a lot of varied working environments out there, software companies tend to utilise a ‘team working’ approach and regularly produce great results because of it. To achieve productivity, a structure should be built that encourages good communication. This means direct, constructive feedback.
When done right, such an honest and productive atmosphere is essential in making sure everyone within the team continues to improve. It allows great ideas to be shared, merged and modified. Being part of such a positive environment is great for the female coder since she can accelerate her development by taking advantage of the knowledge around her as well as the project experience she’s getting.
For me, learning from others has been a vital aspect of my development. Being confident enough to ask for help is very important. I enjoy what I do because programming offers me the chance to get creative and work out a solution but if I need help, I know I can get it. And not just from the lads in the engineering zone.
Something people often presume is that there is a lack of female role models to look up to in software businesses. In fact, I’ve found myself inspired not only by female coders, but women in other roles, working throughout the organisation.
It’s common to find women working in the HR department, but believe it or not, our skills do extend beyond looking after people! I think the female mind works as brilliantly for coding as it might for developing new concepts, working around obstacles or going from micro to macro when a different point of view is necessary. It’s great that more companies are recognising the attributes women bring, no matter the role they are in.
Being female doesn’t define what I can and cannot do, rather it’s my personality and the choices I make that define me. I have a lot to thank my gender for since my skillset and strengths certainly benefit from many years of evolution, but the job I do is a choice I can make based on what I enjoy.
I knew I wanted to work with software and love the work I get to do. I don’t fit the classic image of ‘software engineer’ and that’s fine. I’m just as committed to enhancing my skills and expanding my knowledge as the next guy. My aim isn’t just to survive the ‘boys’ club’ but to thrive!
Overall, working in software is fun. You’re likely to find yourself surrounded by bright people who love what they do and hail from all manner of life experiences.
My final thought? Be yourself, whatever your gender. Don’t be afraid to be the only girl (or boy) in the room. Challenging classic gender roles can lead to some great career experiences.
About the author:
Zinzile Sibanda graduated from the Royal Holloway University of London with a Masters in Physics and is now a Junior Software Engineer at CRITICAL Software, focusing on project development.