A few years ago, I graduated in software engineering from the National Technological University, in Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza, for those not familiar with the city, lies at the foothills of the Andes and is better known for producing fabulous Malbec wines. It’s also a key technology hub in Argentina, with well-known technology companies and excellent universities. Even though it is a modern city with plentiful job opportunities in the tech sector, only about 20 percent of the students in my cohort were women. While I was studying, it was also clear that there were stereotypes that women should stick to being analysts and that men were better programmers.
I was lucky that I was part of a group of women who defied the stereotype and excelled at programming. I still remember how people would look at us in astonishment. Still, I had to work harder than others to demonstrate my skills and capabilities. This is just one of the challenges that women can face when entering male-dominated professions.
Tremendous Opportunities in Technology
Despite the fact that I had to overcome some challenges and misconceptions as I started my career, I’m incredibly happy working in the technology industry, and I would recommend it to young women today. There are not many other careers with a wealth of options available.
Today, for example, my job is incredibly varied: from working with the latest technologies such as machine learning and blockchain, to working closely with executives to understand their business needs and how specific technologies may be able to help them.
My simple recommendation for women considering a career in STEM is to give it a try. Look to women in the industry who can provide inspiration, including people like Komal Ahmad, who created an app that has helped feed hundreds of thousands of people. I also urge young women not to think of a tech career as one that simply involves sitting in front of a computer writing lines of code. This, of course, can be part of your job, but there are many other opportunities. I rarely spend time coding now, although my knowledge of it helps me in my work.
Women can also join programs designed to increase the ranks of women in technology or to help those who are already part of it. I recently joined a Silicon Valley organization called Lean In, which was created by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO. In the organization there are so-called “circles,” or small groups who meet regularly to learn and grow together. In my circle, I’ve been fortunate to meet some great people who are pursuing different goals. It’s also simply a fun place to meet other interesting people.
Real Change — and Power — in Numbers
It is ironic that female programmers have to overcome so much, as it was women who made up the majority of programmers in the early years of computers. In the 1950s, 30 to 50 percent of coders were women.
To get back to greater equality in the industry, the only option is to change perceptions of what the industry is like so that young women increasingly desire to build careers in the sector. Programs such as Lean In are great at helping women further their careers and build networks, but real change means dramatically increasing the number of women at the entry level and among STEM graduates. In Argentina, for instance, the government has started the plan “111 thousand” (“Plan 111 Mill”), which offers young people the opportunity to learn to program for one year for free. The plan is focused on eliminating the idea that technical careers are for men, and so far it seems to be working. An average of 20 to 25 percent of women are in technical careers in Argentina, but women comprise 36 percent of the training plan’s participants.
Business leaders and technology companies have a key role in changing these perceptions. For example, the company I work for, Belatrix Software, holds “Tech Days” to provide young people with a view of what it is like working for a tech company. Role models are essential; business leaders need to engage with local schools and colleges by having female executives give talks at schools. Again, using my company as an example, many of the executives also work as university professors, which means young students can get insight into the industry.
I believe things are changing for the better. Most technology firms are desperate to hire more female workers and have a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination. Stories like those at Uber, where a culture of harassment and sexism was rife, are terrible, but the outrage it caused demonstrates how the world has changed and continues to change. I’m optimistic about the future of a more diverse technology industry.
Silvana Gaia is a senior technical consultant at Belatrix Software, a software development firm based in Redwood City, California, as well as various cities in Argentina, Colombia and Peru. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.