Females continue to be underrepresented in the fields of science and technology, and little has changed since the 1980s. Social barriers are still persistent, maintaining a pervasive gender bias, which discourages girls to pursue further education and a career in science and technology.
The United Nations General Assembly, recognizing the importance of promoting equal access to females in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, marks the 11th February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
On this occasion we gathered around the amazing women of the Helvia team to discuss what influenced them to follow a career in technology, the challenges they have faced due to their gender, the opportunities that lie ahead, and how women can support each other.
What motivated you to follow a career in technology?
Most of the women at Helvia became familiar with technology from an early age, influenced by their family. Be it the technological background of the parents, or having an older brother at home who would introduce them to computer games, interaction with technology at a young age, played a key role in forming their mindset.
“Acquiring a personal computer at home back in the 80s was a crucial factor that helped nurture my love for computers and eventually led me to pursue a degree in Electrical Engineering”, mentions Eleni, Technical Project Manager.
“Having a brother 20 years older than me was a big influence. He brought home electronics and video games, so I started shaping my path based on this experience very early on. I wanted to follow a career in either graphic design or computer science; I chose the latter as it sounded safer from a financial perspective”, says Nikoleta, Scrum Master.
Eviliana, Senior Mobile Engineer explains how getting exposed to computers quite young with basic windows games to begin with, helped show her inclination in technology and actually liking it. Having an older brother who studied computer science and being supportive, also played a key role.
For Ana, Junior Backend Engineer, it was all clear from the beginning as she always liked technology and her family’s technological background had an influence on her.
Elie, UX Designer, explains what intrigued her to choose her career: “I always wanted to think differently, find solutions, analyze problems and my job role is very relevant.”
Why do you believe it is important to get more females interested in STEM education?
Ana mentions that we need to get away from gender stereotypes in regards to education and professions. We should have a broader knowledge and if there is interest in STEM, anyone should be able to follow it. Still, women are a minority, and they do get occasionally looked down upon for being females in a male dominated sector, and this is something that needs to change.
As a mother of a young girl, Eleni has looked into this topic and mentions that after the 80s, with the introduction of video games, there was a clear shift due to the gaming industry focusing on boys. This had a big influence on the social norms and the stimuli girls would be exposed to. “Even when searching for clothes with video games themes, you have to go to the boys section. It is important for girls to be exposed to different things, technology, gaming, etc. so they can follow STEM if they want to”, Eleni emphasizes.
Nikoleta agrees that there might be some differences between the genders, but we should raise children with exactly the same principles, we should have a balance to create more science stimuli for girls.
As Eviliana mentions, sciences don't have a gender and it has to do with whether it intrigues your mind. What you are exposed to has a big influence in what career you decide to follow. “When I was studying computer science in 2006, the female to male students ratio was low, something that created a subculture that girls are not so good at software development. There were times that I doubted myself. We need to have a better representation in the computer science industry as the discrimination there is a bit more intense”, says Eviliana.
According to Elie, everybody needs to be able to follow what they want to do, or they are good at. The stereotype shouldn't be there. If women’s minds work differently it’s only a positive influence they can make.
Did you feel at any time that as a woman you needed to prove yourself again and again? And if yes, how did you overcome that?
Eleni shares that she was lucky not to have experienced such discrimination. However, when working as an IT systems consultant, she noticed how much better men would get along with each other and sometimes, as a result, being favored for a promotion. Luckily, this has not been the case in her other roles.
For Elie, she could feel in different occasions in the past some kind of questioning whether she would deliver the expected outcome, due to gender bias. This of course made her more stubborn to prove them wrong.
Eviliana, at the beginning of her career first tried her luck in IT support, where she did face some sort of discrimination. While working as an undergraduate IT support trainee, she would often come across surprised reactions. “When I was showing up with a screwdriver - with hardware you need to get your hands dirty - people’s surprise was always the same. They have the perception that you don’t know about hardware, that you cannot fix stuff, etc.”. In her first programming job, she also had to prove her worth to be given eventually more technical tasks. Apart from some negative experiences, overall, she mentions that she was really lucky to be treated as an equal in the workplace.
Nikoleta did not experience something similar, but she does know other women who have experienced such bullying and had to change profession in the end. “For me I believe I stayed in the field because I loved it and I also wanted to prove my capabilities”, says Nikoleta.
Ana shares that she has been quite lucky to not have experienced discrimination at work so far. Ana adds: “My only experience is at university where I study computer science and we are still a minority, with only 22% female representation. A lot of people are questioning your capabilities or discouraging you from pursuing a career in engineering.”
Do you have any advice for women starting their careers in technology?
Unanimously, our team agrees the most important advice they would give to a woman interested in a career in technology is to follow her dreams, do what she loves and ignore any negative comments. Also seek support from other women in the field, as well as in organizations and groups that empower women in the field.
Nikoleta also adds: “Not to be afraid to be involved in social events, like meetups and try to show herself and become more visible in the community.”
Eviliana emphasizes: “Don't be afraid to put yourself out there. It is a shame not to do something you like because you didn’t have support. The support is you. Stand your ground.”