It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in the tech world. Because of that reality, Tech&Ladies was born: a group of women from Barcelona who seek to give exposition to other ladies that work in the tech industry. As they put it in their official description, having a media presence is very important, and they’re here to help correct misconceptions and help young girls get interested in computers.
They’ve also hosted two editions of Women Techmakers, a conference focused on female leaders of the industry powered by the Google Developers Group program. Akuaro World had the chance to ask them a few questions about the current landscape in tech for women, Spain’ specific situation and their own personal experiences.
We had the opportunities to speark with Adela Tort, Verónica Respaldiza, Judith Nieto and Ilia Berlana organizers and founders of this initiative.
According to the latest statistics, only 7% of IT professionals are women. Based on your criteria, what do you think are the reasons for these low numbers?
From the Tech&Ladies Barcelona group we believe that factors such as lack of information, and the stereotypes associated to the people who study technical careers, the lack of references… all of them influence when choosing a university degree. Despite the first programmers being women, interest in computing has declined considerably since then. That’s why we’re part of initiatives like Tech&Ladies: to eliminate society’s prejudices about people who work in the tech area, like “frikis” or “nerds”, and to let people know about role models like Ada Lovelace or Margaret Hamilton.
Ada is considered to be the first programmer, she defined the first programming language for Charles Babbage’s analytical machine. Hamilton lead the developing team for the Apolo space program. From Tech&Ladies, we encourage all those girls who read this and are about to begin a new university degree to include an engineer’s path in their choices. Technology is changing our era, software development is making business models obsolete and the app boom helps us on our day-to-day. Is there something you miss on your phone, laptop or tablet? You can create it.
Does the professional exclusion of women still exist in the IT sector?
We wouldn’t call it “professional exclusion” per se, but it is true that the number of women who dedicate themselves to computer science is low. The number of female experts who have executive positions is even lower or almost nonexistent. The pay inequality between women and men is something that’s still there, and the difficulty to find a balance between personal and professional lives in comparison to other countries also doesn’t help.
Do you think the Spanish society and its education system helps girls to pursue degrees like engineering and computer studies?
Spanish society still has a lot of prejudices about studies according to genders. It’s still frowned upon when girls study engineering. But precisely, for getting more girls to study engineering, one of the most important points is to change society’s culture so that girls don’t look at those careers as exclusively for men, and so that families and friends also support the girls to enter in the engineering and development sector.
In regards to the education system itself, it also has a long road ahead, although little by little there’s been talks about the matter and the system has been raising awareness about these subjects in schools to break those cultural stereotypes. We think it would be great to also add programming courses in the education system.
How did you start in the programming world?
Adela: I found programming in middle school. That year we made an investigative paper, and I did it about cryptography. Then my father, who is a mathematician, encouraged me to learn how to program and do my own coding and decoding program. It was a challenge that helped me to discover the unknown world of programming and that encouraged me to study computer science. I very likely ended up in the tech area by having a family that came from science.
Vero: Well, I started in the computing world because math was one of my most challenging classes in school. After that, I decided to study computing to keep applying the knowledge I gained. The internet boom was around that time, and the way we could communicate at long distances without getting out of our houses fascinated me. That’s why communication has always been an interesting subject for me. I was lucky to participate in the programming of a communications protocol for spontaneous networks.
Judit: I remember perfectly that I was left amazed when my parents took me shopping shoes and in the store they charged using a computer. It’s my first memory of “I want to touch that and I want to know how it works”. Besides, my older cousins dedicated themselves to trolling me with a voice synthesizer that they had in their computer (I probably hadn’t turned 3 yet), and that made my curiosity for the subject increase. Then, despite of the fact that medicine has always interested me, I saw that my calling was math and analyzing how things functioned. So after destroying the first computer that passed through my house several times, I ended up studying computer science and understanding a bit more about those little boxes than more than once I would’ve thrown out the window when something didn’t work.
Ilia: It was the “only” thing I was good at. I was a very bad student, one of those who no one thinks are even going to graduate. But I was good with computers. I’ve always had one at home, even if they didn’t let me use it much. On middle school, we started teaching computer studies and I realized I was good at it. I used to help my classmates who didn’t understand much.
One day, a classmate told me: “You should study this”. So I learned a bit and decided it was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t just want to “know how to use computers”, I wanted to make them work with the software I made. Even so, the first time I programmed was at my first year at the university, and I’m still at it!
What is the hardest part about being a woman programmer?
Adela: The environment that surrounds you when you decide to study engineering. When all of your friends choose a career and you say that you’re going to choose engineering, for me it was the most difficult moment because normally, even though they support you, they tend to see you like a weirdo, a “friki” … Now that I’m in the field and started everyday work, I’ve been very well.
Vero: I share Adela’s opinion. Yes, it’s true that it’s hard to find that understanding from your family and friends who are not familiar with the area. Maybe I would also add that, in some cases, it’s hard to prove your worth in the professional field. You have to take into account that in this industry there’s still some sexism, and there’s still a lot of work to find that balance.
Judit: Waiting for everyone to accept and understand that you’re not a weirdo. With my family I didn’t have much trouble. It was more in my friend’s circle, because I didn’t follow that “natural path” for girls. In any case, I do have hope that this will change once and for all. And at the same time to find companies that understand that, even though you’re not a mother, you want a balance between your work life and your personal life.
Ilia: The prejudice and the disbelief people show when you tell them. They look at you like saying: “Are you sure? You know how to do this?” From my family there wasn’t any problems aside from a comment by my grandmother who told me: “Couldn’t you have picked something more girly?”. I told her: “If I can study it, it must be because it’s also for girls, right?”. Taking into account how I was such a bad student, I think the fact that I had chosen a path in the first place erased any prejudices regarding what I wanted to study. “Whatever you want, jus study something”. Anecdotally, I once was on vacation in Scotland, and when I told a woman from a Bed and breakfast what I did for a living, she gave me a look that had a mix of surprise, pride and sheltering. At the same time, she was asking me: “But that’s very hard, isn’t it?”. She didn’t tell anything to my husband, who was next to me and told her he worked in the same field.
What has been your biggest achievement as a programmer?
Adela: The biggest accomplishments are: being a part of Tech&Ladies and giving talks in events for women techmakers. On the other hand, it has also been a great challenge to balance family and work with an almost two-year-old son, and discover that you can enjoy work as a programmer and enjoy time with your family as well.
Vero: First, as Adela says, being part of the Tech&Ladies community and creating the group in Barcelona has been something that has made me feel very lucky. To give the chance to other women to be inspired by the events we do it’s something that gives me a very good feeling. Being able to contribute to change is very gratifying. Professionally, I would highlight my participation in a project for which I was responsible. All the challenges I’ve faced since being at my first job have been great accomplishments for me.
Judit: I don’t consider my biggest achievement to be something that I’ve finished. I do feel very proud to be able to contribute in everything I can with Tech&Ladies, but also to let ourselves be known, not only in women’s environment, but also to raise awareness to the people I know, to let them understand we don’t discriminate against boys, but that we want to give a space to girls so they can take a chance and give their vision, their talks, that they aren’t weirdos (how I’ve been made to feel in some job interviews), etc.
Ilia: The first time I executed “Hello World!”. It was all so easy, so fluent… But I’m not staying with just one achievement. Every application, every display, every problem solved. It’s very satisfying to know that what I do is what I want to do and, besides, I’m good at it.
In the last few years there’s been growth in Femtech, a software or service area where they use technology to focus on giving solutions for feminine needs. What do you think women programmers can contribute to the innovation sector?
The world population is roughly divided by 50% men and 50% women. Right now we’re at a situation in which innovation is being created by men for the rest of the population. Diversity can give a different focus to innovation, not only coming from women, but also from other minority groups that unfortunately have a hard time finding a space in the IT sector.
What is your advice for those girls who want to take on computer studies?
I would say to them to remember their dreams and their wishes to create what has taken them to choose this career, because there’ll always be hard times and it’s important to move forward. During their careers they will find amazing people and others that will try to make them feel uncomfortable (to put it somehow), but luckily there are always more of the first group. In those cases, there’s us and many other women on tech groups that will help them and guide them on those complicated years. And to finish, to congratulate them, because the career they have chosen will give them the chance to innovate on technology to achieve a better world.