It Doesn’t Have To Be A Man’s World.

Hi, I’m Leanne and I have been a Software Engineer with Zircon for 6 years. People are often a bit surprised when they ask me what I do, as in such a male-dominated field I suppose I’m a bit of a rarity. I often get asked what made me choose this career and what it’s like. I normally brush this aside, preferring to not treat it as a big deal (it isn’t a big deal). But, with so many recent initiatives aimed at engaging women in science and engineering, I’d like to say a few words about how I got here and my experiences so far…

About 8 years ago I decided to make a dramatic career change and leave my job in publishing. I had already done a few evening classes and taught myself coding from text books, which got me into university to study a part-time Masters in Computer Science. This was a “conversion” course designed for people with no academic qualifications in this area. There were a few other women there, but not many. To be completely honest here, I got a sense of hostility from a couple of the guys in my class. Apparently, they didn’t like it that women get an “easy ride” and “first dibs” at jobs due to companies wanting to demonstrate being diverse and promoting equal-opportunities.

This scared me, I understand why positive discrimination needs to be there (at least at the start, to instigate change) but there is a negative flip-side to it. I didn’t want to be resented and treated differently, I wanted to blend in and focus on being good at my job!

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about, the process of finding and starting my first software job went smoothly and I got no sense of being different. I was the only female engineer when I started, pretty normal for a small company I’m sure. I wanted to work for a small company as I felt that my unconventional academic background wouldn’t necessarily fit the mould at a big graduate scheme. I wanted to work on a range of different projects to get the most out this new career, as I wasn’t sure if there was a specific route I wanted to go down.

I am currently working on-site with one of Zircon’s largest customers, and our project also has a development team over in Pune, India. I was interested when I found out that there is much less of a gender divide amongst the software engineers working in their office, around 40% being women. One of the Pune team is currently working in our office and I asked her about this. She said that in India an attempt to get women into engineering roles started as long as 20 years ago. She said that, living in what has historically been a largely patriarchal society; Indian women could gain more independence and opportunities if they worked. This lead to the offering of free education for both boys and girls, and often 30% of places at Indian universities are reserved for women. Out of all the engineering disciplines, software is seen as desirable due to comfortable, safe, office-based working conditions. Many Indian women get a lot of encouragement from parents and teachers to pursue this career.

Here’s a quick stat… 35% of people with specialist technology roles in India are women, compared to 17% in the UK.

In the last few years there have been many UK initiatives to get school-age girls interested in this kind of career. We have Ada Lovelace day, “Women in Engineering” events at the local college, etc. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn coding in school but I’m sure that if I did I would have wanted to carry on with it. At the risk of sounding like a massive geek, coding is really fun. I’m sure that loads of people would enjoy it if they gave it a go, and I can’t imagine it appealing more to guys than girls. It seems like stereotypes and assumptions are to blame. From my experience the software office environment isn’t in any way hostile to women.

I think that every working environment benefits from having a wide range of different kinds of people, of different genders, backgrounds and with different interests and motivations. I didn’t come into this career with a technical background or A-grades in maths and science subjects; I chose to do it because I love the problem-solving, creative side of it. Another female software engineer we had at Zircon was a mathematician… so there really isn’t a “typical” type of person doing this job, even if there might still be a stereotype. The UK is probably missing out on quite a bit of talent in this field, so the sooner it feels more diverse and inclusive, the better.

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