During the mid-nineteenth century, medical scholars often claimed they could determine a deceased human’s sex simply by studying their brain, even in the absence of a body. And not so long ago, it was widely accepted among educational theorists that women were, by nature, “bad at math.” Not so today. Now, in the twenty-first century, the narrative has shifted. Educators frequently observe that female students outperform their male counterparts, both in science and mathematics. But women remain increasingly absent from mathematical disciplines at the postgraduate and PhD level. As social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam puts it:
We used to say “women are bad at maths”; now we say “they’re just not interested.”
According to the National Innovation and Science Agenda, only one in four IT graduates, and fewer than one in 10 engineering graduates, is a woman. Even more alarming is that women occupy only around one quarter of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce overall. Nevertheless, the success of three accomplished female tech entrepeneurs offers an illustration of how young women in tech can excel today.
Three decades before innovation became the buzzword du jour for guiding Australia’s post-mining-boom economy, internationally renowned technologist Sonja Bernhardt was shaking things up in Queensland. As a pioneering software entrepreneur, Sonja founded the Women in Technology organisation in 1997, and continues to connect, mentor, and advocate for the organisation’s members today. Bernhardt has accumulated an impressive assortment of accolades, including the Medal of the Order of Australia (2011) for service to the IT industry. She was also the first Australian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame for Women in Technology, Silicon Valley (2005). Speaking to Red Wire about what can be done to elevate women in technology today, Bernhardt summarised some of the arguments she makes in her 2014 book-length study of women and technology:
In my book Women in IT in the New Social Era, I make recommendations on ways to approach this ‘issue’ in different ways. My fundamental approach is about recognising that we are in a tectonically changing world, and it is time to approach this issue with new thinking whose target is encouraging curious, creative, and clever people.
As Bernhardt suggests, the thinking around women in tech can often fall prey to stagnation and repeated themes. What needs to change, she argues, is the accessibility of the discussion, which she urges should be opened to the public. The solution isn’t necessarily about more thinking, she notes; it’s about the smarter, collaborative sharing of ideas—think hackfest-style disruption, digital communications that enhance access and neutrality, sidelining questions of gender, and digestible data visualization. According to Bernhardt, the old structural barriers faced by women in twentieth-century tech are beginning to fade from memory. And mercifully, those barriers that remain have become much smaller. Indeed, even these barriers will soon be swept away, Bernhardt contends, by what she calls the “tectonic changes of the new social era, which is changing faster than we can adapt.” Her message is clear: “It’s time to drop the old, big, and centralised, and adopt the new, small, and agile.”
If programmers write the language of this “new social era,” a new hurdle emerges for tech-savvy women in the programming sector. Put simply, the question to overcome is this: Can women write code? Often imagined in filmic and literary depictions as a “bro zone,” the world of web language development can sometimes seem a strange place, a sequestered-away zone in the dark corner of an office strewn by empty cans of energy drink. But one remarkable programmer who is working to encourage women to embrace coding and web languages is Ally Watson, founder of Code Like a Girl. Ally and her team host free events and workshops in Melbourne for women interested in coding. The group provides an encouraging, friendly space for women to network—and work—in a supportive environment. This is a place where emerging women web developers can learn the basics of code, seek out career advice and professional development support, and meet inspiring industry leaders. Watson likes to immerse those who attend the Code Like a Girl workshops in the newest technologies, like IoT tech and Virtual Reality (pictured above), so that they can approach fresh devices and bleeding-edge software in a supportive context. As Watson says,
It’s important for women and girls to feel at home in the midst of new tech so they feel safe, inspired, and empowered to use it. Groups with greater diversity solve complex problems better, and with varying solutions. Even the presence of women in a group has been proven to increase the collective intelligence of a group.
Watson’s remarks underscore the importance of collaboration among young women developers. After all, failure, which is a necessary evil in software testing, is always better experienced where support is available. Indeed, Watson advises young women who are interested in code to ‘fail fast and fail often’. For coding, in the end, is firstly about problem solving, and the journey towards solutions is almost always beset with obstacles and setbacks. In this context, fearlessness and courage are essential.
“We must teach women to embrace the error message!”
If a young woman in tech overcomes the technical and cultural barriers to becoming a developer, technologist, or intrepreneur, she may then encounter another kind of gatekeeper: the angel investor. More often than not, angel investors are wealthy, older people, frequently males, who are not easily persuaded. As tech pioneer Kay Koplovits told The Australian Financial Review this year, “Australian investors are still too conservative and need to do more to support the early stage companies, and particularly those run by women.”
Shelli Trung breaks the mold. Typically, she is the only female investor on her startup team, and, in her words, she is usually “the one with the least grey hair.” Listed as one of the top 100 angel investors to follow on Twitter, Trung is a tour de force in the Australian startup scene. And, as she notes, it’s precisely her diverse background as the daughter of immigrant parents that has shaped her approach to innovation:
My parents arrived in Australia with two kids under the age of three, a couple of suitcases, $20 in their pockets, and barely speaking a word of English. I was delegated to and relied on from the age of eight to act as the interpreter for our family when it came to letters, bills — any documentation, really. As a result, I had to practise handling business transactions with adults, learn how to be proactive, and design strategies to deal with being uncomfortable on a consistent basis. As an innovator in tech, you have to be the one who is consistently pushing forward through uncomfortable situations.
Echoing Ally Watson’s sentiments, Trung acknowledges that women, one way or another, are conditioned to be less aggressive than men. And while this can make women more open to collaboration, and make them seem better at fostering a happy team, it can also promote conflict avoidance, stopping women from speaking up in challenging or confrontational business situations. As an older sister to a current female university student, Trung has often imparted her wisdom to young women in tech:
Try a lot of new things: volunteer and explore the world. Your 20s is about having some fun figuring it all out. Learn to be OK with not knowing what you’re doing, with getting it wrong, and asking for help. Find that balance between being kind to yourself and keeping yourself accountable. If you happen to find yourself in a room filled with people who don’t look or sound like you, remember that, as a woman, you probably had to work twice as hard to be where you are. You deserve to be exactly where you are.
Trung and Watson both agree that investing in diversity is critical for innovation in business. Both women also hope to see more women graduates in STEM disciplines—something that might be guided by business-driven initiatives that support women’s increased inclusion in the tech and programming workforces. After three decades of advocating for women in STEM, Sonja Bernhardt hopes for a future in which gender-awareness intervention programs are no longer necessary — a future in which the changing landscape of the “social era” will finally achieve what decades of traditional intervention had been unable to.
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