Fighting unconscious bias as a woman in tech
- Posted on August 21, 2019
- Estimated reading time 3 minutes
In 1976, before I was born, my mum worked as a computer programmer for a global tech company, and she was interviewed for their employee magazine. In the article, it says that 10 percent of the employees and only 1.6 percent of the managers of that company are women, but that the company was looking to improve this through an equal opportunity program. The article also reassures men that women will not get an unfair advantage over men in the company. Even though a lot has changed since 1976, a remarkable part of the article is still relevant today.
I was very lucky because my mum has always been a great role model. In high school, when it was time to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, there were three things on my list: jetfighter pilot, lighting engineer in theater productions and software developer. I don't think it occurred to me that this was an unusual list for a girl, and if it did, I certainly wasn't put off by it. I was, however, one of only two girls in our physics class. And when I went to study electrotechnical engineering – with a specialization in computer science – I was the only woman amidst 75 men. I still didn't mind.
When I graduated in 2002, I had my own company and was building web applications. I did the technical work and a male colleague drove our sales. Our company of two had a perfect 50/50 gender split. We traveled quite a bit, and we weren't always treated as equals. Arriving at a hotel in Geneva one day, the receptionist told my colleague that his wife could wait until the rooms were ready while he attended the meeting. An uncomfortable silence followed when he told her, "That's not my wife, that's my boss!"
While this is a funny anecdote, it's also hard to continuously fight against prejudice and expectations. In meetings, people would usually just address my colleague and assume I was there to take notes. He would have to explicitly tell potential customers that I would answer any technical questions that they might have – a good example of why allies are important to allow things to change and occasionally provide some emotional support and motivation to keep going against the current.
Today, the comments are usually not that explicit, but there are still plenty of preconceived notions about men and women in the workplace. Ideas that are put forward by men are more likely to receive a positive response. Sometimes, men repeat an idea that a woman has already suggested earlier, only to receive excessive praise for it.
These unconscious biases exist for both men and women – our brains prefer patterns, and the longstanding pattern is that men are leaders. It will take effort to snap our brains out of this automatic mode of thinking. We need to be aware of our unconscious biases and make sure that we review women fairly. They might look and act differently from what we are used to seeing, and it's exactly this difference that is going to help our teams be more successful.