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What companies are actually doing to empower Women in Tech : The theory vs the reality

A message from Sam: This was a guest post from my friend Lynette. She has contributed to the blog before and I thought it would be really worthwhile to publish this because a lot of what she highlights are issues I’ve seen time and time again. There is a lot of “loud” noise about empowering females in the tech space but despite the campaigns, the shouts and the social banter – very little of it seems to resonate or actually make a fundamental difference in the day to day operations of companies. We continue to see similar trends emerge and Lynette’s comments below touch on only a tiny amount of the issues women in tech deal with. Neither Lynette nor I want to start the conversations around sexism and horrific treatment of females in male dominated organisations (just to illustrate my point, not a tech company, but an advertising agency did THIS recently) – for now, let’s start by compartmentalising issues. Today: women only tech events and networking events in general. 

There’s a conversation here that needs to happen. Hopefully this helps fire it. Here is Lynette’s commentary:

So much awareness these days, (to my delight), is about rectifying the gender imbalance in the work place across pretty much all industry sectors and tech is no exception to jump onto this band wagon. Yay! Or so I thought…

How are companies attempting to rectify the gender imbalance? Here’s what they claim they will do:

  • Accommodate the needs of all women, especially mothers, as research has shown that after kids, women tend to stop working because of family responsibilities. Lets be truthful, childcare is expensive, irrespective of the country you live in. I lived in the UK and every time my kids were ill or I had to take a sudden day’s leave for family responsibilities, I still had to pay the 40 pounds per child per day for childcare, whether they attended care or not. Simply: I had to take leave or unpaid leave to look after sick kids – thus losing income. But child care would still charge me regardless. 
  • Working parents’ lives are also by and large, governed by school times. This is not something we have a choice about, so companies are trying to allow flexi time to cater for this.
  • Help keep women in senior or executive positions because again research has shown that the higher up the corporate ladder you climb, the fewer women there are, so access to mentorship and career development is focusing on keeping women in these positions and helping them progress.
  • Equal pay. To be honest, this should never have been an issue but thanks to our patriarchal society this gender bias in pay exists for men and women doing exactly the same job.

So these are the claims corporate voices are making, but on the ground, in the trenches where it counts, what are companies actually doing?

As an advocate for promoting women in tech and young girls pursuing STEM careers, and having been a female active in tech for over 22 years (yes I’m one of the original geek girls who was in tech long before it became cool), this is what I’ve experienced:

Corporate companies including prominent telecoms agencies and others, hold annual developer or tech events. These events tend to start at 7:30am usually in a busy part of town. For anyone to attend, you would need to allow at least an hour to get to the venue because of rush hour traffic. However, when you factor in being a working parent, this means having to make special arrangements to get your kids to school, have them up and ready early and the like. While this is an issue that isn’t exclusive to women – for the majority of us, the school run and wake up does fall to us. Thus it becomes less practical to attend the conferences and events. We sometimes see the social commentary: x number of women in the industry were invited but only y number showed up. Usually it has a lot to do with the issues outlined above. The same goes for after hours events. Cut the tea times down, be more selective in speakers, use lunch time for networking hours… the options to better assist the working parent are there.

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I attended a “women only” recruiting event a few weeks ago run by “WomenHack” which is an international event that claims to empower women in tech companies. While I was not looking for work myself as I run my own business, I thought it would be a good opportunity to network with other female developers as I am always on the lookout for good talent and also to see what companies are doing to empower females. I was happy that South African companies were taking a forward-thinking leap. To my disappointment the event was quite the opposite of what I expected. 

The event was run from 7 to 10pm. Late enough that I could get kids home and settled for the evening before venturing out. The invite stated “network with other top women developers, designers, and product managers in the area. No commitments just good fun, great opportunity, and smart engineers to chat with.” On arrival though it was clear that this wasn’t the case. The audience comprised mainly of young females between the ages of 19 and 25 years of age. I may be mistaken but I only noticed one other woman over the age of 40 and that was because we were former colleagues.

What does this tell us?

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There is a large number of young females attempting to enter the tech space. They’re hungry and they want to build their careers. They believed they were coming to network with top women developers, designers and product managers. They weren’t. There was about 8 companies that presented to the audience (the original invite offered a far larger pool on offer, but so be it). There was a female HR manager who presented and all other pitches were made by males who read out a few job specs. We did not hear from top women developers, designers and product managers. The younger ladies in attendance were not encouraged to be inspired or hear from women they look up to about companies they should fight to get in to. For me? I found these gems on the flyer:

3 companies that were recruiting females highlighted “equal pay” as a benefit. I felt this oddly patronizing. A “benefit” is access to elevated training programmes, more leave days or flexi hours. Being paid the same as your male counterparts is not a benefit. It is a requirement, by law.

Companies attempting to empower women in the tech space, may I as a working mother, recommend the following approach:

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Pay people according to their skill level and competency to do a job, not based on gender. This should be a standard company policy, not a damn perk! 

Schedule events during working hours or later in the evening. We would love to attend and want to attend. If we need to make plans for babysitters in the evenings we will. We want to network with women and men of all ages and from across all industry and experience spectrums.

If you’re attempting to pitch to females to convince them to apply for positions available at your company, send your senior females, allow young girls to talk to them and understand why it is a good career move to join the company. Let them hear from women who they aspire to be like.

We don’t need women only events, but if you want to run one please take a look at organisations like Silicon Cape and Lionesses of Africa who have done an incredible job of creating a warm community and creating strong networking events. “Females only” is not enough of a drawing card any more. Make it worth our while!

I am very pleased to see an increase in initiatives that empower women. I’m pleased that there is now an awareness drive to promote women in male dominated fields, but if your company is going to enter this world please make an effort to at least try make it look like it isn’t just lip service. Following the current script is a sure fire way NOT to have any impact on the gender imbalance. 

About Useful & Beautiful

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Useful & Beautiful is a fast growing mobile solutions consultancy, with a specialist focus on mobile technology and product development. Service offerings encompass mobile strategy, design and development with the aim of supporting business goals with the unique qualities that mobile has to offer. Built on 15 years of experience in the mobile and digital space, Useful & Beautiful is passionate about leveraging the latest mobile technology solutions to map out intuitive and seamless user experiences that drive sustainable business value and results. For more info, visit www.usefulandbeautiful.co.za

About Lynette Hundermark – managing director of Useful & Beautiful

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With over 17 years of experience in the tech, digital marketing and mobile solutions space, Hundermark co-founded specialist mobile solutions consultancy Useful & Beautiful. With a passion for developing mobile products that are aligned to business goals, Hundermark’s appetite for keeping abreast of the latest industry trends is fast establishing her as an expert tech commentator and opinion leader in Africa . She is also  regarded as one of the top 30 most influential women in SA digital marketing.

Former apps business director and head of product strategy at Prezence Digital, Hundermark developed some of the most successful mobile web and apps solutions in the country.

Earlier in her career she served as an enterprise programmer analyst for 8 years the UK. Hundermark’s experience spans the retail, financial and entertainment sectors, where she has developed the initial mobile solutions for the likes of SterKinekor, bidorbuy,  Hollard, Old Mutual and General Electric, to name a few. She speaks regularly at a variety of local tech and mobile conferences and is frequently quoted in South African and African media.

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