Women in IT — You would praise a man for providing for his family, whereas you’d shame a woman for abandoning hers

OCTO Technology Australia
Mar 8 · 13 min read

#MeToo, #NotWithoutHer, #Fem2, #TimesUp… Some of the many hashtags we’ve seen flourishing on social medias and articles all around the world.

If the execution might sometimes be questionable, the purpose was long needed. The last few years marked the beginning of a new era on the feminism scene.

Everywhere, in every industry, women have started to rise and talk about what it has been like, for them. So many harsh testimonies to read, to comprehend, to accept…

And a single question at the end of the day: Where do we start, if we want things to change? The best thing to do might be to look in your own backyard first…

We looked around and noticed it was roughly the same at our clients, hard to find many fellow female coders.

In Australia, around 60 % of women who start a hands-on career in IT will leave it within 10 years, 7 on average. They’ll either go to a more admin role in IT (project manager, business analyst…), they will start a career in a new industry or altogether to step away from the workforce.

We thus decided to find out why.

We interviewed women who made it into IT. In a series of portraits, we will share their background, their journey in such an industry and their vision for the future.

Meriem Berkane, CTO of OCTO Technology

Can you please introduce yourself?

I grew up in Algeria, graduated high school there and moved to France at 17.

I always knew I wanted to work in IT, from the moment I got my first computer. I tried coding when I was a kid with simple languages and had the influence of my dad who was a geek and very curious. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I thought about research but figured out it wouldn’t be for me.

I did my internship at OCTO, as during the last year of my studies, most classes were given by Octos. They pushed me to apply and I got hired as an intern.

When I started, I tried everything: code, consulting, software craftsmanship, mobility, java… Out of 50 consultants, I was the only woman.

Even though I truly believed diversity is a bonus and is very enriching, I think being the only woman was an advantage and only had good points.

Same at school, I was the only girl in my class, and I don’t have any bad memories from back then, even though I wasn’t really part of the social life.

Do you think IT is such an ever-changing industry that you can be easily outdated?

No, I believe it has mainly to do with your mindset. Even though coding isn’t my main activity today, I know I still have all the reflexes I need.

It can be scary sometimes when I see junior guys coding amazing things, yet, when I had to take a Kafka use case a while ago, I noticed it was not so hard to pick it up, thanks to my experience. Women, in general, might feel insecure, thinking they won’t be able to pick up what they’ll miss if they leave the tech side for a while, and so they might choose the safe side with soft skills oriented position.

In my case, I took the time to take courses and training while I was off and was even better when I got back.

Do you believe this idea they have might be because of the environment they work in?

I believe that in general, women curb themselves and put so much pressure on themselves, assuming they won’t be up to level. It has to be cultural pressure. Women must be biased, pressured from their education.

Was it harder for you to choose this field and stay in it because you’re a woman?

I grew up in a family where women always fought for their work. My aunt was a minister in Algeria, I’m used to struggling and fighting for what I want. It was always a given for my parents that I’d do exactly what I wanted.

I remember one teacher at my IT school had a hard time accepting that I was a girl in this field. Same when I was working in research, I noticed my fellow students weren’t working on the same type of research as boys, or they would get cut off/interrupted frequently. It still happens sometimes in missions…

We hear quite often that a man is considered as competent until proven otherwise, whereas it’s quite the opposite for a woman. Is it something you witnessed or experienced yourself?

Not really, especially now that I am a CTO… Maybe when I was younger. However, I always knew things wouldn’t be easy and I was ready to fight so I didn’t pay much attention to anything that would get in my way.

Probably this character helped you gloss over anything that might get in your way?

Definitely, I believe so. I was used to not paying attention or being bothered by anything.

I remember talking with one of my female colleagues, I respect the fact that the same situation can be perceived differently depending on who is experiencing it. I know that some things I might not care about, can offend other people and I respect this.

I also have the example of one of my other female colleagues, who was a developer at the beginning of her career and then drifted away from dev thinking it wasn’t something for her. She didn’t have any issues getting back to it and she is now really respected and talented in her field. She told me she wasn’t seeing or hearing anything that might be said against her because she’s a woman.

Perhaps, it means it takes a strong character to make it in this industry…

Yes, most probably.

We acknowledge the fact that there are very few women in high/executive roles in IT such as CTO, why do you think is that?

I have been having a lot of conversations with clients about it. I think about one of my former clients, a really intelligent man. We had so many passionate debates about whether or not we should promote positive discrimination in order to promote more women in executive roles. He firmly believed it was the only way.

My story is a bit different, I was 8-months pregnant when I was promoted to CTO. This type of thing only happens at OCTO.

One thing he said was that networking takes a big part in the process of promotion, even if it’s not even considered as discrimination. Women just aren’t part of the golf game on the weekend, or the drinks after work, which automatically disadvantages them in the running for the job. He thus tried to break this pattern to make sure women had the same chances to get the job, no matter their position in the network.

Funnily enough, I used to strongly stand against this idea, I thought it would bring some sort of second-guessing about your legitimacy, people would doubt your abilities, thinking you only got the job because you’re a woman. Talking with him helped me understand he might be right.

On the other hand, I think women don’t believe in themselves enough.

Where a man would dare to apply to a job even if he thinks he might tick 80% of the boxes, a woman wouldn’t until she is 100% sure she can make it, and she has chances to get the job.

I also met the CTO of a French company, who explained to me that she had been through hell to get the job, and still has to fight every day to prove she was worth it. She also talked about how hard it is even at home. She feels the pressure from society when she is working late and doesn’t spend enough time at home with her kids. A man would never get such comments.

CTO is a very demanding job, however, you would praise a man for providing for his family, whereas you’d shame a woman for abandoning hers.

It is a matter of accepting that a woman should make the same concessions as a man, and not be sorry for it...

Exactly! The problem is, we could think these comments are only important if you think they are, but they are hard to fight. When you hear it 10 times a day, you start doubting whether you should be at home with your kids rather than at work with your colleagues.

Have you ever doubted your choice?

Never, ever. I’m really happy doing what I do. I wasn’t happy when I was a stay-at-home mum.

My husband and I both agree with the fact that he’s better than me with the kids so he decided to take time off and stay at home.

He had a great promotion in his job and when we had our 2nd child, he decided it was the perfect time for him to stop and take care of the kids. When we had our daughter, he regretted a lot not taking this time off to spend time with her.

Did it scare you to stop your career to have a family?

No, I always thought it would be ok at the end of the day. I knew I wanted a kid, I didn’t want to compromise on anything, and I made it work.

The fact that I came back to OCTO made it easier though because I knew the company and always felt really supported throughout my journey.

I think stopping for a while is good for you too, I came back stronger after both my pregnancies.

Have you ever considered leaving your tech role for something less demanding?

No, I know I wouldn’t be happy. I get bored really quickly, this job is perfect for me, working on so many things at the same time, having a versatile role.

I got offers for really good jobs, offering amazing advantages when you’re a parent but I know it wouldn’t fulfill me.

You grew from being an intern to a CTO at OCTO, have you ever felt the glass ceiling at OCTO, was it harder for you to evolve and get promoted?

I don’t think so, I didn’t experience it myself.

I heard stories though. I know it hasn’t been so easy for everyone. I don’t think I got lucky or not because I was a woman, I think I was treated the same. Sometimes I even felt annoyed by this constant need to promote diversity.

We heard before that one of the reasons why women don’t access high responsibility roles might have to do with genetics or hormones. What do you think about it?

I know it was discovered that women have a bigger left temporal lobe than men, it is where emotional intelligence is stored/managed. Many studies prove that women have better emotional intelligence than men. And it is more and more mainstream to say that emotional intelligence is essential in management, maybe even more than IQ.

I believe it brings some balance. It is something I have been accepting and claiming since only recently. I am part of the board here at OCTO France and I strongly believe that the emotions I bring in my interventions and my positions bring a different aspect to the table.

I also noticed showing my emotions have helped men who might not always have been comfortable with showing their feelings to open up.

It’s a fine line though between saying this and assuming women only are conspicuous by their emotions.

Was it hard for you to accept and proudly share your positions at a board where you’re surrounded by almost only men?

Not really, because I’ve been working at OCTO for 11 years, it’s home. The fact that I’m still very hands-on and on the field helps me to have relevant opinions.

I don’t want to say that men and women are equal and we can do exactly the same things. I do believe we deserve the same rights and should be able to access the same positions for the same skills, but we will do things differently, and that’s ok.

Do you think this way of thinking is already accepted nowadays? I know your daughter is at school, do you feel the education she gets tells her this type of things?

I think we did as much as we could to protect my daughter from the stereotypes. She always played with “boys” toys if she wanted them, we didn’t dress her in pink, even though she loves it… But there must be more that can be done in education.

We read a few studies explaining that around the age of 6, many little girls have a realisation that some activities are “for boys”, and willingly decide to step away from intellectual or scientific hobbies. Where do you think this comes from?

I believe it has a lot to do with the environment. I witnessed it a little bit with my daughter, who’s now 4. Boys started to stop playing with girls, and she didn’t understand why. She had to prove to them she was good at “boys games” for them to accept her in the group. I also witnessed it with other parents, when I hear moms telling their little boys “don’t act like a girl” when they cry…

This difference is still something very present in our society. Education takes a huge role because it anchors today’s reality in children’s minds.

Do you think diversity in a team is important? If so, what does it bring?

Definitely. I’m not sure why though, I just know it brings alchemy, a force that teams without diversity don’t have. And this doesn’t apply only to IT nor gender. In sports, in any group activities… Differences make your brain react in a certain way that makes it more efficient.

When hiring people in your team, would you encourage hiring women over men?

I would. However, I work in Big Data where it’s hard to recruit. We’d love to have more women, but we wouldn’t say no to a man if he’s competent. I’d love to have this strategy, but if I discriminate men, I would barely recruit. But I must admit that when a woman applies, I probably put more effort in her recruitment.

I don’t want to do positive discrimination, because if someone is not up to level, there’s no need to waste her’s or our time. However, one thing I particularly make sure of when a woman applies to OCTO is that I want her to feel that we’re a company that doesn’t discriminate, that accepts anyone and only makes decisions based on their skills. I’ll make sure people who meet her during the recruitment process ask the right questions and make her feel the right way.

If one of your managees feels discriminated or feels like they can’t grow based on their gender, how would do deal with it?

It never happened, but I can see that the women I have in my team have a great evolution. I believe that creating a kind and safe environment offers a fertile ground for everyone to grow the right way. What really matters is working on the environment and the culture, rather than making sure women feel good in their team.

I’d rather not work with a really good technical profile if he doesn’t contribute to the environment that I’m trying to create around me. I believe all of OCTO has progressed in that way. Where we used to recruit really good profiles and put technical skills first, I think we now make sure that the person we’re recruiting will genuinely bring something to his or her team.

We read a lot about the stereotype threat: being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s social group. Is it something you witnessed or experienced yourself?

I don’t think I experienced it myself. However, I think it’s something I’ve seen not about gender but about age. I worked with a 50-year-old developer who was really good, but because he would feel threatened by not fitting in his environment, as a result, would lose confidence and it impacted the quality of his code.

If you had a message for women walking in your steps?

Something essential is talking about it. If you ever feel like you don’t fit, or you feel uncomfortable, just say it. Most of the time, people aren’t mean, they might be biased but don’t really want to discriminate.

It might just have to do with their habits, behaviours they’ve seen and repeated for so long they don’t even realise it anymore. By talking about it, it shatters the belief and everyone can grow. Voices just need to be freed, and I believe OCTO is a great place for it.

One important thing too is starting slowly, with easy things. Studies show that when starting from success, the brain will set a win mode and will build confidence. When I give code training, I make sure I start with the basics so it is as accessible as possible for everyone.

Why should women choose the IT field?

I really believe being a woman in tech/IT today is an incredible advantage because there are so few of them. I get job offers every day, being sure to find a job nowadays is a great bonus. Also, I’m never bored. There is so much to do, and so many different things to learn.

As part of the board, do you know if OCTO is taking concrete actions to close to the gender gap in IT?

There are official actions, on how to recruit women. I think we’re doing well, but there is still so much to do. There still are issues we need to approach, which are essential, such as giving childcare solutions to moms. In my case, I would have got back at work much earlier if I had a better childcare solution, such as a spot in a childcare center via my workplace, or even a childcare center in the building. Those issues are not faced yet and are part of today’s reality. That’s how we’ll really grow and change things, in more than one aspect.

Meriem’s testimony is the second of our “Women in IT” series of portraits. We’ll regularly publish interviews of inspiring women, who make a change around them. Stay tuned!

If you’d like to hear more about our project or share your story, contact us at hello@octo.com.au

OCTO Technology Australia

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