Alana Potts
Mar 8, 2019 · 12 min read

A few months ago, one of our developers, Blanka, attended an event celebrating women in tech. The term gets thrown a lot now, as teams seek diversity and equality — but she was so moved by what she heard that she felt compelled to address all 120 of our eyeballs at a monthly team meeting… a lot of which were men’s. She shared insights into what she learnt, thanked us for being an example of that, and sparked a larger conversation about women in tech amongst us — so much so that we were then just as compelled as her to share it.

And so, the conversation continues, (as it has since the 60's.)

Let’s go back to where it all began. It’s 1842, and the very first computer algorithm has just been written by Ada Lovelace. And then there’s Grace Hopper (a.k.a the ‘Queen of Code’) — she was a pioneer of computer languages, and was the one to coin the term ‘bug’. It was an age where men worked with the machine’s hardware, and women programmed it.

So, what’s happened? Fast forward a few centuries, and women account for only 20% of the industry. Why? And why are 41% of women leaving tech, compared to 17% of their male counterparts?

We’re now at a time where we’re starting to identify the impact this trend is having on our workplace culture — and our identities as a whole. The cracks are starting to show. But it’s 2019, and we’ve only just scratched the surface.

A few questions to reflect on in the context of your own workplaces, and to keep in mind over the following paragraphs —

  • are women made to feel valued and equal to everyone else on the team?
  • are they respected for what they have to say, rather than the fact that they come in a girl-shaped package? (Thankfully, this no longer means long-flowing hair and pencil skirts.)
  • … and are we okay to admit that they might not be?

Consider this problem as you would a design product. We have to empathise, and understand, in order to identify the need and create the resolution — perhaps this article will encourage enough consideration that you’re able to identify the problems in your own workplace.

In the tech verticals, we love ‘culture’ — potentially the biggest #buzzword of 2018. We preach equality and diversity, and we recognise diverse teams build better products — but we don’t actively practice what we preach. A ‘do as I say, not say as I do’ mentality leaves us nowhere.

“If diversity were a product that launched 2 years ago it would be considered a failure. A product that stagnates for two years has a growth problem.”

— Ben Rowe

An industry-wide problem requires an industry-wide solution for which we’re all accountable. It’s something we should all be interested in, as problem-solvers by trade.

The cracks give way to a much bigger problem

The pattern is baked in. It starts early, when our minds first start to form — bridging new synapses with the things we feel, and see, and do. Very early (and often unconsciously), assumptions or heuristics become ingrained in our thinking, and are later reinforced by our experiences as adults. After all, humans love routine. Change is scary. Some of these learnings form into unconscious, and potentially unhealthy, biases.

It’s this kind of bias that can result in there being more men named Matt in one workplace than women (to clarify, we’re talking about there being more male staff named Matt in a company than all female staff put together).

Gender bias can start as early as glancing at a name on a resume… to entrepreneurial pitches … to salary negotiations.

A study conducted by the National Academy of Science found that investors prefer entrepreneurial ventures pitched by men. When women and men presented an identical venture pitch, 70% of investors chose to fund, men.

Similarly, women who ask for a higher salary are considered ‘more difficult to work with and less nice’, and more likely to be overcome with nervousness when faced with a male negotiator — while men are not perceived negatively for negotiating.

There is an overwhelming amount of research identifying these types of bias.

While we know unconscious gender bias might not necessarily reflect our values, we can’t really ‘choose’ to dismiss decades of cultural conditioning in the hope of being ‘bias free.’ In fact, it might do more harm than good.

A better approach might be to start with an acknowledgement of these biases. Then, spend some time understanding where they have an affect, and make a conscious effort to escape their influence in day to day conversation — at work, and at home. Having the awareness and the courage to remain on the side of objectivity helps — especially for hiring decisions, equal opportunity in the workplace, and creating a culture of inclusivity and diversity.

It’s beyond just hiring Women

And frankly, it’s no surprise many women are unlikely to apply for a role advertising for a “fearless and aggressive” manager. By removing negatively gendered words from an ad, as well as giving insights into life in the office, the benefits, and the hiring process, you’re more likely to encourage female applicants. Take a look at one we prepared earlier. Even including subtext like “we encourage those of underrepresented or minority communities to apply” or “our criteria is a ‘nice to have’ not ‘need to have’ ” in your ad descriptions might give someone the final vote of confidence they need to send a resume your way.

At Rexlabs, our products become more interesting, more insightful, and more informed when we pool the thoughts of a team of diverse race, sexual orientation, and gender. We become more empathetic, and the conversation is a lot more interesting at the lunch table. But, like many other tech companies, we’re still not diverse enough. We’re working toward our ideal state of inclusion by promoting awareness around issues such as gender bias, where it becomes less about hiring women to say we did (…who does that? We look to qualifications, experience, and cultural fit — never gender), and more about making those who have earned their job feel like they belong. This is part of what we feel is our broader drive to encourage equal opportunity for all staff, as well as development in their respective fields and roles.

We’re hoping to counteract the learnings of Kieran Snyder, who interviewed 716 women and found that they almost always leave their jobs because of the work environment — not the work they were there to do. Diverse teams are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean — so it’s in your best interest to make sure women feel like they feel appreciated and satisfied in their roles.

One of our backend developers, Summer, worked in China creating an app as the only developer in the team. She elevated the company enough to be able to afford to expand their team of developers and move into a leadership position. Likewise, one of our recent developers Jodie was a technical leader who pushed our direction forward, (in all directions) and provided valuable mentorship (not to mention friendship) to aspiring staff.

It’s beyond teaching more girls and women to code — it’s also about investing in, developing, and fostering the female talent that already exists right under your nose. By working to give women equal opportunity in career progression for bigger roles in management and leadership, you’ll not only increase retention and reduce the gender pay gap — you’ll make valuable investments in your company, and the wider industry. More women leaders doesn’t just mean diversity, equality, and voice in high-level positions, it means more women mentors to inspire and incite change: #girlboss will become #boss as it always should have been.

It’s about opportunity and progression.

It goes without saying, but make sure that team activities are inclusive. Emily Chang, the author of Brotopia, reports the tech industry has become a ‘boys club,’ — which can send qualified, talented women running from the tech space.

It’s important to create a culture that isn’t isolating; a culture that doesn’t pressure women into playing the ‘cool girl’ just to be accepted. Her choosing to work with you is acceptance enough.

We make sure that our events are inclusive, and understanding of all staff. Although we enjoy an all-staff afternoon at the bowls club and a few drinks from time to time, we also have family days, open workshops, movie nights and a door that always welcomes family visits (dogs included). We want everyone to feel welcome, and comfortable. We promote inclusion, as well as integration beyond your team, so you find your best suited work-wife (or husband, or non-binary specific partner) among this talented bunch of 60 people. Inclusion starts with hiring people who are going to contribute to and develop an inclusive culture — fostering responsibility and accountability across a relatively flat-level structure help to encourage openness, honesty, and inclusivity.

Our front-end developer, Siobhan’s first experience with tech outside of University is here at Rexlabs, and notes how easy the transition has been, as well as how welcoming the company is. While she doesn’t have anything to compare it to, promoting positive associations in the industry for grads will shape their expectations and worth around themselves and their role, and is integral to their development in their first few years in the field. And on the flipside — for your company, it means loyalty, increased productivity, and retention.

Maternity leave isn’t mandatory in Australia, but it should be. Generous maternity leave policies and support around parental leave or commitments seem to be integral to fostering satisfaction and security for women at work, just as flexible work arrangements are likely to attract more women to the role you’re advertising for.

This could mean making arrangements for parents to go part-time with children, or adjusting their working hours so that they can make the school drop off and pick up. Maybe there’s more lenience around compassionate leave, or you have a parental leave policy for those sick days. Allowing both parents to have time off is another way to help women progress into management or leadership roles, and help to reduce the gender pay gap — a women’s earning power is lessened exponentially after child birth.
One study revealed the single most influential factor in helping increase the number of women in top management positions is a strong paternity leave system. ¿Por qué no los dos? Yes, you can have your burrito - and eat it too.

Rexlabs promotes a work-life balance and incentivises health and fitness, alongside a return on sick leave if you didn’t happen to use it all, and paid overtime — which helps to maintain general happiness and wellbeing for our employees. Oh, and we offer paternity leave.

Work 180 is a great tool to explore the leave benefits of a company as well as drilling into key aspects like breastfeeding facilities.

The key to succeeding in any role is giving and receiving feedback — it’s how we learn, and develop. Women are just as likely to ask for feedback as their male colleagues, but less likely to get it. The reason for this disparity? People don’t want to sound ‘mean’ or ‘hurtful’ to women. (As far as we’re aware, men have feelings too — right?) Sure, it’s a warranted concern, but women are built tough — and they’re definitely tough enough to handle constructive feedback. How you choose to engage with a woman’s work can can help to shape her confidence, and career, so don’t hold back because of her gender.

When women do get feedback, it’s usually less constructive and more personal. Feedback is often: negative, vague and non-specific, and often based around communication styles, rather than outcomes. This is a big contributor to the lack of career progression, dropout in the industry, and number of women in junior roles. Compared to men, 20% of women over the age of 35 are still filling entry-level positions.

When we talk about feedback, it often carries a negative connotation. Feedback can be positive; we often forget to dish out more of the good stuff, so start doing it! Praise makes all the difference and it doesn’t always have to come as part of a compliment sandwich (Negative Feedback-Positive Feedback- Negative Feedback). It probably exists best on it’s own, as it’s likely to be more impactful and elevate productivity.

Praise doesn’t have to be unnecessary, or unbalanced, (every person in your office should be receiving praise,) but it becomes more important when women are 84% more likely to suffer from Imposter syndrome. Sharing positive feedback helps support the self-confidence and the assertion women need to succeed.

Beyond feedback, strike up a conversation with a woman — she’ll probably offer you some really interesting insights you may not have considered.

Looking up

It’s as much a generational shift as a cultural one, and it requires noise. (So here we are, shouting about it.) Initiatives like Muses, supported by the companies that employ women, help women go beyond their ‘potential’ and create true movements for change in our industry. Noise becomes volume — more women in the industry naturally makes it more approachable for other women, encouraging more interest, more students, more graduates, and eventually, more female leaders.

Blanka’s advice to women wanting to get into tech? Just do it. Be yourself. And don’t think that you have to change to fit in. “I see a lot of girls starting to wear jeans and t-shirts in an attempt to fit in with the men they’re working alongside,” she says. “Just because you work in that environment doesn’t mean that you have to stop wearing lipstick and skirts, if that’s who you are.” Your workplace should support that, and you.

We’ve got a wonderful group of women at Rexlabs, and we’re so grateful to be part of such a supportive, intelligent, and motivated team. Today, we’re celebrating the women that make this company what it is, and women everywhere, on international women’s day. We’re looking ahead to a future where, for tech, the 8th of March exists as a celebration of women, non-binary and gender-diverse people in an industry where equality is the everyday experience.

By Courtney Lynch & Alana Potts // Illustration by @ltd_designstudio

Written in loving memory of Jodie.

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Rexlabs is a Product House and Venture Studio in #Brisbane…