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Dear Future Colleague,
The first client feedback I ever received, years before joining Reaktor, was less about my performance and more about my gender. I was a contract software developer and part of a small team, working on a new inventory management tool. It was my first job. I was demoing the latest release to our client, a tough woman who worked as the senior inventory manager at the customer firm. My project manager popped in to the room to see how it was going.
“All good here?” he asked the client.
“Yes, it’s good work overall,” she said, “the majority of the reports are working as expected. But of course we’d prefer to work with a guy. You know, what if she gets pregnant or married and then leaves our project unfinished?”
My manager gave her an embarrassed smile, and for some reason, I went along with it. I was only nineteen at the time and it sounded like a valid concern to me, although I had no plans of neither getting married or pregnant. I left the meeting feeling upset and angry, but mostly at myself for being a woman. It took me a while before I realized that what the client had said was blatant discrimination.
In my six years of working as a software developer, I have since witnessed countless other comparable situations. I’m sure you have too. My instance is only one out of countless others around the world, as is clear from the statistics: In the US, women hold only a quarter of all IT jobs. We are also more than twice as likely to quit the tech industry compared to men (41% vs. 17%). A study that synthesized hundreds of books, articles, and white papers stated that women leave tech because “they’re treated unfairly; underpaid, less likely to be fast-tracked than their male colleagues, and unable to advance.”
There’s a lot that needs to change in our profession in terms of diversity. As an industry, we lack a variety in opinions, approaches, and backgrounds. Sadly, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: People who don’t fit the ready-made template then leave because they don’t feel welcome. And that only exacerbates the problem.
There are innumerable reasons for us to quit; so let’s talk instead about why it makes sense for us to stay.
I stayed in that first project for half a year after the incident. I did my best not to take feedback personally and kept telling myself the comments were not about me or my work but about other people’s prejudices. I kept going, trying to prove by example how far those stereotypes are from reality. But after it transpired that we had “run out of budget” – when I knew we hadn’t – and my employer offered me “the opportunity” to work for free, I knew I had to quit.
I landed in a small consultancy where I began developing full-stack web apps. There, in a small team, I was excited by the amount of ownership I was given from the start, the trust they had in me. I learned a lot, building digital products from scratch, feeling a sense of ownership over my projects, and in the process I remembered something I had forgotten: my love for software development. There was a magic I felt every time I fiddled with new technology. Coupled with the fact that I was achieving tangible results for projects I could lead I began to rebuild my confidence. Software development was a passion of mine and something I was good at; that was a valid reason to stay. Learning new things, developing an open source, and working on my own projects helped me stay strong even when the industry had misjudged me as weak. What was important, I learned, was for me to refocus on the work and then let that work do the talking.
Over time, I began also to see the impact my work was having, not only on the company but also on the people around me. I work well with people and try to practice empathy whenever I can, whether it is with my team, the customer, or the end user. I’m focused on bringing value to others and much more comfortable collaborating than competing. I think in new ways and out of the “default” box – that’s because I’ve been in a different box from the get-go. Although I don’t match the standard image of the developer, I’ve learned that I have things to contribute to this industry; things that the industry needs. That’s a sound reason to stay, too.
That said, it’s not easy: The biases are there and we can’t ignore them. That’s partly why I decided to quit those other jobs after my first one and move out of my home country to work in Finland. I felt that the culture in Russia was not a good fit for me and that it was the broader culture that also influenced what it was like to work as a woman in the tech industry. It’s important to be cognizant of those larger influences and to adjust your plan accordingly.
Still, looking out for yourself also means taking responsibility for finding a workplace that values diversity. A humane approach was also something that ultimately attracted me to Reaktor. I didn’t know much about the company culture when I first applied – in fact, I’d always considered myself more of a startup person; someone who thrives in a small-sized company. So I didn’t place any expectations on a company that has half a thousand employees. And I made sure I came prepared: In a job interview, it’s important to directly discuss a company’s values – to ask about their diversity efforts and their percentage of female developers; to gauge the real reasons for why people might leave the company. It’s equally important to give a truthful image of yourself: to show your real ways of thinking, your ways of approaching problems and communicating. I’d learned to trust my intuition over time and take note if something seemed off in the interviewers’ communication. But at Reaktor, there was none of that. The interview was a blast: we talked for three hours! It was like a great chat with good friends. I felt welcomed.
That safe feeling hasn’t changed over the last several months I’ve been at Reaktor. We work hard every day to make this an inclusive and equal place for all, and I appreciate that Reaktor is transparent and vocal about those efforts, always striving to do better.
We often say that at Reaktor there is always someone who is smarter than you – and that can cause imposter syndrome. But for me it actually works the opposite way: I feel that we genuinely care for each other here. So instead of being threatened by smarter people, I’m inspired by them – just like I’m learning to be inspired by myself. The fact is, as women in tech, there are already enough people judging and demanding a lot from us – there’s no need to be one of them. Now that I’m in a supportive professional environment I’m working on not being so hard on myself. It can be difficult to unlearn that. But we must practice self-care and keep returning to it: I regularly see a psychologist and often visit the spa to take time for myself. Building a network of other female developers and regularly drawing on that peer support has been invaluable, too.
There are more of us in this industry every day; even if the change is slow, it is happening – and we can keep it going. It’s something we’d love to do with you, too, future colleague. I would be happy to tell you more about my journey and would love to hear about your experiences. Drop me a line, anytime, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or just apply for a position here.