Women in IT: Interview with Kirstin Donaldson

by Stephanie Wallis on 16/02/2021 09:29

Kirstin Donaldson Interview Women in IT Equinox IT

Kirstin Donaldson is a Principal Consultant with expertise in Agile and leadership coaching and training, based in our Wellington office. Here she discusses her experiences in IT, gender dynamics, diversity of thought, and shares stories and advice on how to overcome barriers.

How long have you been involved in the IT industry and what changes have you noticed in the gender dynamic during that time?

I started in IT 20 years ago as an administrator in an IT department. It was at an engineering firm, so quite male dominated in the IT department and in the firm, although they did have a great engineering grad program that actively recruited women. That was in England, there were very few women in that IT department and the few we did have were secretaries or in admin apart from one or two on the help desk. Basically it was kind of a department built for and by men, if you said something about equality or something that was construed as ‘feminist’ someone would tell you to stop being feminist.

I think people are more careful of their language now, but in some cases only if there are women around to remind them, you know? I guess the rise of women in IT in recent years means people are more conscious of the way that they behave now. It's becoming more of a norm to be conscious of language and behaviour, but I don't think gender dynamics are really going to change until we have 50-50 representation in the workplace. And not only 50-50 representation but 50-50 representation at senior levels. I know that’s something we are seeking to address here at Equinox IT.

What barriers, if any, are still present for women in the IT industry?

From what I’ve experienced and observed, in some organisations it’s still a real boys club, in some ways, you've kind of got this bro culture amongst developers. It can be hard for women to be heard when they are in the minority and it’s really easy for conversation to become excluding.

I think there's also some stuff around hiring as well. When people hire, they tend to unconsciously hire people in their image. In the IT industry recruiters are often looking for strong, confident young men and their language reflects that. So you’ll see ads saying they want someone who's a go-getter, dynamic, a coding rock-star. That kind of language doesn’t encourage people who don't present as confidently. This includes women, who can be discouraged from putting themselves forward for the jobs that are just a little step up for them, because they're not used to putting themselves forward like that and having that kind of confidence. Unfortunately by writing ads like this and interviewing the same type of people each time organisations run the risk of creating teams that lack diversity of thought. It's not just about how to hire women it's about how to hire people who are different from that image of the alpha male we often see people looking for.

It's interesting, because administration job advertisements are often, you know, 'a good little worker', sit down, get it done, can you do that? And typically administration is women. But the language is often are you good at cooperating, are you good at thinking?

Right, so those are what society often considers as feminine traits. Like 'getting shit done' is a 'female trait', but also that cooperation because we're seen as sort of, compromising a lot and being that softer personality.

Yeah, and one of the other things is can you be a peacekeeper? Can you handle people in a quiet, polite way?

Yeah. So for years we've been expected to use language in meetings like 'sorry, but'. If we want to contradict someone in a meeting we can't just say 'how about we think about it from this perspective?' we have to say, 'sorry, but have you thought…?'. A lot of women I know have been retraining themselves not to put 'sorry' at a start of a sentence. To stop and think, what am I sorry about? There's no reason for me to be sorry. To change the language because it’s perpetuates the idea of women as peacemakers. I think there is also this thing about likeability factor, women are expected to be in some ways nurturing, motherly and kind in the workplace and if you're not that, if you fall outside of that stereotype, it can be difficult. There’s an expectation that women are have a lot of empathy and high EQ, but we're not looking for that from men. The expectation for men has traditionally been are they dynamic? can they command a room? can they make decisions under pressure? can they handle stress well?

I read a great article from NPR, this was referenced on Mighty Girl Facebook page, that was talking about pre-1984 when were a lot of women in development and looking at why the change came about and there were some really concrete reasons and it was simply this: the rise of the home computer. The home computer was developed and marketed to boys, and then you've got a whole lot of pop culture related to that as well. These were not computers as we know today, obviously, they were computers where you could play really basic games, but they were marketed as toys for boys. Computers became more sophisticated and boys started doing more things with them, and so by the time they got to university they had had experience in simple coding etc. The few women, according to this article, that had made it to a computer science course, didn’t have the same experience with computers prior to starting the course. There was one particular case of a woman who was extremely good at maths, and didn't have a computer at home, but went and did a computer science course. In her first year she put her hand up and asked the professor a question and he told her she should know that already from her study at home. So, all of these boys had been working with computers at home and had a head start. As a result of feeling behind she dropped out of that course. It wasn't a matter of whether she was smart or not or had an aptitude for it, it was just that she hadn't had that experience because the market had placed that barrier there.

What are some things you have done to establish a strong footing in the IT industry?

I've just always looked for more interesting things to do at work. The place I first worked in IT, I started in admin, and there were some other women there who stayed in admin, because they didn’t ask to do different things. My advice to anyone starting out in any position is don't wait for someone to ask you, ask them. I think it's really a case of just being confident to ask for what you want. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? They can say no. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I'd also say to people, you don't have to have a strong footing in the IT industry by traditional roots, yes go to university and study computer science, but there are other ways. I think anyone can move into anything they want to do, it's just a case of having an interest, being motivated to undertake self-learning and asking for what you want to do. And we don't all have to be coders.

What advice do you have for women looking to work in IT?

I’d advise women to be brave and put themselves out there and understand your worth. Some women I’ve worked with have asked me 'how do I contribute in meetings, I'm very quiet I feel like no one’s listening to me', and I say, 'remember that you've been invited for a reason, it's important for you to contribute, if you don't contribute you're not doing your job'. If you are struggling with people talking over you, it’s ok to say 'I wasn't finished', it's not rude, it's what you are there for to finish what you are saying.

Be open to ideas and collaboration, learn from others and share knowledge. One of the best female developers I’ve worked with was fairly junior when I first worked with her but she came in with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and share ideas. As a result she quickly became a team member that many other team members sought out to talk through ideas.

I would also say women should stop looking for jobs that are the same as the jobs they are already doing. Look to step up, rather than moving sideways.

Lastly get a group of people around you who support you in your career and build you up. Find peers, colleagues and mentors who say you can do this, you've got it. It really helps.

I remember reading an article, it was ages ago, it must have been when I was first looking for jobs, and it was talking about how men will often, even if they only tick two out of five boxes for a job, they will still apply for it. Women are far more, 'if I don't tick all five boxes, I'm not going to apply cause I'm not right for the job', we cut ourselves out.

But the worst thing is other people will also cut us out as well right? So, when people are headhunting for senior positions, which they do, so we might be talking C-suite or just below, they go looking for people who are already at that level. This article from 2019 noted that there were currently more men named Mark running companies than women: https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/117690424/gender-gap-more-men-named-mark-running-companies-than-women. You often hear people saying, 'I couldn’t hire a senior women because there weren't any'. One way of addressing this is to go looking for women in senior positions who are ready to step up, for example, find the General Managers. Find them, and approach them.

An interesting story I heard from a CEO I was talking to a while ago, his wife is very senior in her organisation. She told him she was interviewing a woman for a job and a couple of guys were co-interviewing, and the woman said, 'at this place I'm currently working we implemented X and we did this, which had this effect etc.' and she thought, 'great candidate they've done a lot there', but when they came out one of her colleagues said, 'no I don’t think she's suitable, it sounds like it was just her team that did everything'. Because she had used the word 'we' instead of 'I'. Now, when men are interviewing, there is a percentage of men, and I hear this when I talk to women who are recruiting, that go in and use 'I' when it really wasn’t them at all. On closer questioning, no, they were part of a team that did those things. Having said that, there is a place for 'I' in interviews. Don't err too far on the side of caution. Talk about 'when I had an idea, so I got a team together and we did X'.

Final question, anything else you haven't said you feel you would like to?

I think, and not just for women, we need to look beyond the basics when we are hiring to really get to the heart of who a person is. Help them to interview well. It takes a bit of probing to really get to the heart of a person and find some really amazing stuff, but not everyone is going to present the same way. It seems a lot of the time in IT we are looking for all candidates to present the same way and as a result we run the risk of missing out on some really great people. Part of our role while interviewing should be to help people to do great interviews.

I was talking to someone the other day, and they were talking about having interviewed some young people at a grad recruitment program and I said, 'great, did you get any women?' because they're a very male dominated workplace, and he said, 'well, we did interview one and she was great on paper, all A's, but she didn't interview well'. I didn't have time to talk to him about it but later I was thinking, if she has all A's, she is very competent, how could she have been helped to interview better? Especially an intern, she's not going to come to you fully formed. What are organisations looking for in that moment? Are they looking for someone who's bold, confident?, that's just one type of person. How can a company achieve greater diversity if they look for just one personality type? To me that was a really concrete example of potentially having missed the opportunity to work with someone amazing. And it happens all the time. 

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