Finding Role Models and Engaging Young Women to Close the Tech Gender Gap

It is our greatest pleasure to report that within the walls of office buildings in Barcelona, an important conversation is going on about something that matters. One intersection of this conversation is at the offices of NetSuite/Oracle in Barcelona, a hub of creative and socially sensitive thinkers who believe that promoting equal opportunities for men and women in technology is an absolute priority. We sat down with Alexandra Negrut, Software Engineer in Test and Ondrej Juricka, Lead Technical Recruiter at NetSuite/Oracle Barcelona to talk about the wonderful initiative called Women in NetSuite that aims to help young women find the courage and the incentive to pursue a career in tech, as well as their personal experience regarding the topic.

Today, the conversation that feminism started about the social empowerment of women, about dismantling preassigned gender roles and achieving equality between the sexes is getting louder and louder, and it’s starting to be heard in new fields, including the technology sector. Just go to any tech conference, and you’ll find a workshop or a talk with titled something like “Bridging the Gender Gap” or “Supporting Women in Tech”. It’s a popular topic that people like to engage with, and it seems to have sparked the interest of many prominent figures of the industry, male and female alike. Several organizations have made it their mission to raise awareness to the issue, and tech companies, no matter how big or small, have also joined in to promote change.

Talking about this sensitive topic is one step – actually doing something about the infamous gender gap and the challenges that women in the tech industry have to face, is going further. In Barcelona, a city that has yet to build a well-organized network of people fighting for opportunities for women in technology, it is companies like NetSuite/Oracle that are taking this extra step, by organizing events to call attention to, discuss and come up with possible solutions to the problem, and engaging young women at an early age, when they are most impressionable.

A Female Developer’s Passion for Gender Studies

Alexandra Negrut, a computer science graduate from Bucharest currently working as a Software Engineer in Test, first got involved in gender studies when she found herself in a classroom full of inspiring women in Iceland.

“During my studies, I did a semester in Iceland, a country that is deeply invested in the topic of gender equality. This is reflected in several areas of Icelandic life, including education. I took a class called Women in Management, which was really interesting, because it went much further than the management aspect: I learned a lot about feminism in general, and all the challenges that women face at the workplace. For me, that course was an eye-opener. I started wanting to dig deeper into the topic and to contribute with my grain of sand to changing things,” Alex says.

With a new goal in mind, she returned home to complete a Master’s in Gender Studies. Since then, she has been working as an engineer, but she never stopped researching why a woman like herself with an interest and skills in technology is a rare curiosity.

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Alex’s presentation on International Women’s Day about how the different types of toys we’re given as children contribute to the gender gap in tech

The Role Models We Wish We Had

“You see these strong bonds forming between men, you see their relationship developing over time, and of course that’s something that you’d also want to have with someone that you feel connected to.”

Alex was one of the few fortunate young girls who had a pretty clear vision of what she wanted to do.

“I’ve always been interested in science subjects, and I had this idea in my head that pursuing a career in STEM meant more creative challenges. I wanted to do stuff that’s difficult and cool. I think the reason why it felt so natural to me to choose this field is because my high school computer sciences teacher was a woman. She was very good at what she did, she pushed us really hard, and having her as a role model made me not even question whether I would be fit for this career,” she says.

The influence of role models is absolutely paramount in a young person’s life, and one of the biggest responsibilities of the tech industry is to provide young girls with successful and fulfilled people that they can look up to. There are too many young girls who never get to see these positive examples.

“Not only does mentorship define our career choices, it can have an effect on us throughout our careers. What I’ve noticed is that in the tech world, there is more mentorship between men than there is between women. I think it’s because there are so few female developers, it’s hard to find someone who will become your mentor. You see these strong bonds forming between men, you see their relationship developing over time, and of course that’s something that you’d also want to have with someone that you feel connected to. Women need other women to guide them and help them grow in their careers,” Alex explains.

It All Starts Before Kindergarten

“I’m really sensitive to the issue of how decisions are made within a company, and whether people are listened to or not. I think that women sometimes have difficulty having their voices heard.”

However, the truth is, the gender gap starts widening way before women actually start their careers, and even before they get enrolled in the educational system.

“It’s hard to pinpoint a specific age, but the interest of boys and girls in STEM subjects starts to diverge very early on, at around the ages of three to five. There are many layers to the development of their interests: it’s related to issues of confidence, support from parents, the preassigned gender roles that they adopt through the different toys that they’re given, and so on. To put it briefly, early education for girls is mostly aimed at teaching them, with the help of toys and games designed especially for girls, how to perform stereotypically feminine tasks around the household, how to be a caring, nurturing mother, and how to focus on aesthetics and beauty. On the other hand, boys are encouraged to use logic and analytical thinking when they’re playing. I’ve done a lot of research on the topic of how gender-specific toys can impact our career choices. Many female engineers say that they feel like they have had to make up for skills that they lacked, because they were not encouraged to practice these skills at an early age, such as the ability to see in space, which little boys practice by playing LEGO, for example,” Alex explains.

Alex believes that the analytical skills needed for coding, for instance, can be learned, and it’s wrong to think that girls are incapable of it just because such skills are commonly associated with boys. Ondrej also finds this approach misleading:

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The NetSuite/Oracle Team in Barcelona

“When I was trying to figure out why the abilities of boys and girls are perceived differently, I asked people about it, and virtually every answer I got went back to pre-historic times, when women would take care of children and men would go hunting for food. This is something that’s stuck in people’s minds, and somehow they don’t see the progress that humankind has made in the past thousands of years. They seem to forget that genders have started switching roles throughout civilization.”

Aside from the question of skills, women are also often believed to have a certain type of personality, which can be yet another cause for unfair treatment.

“I’m really sensitive to the issue of how decisions are made within a company, and whether people are listened to or not. I think that women sometimes have difficulty having their voices heard, because they are expected to be non-confrontational and to agree with everything, because they’re supposed to be these passive, nurturing beings. It’s fairly common that women’s opinions are simply overlooked during a debate, and this is something that I’ve experienced personally.”

Talking Won’t Cut It: Let’s Do More For Women in Tech

“We organized Girls in Lab for teenagers aged between twelve and fifteen. The best time to approach them is when they start thinking about what they want to do. Anything later than that is too late.”

As an office with an outstanding number of female engineers, NetSuite/Oracle Barcelona is doing everything they can to think long-term and secure a future for women in technology.

“I think that for us, the best way to go about promoting gender diversity is to work on our ideas related to the Women in NetSuite initiative, like organizing meetups and workshops. Engaging younger groups is really important. This is why we organized Girls in Lab, for teenagers aged between twelve and fifteen. The best time to approach them is when they’re at a point in their lives when they start thinking about what they want to do. Anything later than that is too late. We try to engage them by playing games, showing them playful examples to try to get them interested in a career in tech. Events like these are a good way to try and do something about this issue. People from our office volunteer to take part in these events, and we are hoping that they can become role models for these kids,” Ondrej says.

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Girls in Lab

Working on ensuring a future “supply” of female engineers is super important, but there are other things a company can do to promote gender diversity.

“There were a couple of things that came up when we were discussing the Women in Netsuite initiative about what we could do within the company. Like how we could make the recruitment process itself more appealing to female engineers. We started reviewing all our recruitment material, trying to see what sort of an image we were sending out. We had all these cool designs for leaflets, but they were very masculine, more appealing to men. And now we have quite a balanced approach. And also, when a female candidate comes in for an interview, we try to have at least one other woman in the interview panel, so she feels a little more comfortable,” Alex says.

Ondrej explains that when recruiting, the gender of a candidate is never the first thing to take into consideration, but a female developer with a good profile is always considered a very lucky find.

“When I joined NetSuite at the Czech office, I had a very fortunate period when I managed to hire five women in the same quarter. They were all assigned to different teams, and I noticed that the communication within the teams where those candidates landed somehow changed: the guys started treating each other nicely, they became more patient, more empathic,” Ondrej recounts.

Fortunately, the Barcelona tech scene is starting to get on board the gender equality train, and there are more and more small events trying to raise awareness to the issue.

“We are in touch with several institutions, NGOs and other companies, and lots of people seem to be interested in the topic, but it’s still quite a new thing in Barcelona. There are lots of small initiatives, but they’re very fragmented, and there is no communication between them. Hopefully, in the future, it will become more organized,” Ondrej concludes.

When the next Women in NetSuite event is announced, you’ll be the first to find out on Barcelona Startup News.

Featured Image: bbernard / Shutterstock, Inc.

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