Young woman standing in a modern office in front of a large computer monitor displaying lines of code.
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Role models, not gender roles: How these engineers advocate for women like them in STEM

17 Jan 2023

Nicola Hills and Laura Kirwan are senior engineers at Personio. Here they explain what leaders can do to encourage women in tech careers.

It bears repeating that the tech and engineering sector does not have a good gender balance, particularly where highly paid roles are concerned.

If you’ve been following the recent coverage of the gender pay gap reports, you’ll have seen that a lot of employers have been citing the lower numbers of women employed in the sector as a reason for pay disparities between men and women.

While this may be a rather convenient excuse, there is more than a grain of truth in it. Ibec said recently that gender pay gap reporting in Ireland should be viewed only as a stepping stone to meaningful progress on the ongoing problem of not enough women in high-paying, influential tech roles.

While it is not impossible for women to get into these careers, it is acknowledged by many in the industry that it is a lot harder than it is for most men.

Women supporting women

A side effect of this lack of representation is that women who work in senior tech and engineering roles feel more of an onus to get involved in ‘rolling the ladder back down’ for other women.

Is this a blessing or a curse? For many women in tech, it’s simply an accepted part of the job.

For Nicola Hills and Laura Kirwan, both of whom have leadership roles in the engineering department of HR tech company Personio, getting involved in initiatives supporting other women in the workplace was a no-brainer.

The more diverse the tech industry is, the better its output will be, after all.

Hills, who is VP of engineering, said that people’s perception of what a career in tech looks like might be the reason less women and girls gravitate towards it.

‘Girls seem to decide that a career in tech is not for them at a very early age… As leaders, it is our responsibility to educate and inspire girls about a career in tech’

Much of the work she does as an advocate is therefore concentrated on the education sphere. “It is so important that we continue to dispel misconstrued notions around tech careers.”

“For example, a misheld belief is that a career in tech means sitting behind a screen for eight hours a day alone. But in reality, one of the reasons I love working in tech is because it’s so collaborative,” Hills said.

“A career in tech is good fun, it’s rewarding and you get to work with amazing people. We must change some people’s perception of tech in order to develop a strong pipeline of female talent.”

Getting men involved

According to Kirwan, engineering manager at Personio, advocacy is about influencing men’s views too.

She is “a big advocate of maintaining an open dialogue” when it comes to gender imbalances in the workplace.

“Even a simple action such as having a conversation over coffee with a male peer has been beneficial to increase awareness of the unconscious bias that we all have.”

Kirwan does a lot of work on Personio’s strategies to improve hiring practices. She’s been involved in reviewing its technical recruitment processes, championing diverse interview panels and increasing the company’s presence at women’s hiring events.

Both Hills and Kirwan realised the importance of being the change they want to see in their male-dominated industry fairly early on in their careers.

“Joining a male dominated industry was daunting to begin with, and impacted my confidence to take on big projects,” Kirwan said, while Hills stated that it is still the case that the tech industry is male dominated, albeit some progress has been made since she started out 30 years ago.

Hills said she has “rarely” experienced outright prejudice during her career, but she has been frustrated by stereotypes.

“There exists unconscious bias within the industry and sometimes it has been frustrating to realise that the expected behaviours for me and my male colleagues are subtly different.”

“There are also stereotypes of men and women which come into play at work. For example, men may be seen as passionate, whereas women are seen as emotional, or men are seen as self-assured while women are called overconfident when displaying the same behaviour.”

These double standards are unfair and may be part of why women feel less enthusiastic about tech jobs.

Hills said: “This is not only a challenge for women in tech, but it presents a larger challenge for the industry as a whole. We need women, with their creative thinking, intelligence and diversity of thought to keep entering the industry in order to spur innovation. And to do that, we must take steps to break down the barriers and stereotypes that exist.”

Girls need STEM role models

The problem of women feeling discouraged from tech and engineering roles happens very early on in life, when little girls become inured to the dated stereotype that STEM is not for girls.

Hills knows this, and that’s why she works hard on eliminating these unconscious biases.

“Something I feel very passionate about, and dedicate a lot of my time too is improved awareness for young girls. Girls seem to decide that a career in tech is not for them at a very early age.”

“As leaders, it is our responsibility to educate and inspire girls about a career in tech,” she added. Her advice to her fellow leaders – men and women – is to prioritise an open and inclusive culture at work.

Kirwan agrees. She said workplaces need “strong support systems [to] ensure that we are nurturing strong female talent” – women who are “not afraid to go for it and make a real difference for their organisation and their customers”.

‘Even a simple action such as having a conversation over coffee with a male peer has been beneficial to increase awareness of the unconscious bias that we all have’

Kirwan personally benefited from women role models who inspired her to push forward and be ambitious.

“I have seen first-hand the value that female role models and sponsors can have on the growth of females working in the space.”

To get the value out of sponsors and mentors, Kirwan advises women embarking on their careers to ask questions, get as much hands-on experience as possible and try not to compare themselves to others.

“You cannot wait to be perfect,” Hills agreed. “You’re never going to be the smartest person in the room, and you don’t need to be. Instead, just take the leap of faith. Apply for the job even if you don’t believe you’re 100pc qualified because you never know, you might surprise yourself.”

“Women and girls should channel their energy into focusing on the unique capabilities they can bring to the table, rather than focusing on what they might be missing.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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