If you don’t get a seat, bring your own chair
Tech firms are all too willing to announce their support for diversity, but no matter where you look in the technological world, you will be confronted with the phenomenon of the great white male. D/SRUPTION spoke to Camilla Montonen, data and software engineer, about her experience as a startup founder in a sector still dominated by patriarchal power structures.
Many technology companies certainly preach diversity, but whether or not they really value diverse teams is another matter. According to Montonen, women still struggle to get the challenging technical projects that will help them progress in their careers. That was one of the reasons that led her to found her own company, SynByote. Montonen is currently working on a managed data science platform called SpimeLabs which creates, manages and scales JupyterHub environments for organisations.
“I realised that I would face lots of bias during my career, which I had started seeing already in my first job,” she says. “I wasn’t getting the technical projects that I wanted, and as a result my technical skills began to stagnate. I started a company as a way to circumvent that. I have a good friend and a role model here in the London tech community and she says that if you don’t get a seat at the table, you have to bring your own chair. So this is me bringing my own chair.”
Founding a startup is a brave move, especially when you’re doing it on your own. Bringing your own chair is one thing, but actually having a table to bring it to is another. The biggest challenge in building a company, says Montonen, is not related to her gender but to forging connections.
“The main challenge that I have probably faced is the network that I currently have. A recent study said that the most successful company founders are in their 30s and 40s. For a business like the one I’m building, this is even more important because by that point in your career you have built a network to get those initial customers and cash flow. Because I’m so early in my career, I don’t have that so it’s harder to get initial introductions and connections.”
Getting hired is only the first hurdle…
While it hasn’t held her back, Montonen has experienced first hand the impact of being a woman in tech. She explains that when attending events, people find it difficult to believe that she, and a number of her female colleagues, are not there as recruiters or to fetch coffee. But is there really a gender gap in technology? As only a quarter of computer scientists are women, it certainly seems so. However, Montonen also points out that there are societies in which the gap is far less pronounced, particularly in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria and Romania, the proportion of women in technical roles is over 27 per cent – far higher than the European average of 16 per cent. This can be partly attributed to the demand for workers, and proves that women are, unsurprisingly, happy and able to take up technical careers when given the opportunity. Montonen states that the lack of diversity (specifically women, in this case) may also be due to retention problems.
“According to research, most women leave their technical careers after the 10 year mark. They realise their career opportunities are stunted and they would be more successful in another field. It’s obvious we’re unwilling to look at and change the structures of companies from within.”
Actions speak louder than words
Fortunately, some companies seem to be taking the technical gender gap seriously. Last year, for example, Google fired James Damore after he claimed that the gap between men and women in technology was biological. Publicly dismissing the ‘men are better at STEM’ mentality represented an important development. Sadly, though, in some instances diversity seems to have become an aspect of PR and marketing.
“On the 8th March, International Women’s Day, you see many corporations putting out these brochures about how great it is to be a minority in their company, but when you actually look at their statistics, you see that talking the talk is one thing but you also need to walk to walk. I think that diversity has become a marketing tool. It makes for great PR but it’s not addressing the actual problem,” says Montonen.
It’s thought that encouraging more people to enter tech careers who are not straight white men should begin at school, but the education system is only partly to blame. So too can the idea that women and other minorities don’t feel that they are qualified to enter technical professions. It appears that the crux of the issue is with the way that companies choose their leadership teams.
There can be no doubt that tech has an ongoing diversity problem, and that understanding why goes far beyond suggesting that minorities lack confidence in their own ability. While the education system has a huge role to play in making STEM subjects appealing and accessible for everyone, businesses should be willing to question their own power structures. Instead of simply saying the right things, they have to prove that they are committed to giving everyone the same opportunities.
“We should not just be looking at white women or young women, but at all other minorities as well,” says Montonen. “It’s up to the technical community to realise that they can derive value from diversity and inclusion, and to work from that from day one.”
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