Most young people don’t know what they want to do when they leave school. Some might have an inkling, and others might have a plan sketched out to help them achieve their dream job. I realised early on that I wanted to work in tech, but my career was nearly over before it had begun.
I taught myself to code aged 15 using tools such as Codecademy and Raspberry Pi. This ignited a spark that continues to drive me today. But things could have been radically different if I hadn't made tough choices early on.
I went to an all-girls school until I was 16, and when I looked around my GCSE Science, Maths and IT classes, I was surrounded by smart, driven and inspiring young women who were as passionate as I was. When I decided that I wanted to study Computing, alongside Physics and Mathematics, at A-Level, I was told my school didn't have the funding or support to provide a Computer Science based course at that level.
I made the tough decision to move schools, specifically for the opportunity to study Computing A-Level, and leave my friends to pursue my passions. Had I discovered coding just 12 months later, I would have had a very different journey into tech.
When I joined my new school for Sixth Form the classes were mixed, and suddenly I was in the minority, alongside what few women were there with me in these STEM subjects.
By the time I found myself in my Computer Science course at university, there were just 9 other women in a class of 137. I felt like my lived experiences had little in common with the majority of the people around me.
As a result, I often felt a sense of isolation, especially when some lecturers would speak to me in a different tone than my male counterparts.
In my experience as a woman, when you decide to go down any route that involves technology you are met with a sense of surprise. I can recall a number of interactions over my time studying and working where I have entered into small talk with someone, be that a nail tech, an estate agent or a friend of a friend, and when those dreaded “What do you do for work?” or “What are you studying?” questions come up, I know exactly what to expect when I give my response.
And although the ever common “wow, that's so impressive”, “you must be so smart”, “that must be really difficult” comments are said with good intent, and meant as compliments, I can't help but think: would you make those same comments to one of my male counterparts?
These interactions prompted me to think about the language we use when we are encouraging women to pursue tech careers. I realised that we are a long way off from where we need to be.
And if we’re going to change how we talk about women working in tech, we first need to change the perception around what it means to be a woman working in tech. We’re here for the same reason as everyone else, to develop, pursue our passions and achieve our goals. We’re not there to fill a quota.
Women make up only 19% of entry-level and mid-level roles in tech. The more senior the position, the fewer women there are. And when we get to executive level it’s just 10%.
So, what other things do we need to stop telling women in STEM? We need to stop telling women that they can’t. Whether that’s a school not equally promoting the subject choices required to pursue a career in STEM to their female students because it’s deemed a ‘male subject’, or telling school girls that there is a specific ‘type’ of women who works in tech, the language must change if we want gender diversity to improve in the sector.
Getting more women to be enthusiastic about tech careers is not just about avoiding discouragement; there also needs to be a greater discussion around empowerment and enfranchisement. There also needs to be a focus on visibility too; when it came to visiting graduate fairs, I was reluctant to approach companies that had no women on their stands or in their promotional content.
Why? Well, because I felt if the companies couldn’t be bothered to showcase other women, what chance did I have of progressing in my career with them?
At Capital One UK (@CapitalOne), the last two people to hold the CEO position are women. When I applied as a graduate software engineer, I felt that women sat at the very heart of the company’s leadership, and I knew that was the sort of company I wanted to work for.
I’ve always believed that supporting and keeping the women who have decided to work in tech is just as important as encouraging them to get there in the first place. I know that I’m lucky to be in a role at Capital One that empowers me to use my voice. For example, I quickly found that when I joined: if I felt like I was being talked over, I was encouraged to speak up and help correct the situation.
If a woman is empowered to speak out in situations where they feel anything less than comfortable and respected, they can help shape the culture to be more welcoming. Not just for themselves, but for all of their colleagues regardless of their gender.
Capital One has provided an inclusive culture, and it’s one I’m deeply grateful for. During Pride month, we had a week-long celebration with exciting speakers coming to address the company, and in the wake of the BLM, a tremendous amount of support was given to POC, as well as frequent opportunities for everyone to educate themselves.
The leadership team has always been unequivocal in their willingness to stand up to prejudice and their desire to make whatever positive changes they can. I love that I can help do my part to make Capital One a more inclusive place to work.
Finally, I believe that the tech industry needs two stops and a start.
We need to stop discouraging young women from pursuing their passions. We need to stop belittling those who’ve chosen STEM as career paths.
And we must start to make women in tech as visible as everyone else.
Lauren Corderoy is a Senior Quality Engineer at Capital One