Women in tech: Giant steps but still a work in progress

By PeopleCert Group

Just when you thought there was nothing left for global pop star, Taylor Swift, to achieve, it seems she would make a good Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)…

It’s been suggested among some cyber security experts, that Swift, if she fancied a career change, has the necessary tech, innovation, storytelling, listening and people skills to be a successful CISO.

But, is imagining Taylor Swift in a senior tech job so unusual because she’s a pop icon, or because she’s a woman?

According to a recent FT report, there was a rise in women working in US technology from 31% to 35% in the four years between 2019 and the end of 2023; in the EU, women employed in computer programming and other services went from 23% to 25.2% in a similar period.

Demand for tech jobs – the report adds – in banks, consumer goods businesses and major companies such as Google and Microsoft, is helping to drive greater diversity in hiring, along with more widely available remote and hybrid working.

Despite this improvement in opportunity for women in the industry, it still lags far behind other sectors such as management consulting, legal and financial services. The FT quotes Karen Blake at Tech Talent Charter, who says: “the chasm is gigantic” and that progression is “much too slow and very fragile”.

Retaining women in the tech industry also appears to be under pressure, as reported recently by CIO.com, with more women (38%) than men (30%) looking for a new job. The culprits, according to the report, are “a persistent pay gap and workplace culture issues that often leave women feeling marginalised”.

But behind the numbers, what are the real-life experiences of women working in tech?

Navigating the obstacles

Around the turn of the Millennium, tech could be a lonely place for women wanting to make their way in the industry.

peoplecert logo

When starting in tech 23 years ago, PeopleCert Ambassador Hima Bindu Vejella – Cyber Security Engineering Leader in a multi-national company – was the only woman.

“Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t included but, over the years, it has evolved, and enterprises have started investing in women, though there is still a long way to go.”

Hima Bindu Vejella

In the more forward-thinking companies she’s worked for, Hima supported other women experiencing discrimination or harassment and initiated a mentoring service for junior female colleagues.

Being the sole female in the room was also Cheryl Razzell’s experience in tech in the late 1990s. The PeopleCert Ambassador and UKIR Head of Compute Solution Architecture at AWS, said: “I was the only woman working in third line support at Apple and there were no initiatives to encourage women into the industry.”
In meetings, she found people were more likely to ask her about lunch plans than about the technology.

Her next role as a field engineer was sometimes treated with surprise:

“There were a lot of raised eyebrows when I told them I was the engineer. The obstacles were there, but I used them to my advantage.”

Cheryl Razzell

Recent graduate in computer science with artificial intelligence, Gabriela Piatek – who has held internship roles at the UK House of Commons, Office of Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland, and US House of Representatives – is “encouraged by the positive shift that is coming” in the tech sector, despite the current four to one ratio of men to women in tech roles.

Background and gender

Being female isn’t the only potential challenge to thriving in the tech industry: family background, where you grow up and even social class can have a bearing.

Leaving school with no formal qualifications, Cheryl’s start at Apple was in the stereotypically female role of receptionist. But a work ethic inherited from her painter and decorator dad gave her the push to learn and compete with colleagues who had a university education. Over time, her efforts have levelled the playing field.

Hima, despite living in a remote, Indian village without access to good schools – combined with the cultural factor that girls’ education tends to be a lower priority – invested heavily in self-learning to improve the vital English language skills needed in tech roles.

“I used to keep quiet because I felt guilty about my English. But through a lot of hard work and focus, I turned that weakness into a strength. Now, I’m speaking at conferences.”

A woman’s approach to technology

But does it matter to technology-led organisations if there is an imbalance between male and female employees – and does the presence of women bring anything different to the party?

Without hesitation, Hima said: “100% – women bring unique skills, perspectives and experiences to the workplace.”

In the team she manages, 40% of which are female, Hima contrasts her male colleagues’ lack of need for validation or openness to feedback with the women’s focus, commitment, and accountability. And, at a competitive hackathon event, the all-women’s team she led had the edge over the all-men’s teams:

“Women bring a diversity of thought, emotional intelligence and a willpower to think outside the box and get things done, wearing multiple hats at the same time.”

Hima Bindu Vejella

The phrase “diversity of thought” was echoed by Cheryl: “Women can take the same problem and tackle it very differently. And it’s important that women play to their strengths – empathy, problem solving, communication – though they can be technically capable too.”

And she cautioned against the “Alpha female leaders” who try to compete with men by acting like them.

Gabriela added: “It’s not about women bringing something that men can’t, but rather about finding a balance and valuing both perspectives – making the whole industry more inclusive to drive progress in tech overall.”

Achieving advancement

Attaining a senior level in tech as a woman doesn’t come easily but is the result of consistently hard work to obtain both experience and certified skills.

“Learning is a constant journey for every technology, product and organisation,” Hima said. “Certifications have helped me to become a subject matter expert but sharing that knowledge with others is a learning experience too.” Becoming a PeopleCert Ambassador was helped partly by her contribution to the DevOps Institute community, including panel discussions and speaking opportunities.

While at Apple, Cheryl started shadowing engineers and helping customers, which led to her becoming a third line analyst. “I had a lot of support internally from a manager who put me forward for the job and I have spent a lot of time looking for advocates to help get me to the next level.” Self-teaching and seeking new experiences were also part of Cheryl’s career plan.

“It’s taken grit, overcoming self-doubt, being tenacious, willing to learn and broadening my skills when taking the next step.” Certifications also played a big role in her progression, taking ITIL and PRINCE2 to move from a desktop support role to project and programme management while at the BBC.

webinar banner

Upskilling and how it can inspire inclusion was also the theme of an empowering discussion held on International Women’s Day 2024, where PeopleCert Ambassadors reflected on how education and skill enhancement can pave the way for gender diversity, equity, and inclusion. You can watch the video of the discussion on YouTube.

For Gabriela, it was family support that was crucial for her development, as she left her native Poland to study a course in artificial intelligence: “I was always driven by a deep passion for exploring the world and to push boundaries. And my family always supported my ambitions and adventurous nature.” They were understandably proud when she achieved a first-class honours degree.

Gaining recognition matters

Winning awards is another way that individual women working in tech can get ahead and, also, represent the value women in general bring to the industry.

After being nominated by her university, Gabriela was awarded Rising Star of the Year at the UK’s Women in Tech Excellence Awards in 2023: “I think this validation helps women be inspired to do things they’re passionate about and to not underestimate themselves.”

Meanwhile, when she was one of only two women at the time to receive the Microsoft MVP award – recognising excellence in tech community leaders not employed by Microsoft – Hima had no idea what it was: “I was shocked – but it gave me a lot of exposure, several opportunities and prepared me for the work I do now.”

The role of men

While women today are most certainly – as the 1980s Eurythmics song said – “doing it for themselves”, men can still play a useful supporting role.

Being sponsored by her uncle ensured that Hima gained access to the school and college education to become the engineer she’d always wanted to be.

“Because of him and the education I got, I have built my career. Indirectly, my father helped me too and I think I changed his perception of what a woman can do.” Her family members, along with an early-career male manager who challenged Hima to improve her communications skills, have been instrumental to her progress.

“I’ve had some fantastic male advocates,” Cheryl said, but there’s still a need for male leaders to ensure women’s voices are heard in group discussions. “And women in tech events should be run by men too; not just women driving the agenda,” she added.

The “no interruption” rule introduced by one male leader in a team Gabriela was part of ensured everyone could put forward their ideas.

“Supportive behaviour had a huge impact on team dynamics and I also saw great advances in gender pay gap and improved diversity in hiring practices in the company,” she said.

What the future holds

Compared to a generation ago, the opportunities for women to enter the tech sector are far more varied, such as apprenticeship schemes and internships.

Indeed, some of the apprentices Cheryl introduced to Microsoft 10 years ago are now in director roles.

But, she said, it’s still not uncommon to hear about female computer science graduates being the only woman on their course: “It’s uncomfortable to be in the minority, but a lot of women are doing it because they can see the future and where technology is going.”

Gabriela, whose university course of almost 400 people was only 2.5% female, is one of those women.

With her eye on AI as a force for social change, she is “incredibly positive” about having a long-term career in tech: “It’s a pivotal moment to create a more equal and inclusive industry; breaking down gender bias and paving the way to a brighter future.”

“I don’t think we realise our potential as women,” Hima said. “It’s all in our hands – to dream big and strive hard.”

PeopleCert is a global leader in exam and certification management and delivery, partnering with multinational organisations and government bodies to certify individuals across a product portfolio of 700 market-leading certifications in IT & Digital Transformation, Project Management, Business and Languages.

PeopleCert delivers exams across 200 countries and territories, in 25 languages, through its state-of-the-art assessment technology, enabling professionals to reach their full potential and realise their life ambitions through learning.

PeopleCert is also a holder of the Gold level certificate of the CEPIS DiversIT Charter, and is the platinum sponsor of the “Stay in Tech” conference, which takes place on 14 May 2024 in Berlin.


Why not keep up to date with all our latest news and events?