Five non-technical things I learned at a women-in-tech conference

Women in tech are three-and-a-half times more likely to be in a junior tech position at the age of 35+ than male co-workers, a stunning statistic I learned at the European Women in Tech conference in Amsterdam a few weeks ago.

As attending conferences revolves around sharing knowledge, that’s exactly what I intend to do here. But despite this being a technical conference, I wasn’t there to be technically enlightened. Here are my five key takeaways:

1. The importance of having a female mentor

Having always considered myself a hard-working and independent young professional, the importance of having a mentor is something I often overlooked. I always felt a certain resistance against accepting a role model, or at least someone I could turn to for career advice on a regular basis. But setting aside my stubbornness I can now see the genuine benefits and importance of such a mentor.

Francesca Hampton, CFO of Cynergy Bank, who hosted the session Finding “the One”, Your Ideal Mentor, not only helped me understand the significance of having a female mentor on a personal level but also made me realise the importance of a mentor for women in the tech sector in general. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see. A mentor can help women open up networks, assist in setting and achieving goals and most importantly a mentor can make you feel like someone is looking out or even cheering for you. Many women in tech feel like they need to work extra hard in order to prove themselves, which can be detrimental for feeling confident. This is exactly where female mentors can step in.

2. Remove the taboo around unconscious bias

Without realising it, we let unconscious bias affect our day-to-day lives and business. This ranges from preconceived notions about how men and women should behave at work to unknowingly drafting job requirements in a way a position seems more suitable for a male applicant.

In her session titled Bias: Making the Unconscious, Conscious, Rhiannon Collins, Technical Product Manager at UK-based telecom company Sky, provided a striking example. In an association test, 75% of both male and female respondents of a survey more readily associated the word ‘women’ with ‘family’ than ‘career’.

The problem with bias, especially unconscious bias, is that it is often seen as relatively harmless. It comes across less aggressive or harmful than notions such as discrimination, racism or stereotyping. Yet, when remaining unrecognized and unaddressed, unconscious bias could to some extent negatively influence our behaviour just like the aforementioned taboo-words. Despite the lack of any discriminating intent, a job application unconsciously tailored for a male applicant could lead to a man landing a job which could instead have gone to an equally-qualified woman.

Given our growing knowledge of how our brains work regarding unconscious bias, it is time to more and more address this elephant in the room.

3. Highlight the altruistic side of tech

Nowadays there is a bit of technology in everything, meaning that by working in tech you have an enormous potential to improve lives.

As many young women are driven by a desire to do good and make things better, this altruistic aspect of technology should be emphasised much more. We’re at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution in which technology is changing the way we live, work and love; and STEM education is very important in order to be literate in this new world. Whether changing the future of disease diagnosis through AI or creating access to electricity in remote rural areas, we should make clear to young women that working in tech can be as beneficial to people’s lives as it is being a doctor.

4. The major impact of seemingly minor changes

Generating women’s interest in tech can sometimes be triggered by minor tweaks and changes.

For a certain college program, Stanford University moved the course The use of computers in society to a first-year module. Rather than immediately diving into classical technical courses like object-oriented programming, the focus in this program lay on discussing the implications of technology on the wider world. This non-technical approach caused an increase in the number of women who signed up for the course.

Here’s another example. When an Austrian fintech company changed the gender specification on their job descriptions from ‘M/F’ to ‘M/F/X’, there was a spike in the number of female applicants. We need to realise how small changes can seemingly create a more open and diverse working space, which in turn will attract a larger number of women.

In addition, she also explained how reducing the number of job requirements from five to three greatly increased the number of female applications. This probably has a lot to do with the notion that women feel less comfortable than men bluffing their way through an interview when they're not completely certain of meeting all requirements 100%.

Sometimes God is in the details.

5. Develop an open-minded and inclusive work culture

The same talent manager from the Austrian fintech company, Anthonia Wolleswinkel, also provided other means to create a more diverse workforce. Her tactic boiled down to collectively defining and acting upon company values. She explained how their approach of defining these company values started with creating small focus-groups within the company in order to listen to all employees and hear their thoughts and ideas about which company values they deemed important.

Alongside this, she created company-wide surveys to narrow down the final set of values that most accurately described the company’s DNA. Her reasoning behind it was simple but effective: you attract more female applicants by emphasizing the unique and diverse company culture you already have in place rather than desperately emphasizing the current lack of women in your company.

Suddenly, this made complete sense to me. Just like trying too hard to find a partner when you’re single, a similar attitude doesn’t work either in a scenario where a company wants to increase its number of female staff. Rather than developing a laser-sharp focus on attracting female interest, a company is better off by developing an open-minded and inclusive culture in which everyone can feel welcome, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or age. By prioritising this open culture, such companies will eventually pop up on the radar of young women who are trying to navigate their way through the many options available when it comes to finding a place to work.

It seems like the conventional dating wisdom of “working on yourself first” in order to become more attractive for others isn’t such a bad strategy after all.

Let’s democratize tech

"I’ve been running a technology company for 27 years and nowadays there’s a bit of technology in everything in everyday life. Then how is it possible that only guys are responsible for creating that? That’s not right. We need more women in computer science and STEM in general and democratize tech, to take away the idea that tech is for male nerds, wearing a hoodie and working in a basement. Those days are over.”

I couldn’t have said it better than Corinne Vigreux, who co-founded TomTom in 2004. I hope her thoughts and my five takeaways resonate with more men and women, so we can collectively take action to correct the gender balance in tech companies.

I started working at VQD before the merger took place, so I started off as a DataDogs employee 1,5 years ago. Since then, I’ve witness massive changes; suddenly the number of colleagues increased by fivefold, our office moved to a different city and my exposure to technical knowledge and skills increased massively. Besides ensuring I would stay on this steep (technical) learning curve, I also committed to prioritizing diversity in our work environment.

I feel comfortable to say that VQD is very keen on evoking that sense of inclusiveness and diversity. In that regard visiting this conference and moreover deciding to act upon the acquired knowledge is pivotal step.

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