A few months ago I was lucky enough to deliver a talk at Code and Stuff about my journey into tech. I named my talk – I’m a Rhinoceros Not a Unicorn, which is such an abstract title that people started asking me what it meant, so I decided to turn the content of that talk, along with a few other things, into a blog post.
For one reason or another I have spent much of my life failing to live up to the various stereotypes associated with the things I do, particularly when it comes to my working life. No matter what job I do, if there is a widely held stereotype associated with it, then it probably doesn’t look like me.
If you take the stereotypes too seriously, then you could find yourself believing that there are no women in tech and also no black people in tech, so speaking as a black woman working in tech, I obviously don’t exist. I’m a mythical creature. I’m a unicorn. My response to this is that rather than have the world, and in particular the next generation of black women, believe that I don’t exist, I’d suggest that rather than a unicorn, I’m actually a rhinoceros. Not something you see every day like a horse or a cow, but still something that exists in the real world.
There are lots of reasons why women of colour are underrepresented in UK tech, but regardless of how we got to where we are, there is work to do so that girls interested in writing code do not have to run the gauntlet of being the “only one” in their classes, lectures or bootcamps. We have to ensure that being interested in writing code, doesn’t have to mean, willing to work in an industry where they are so outnumbered that they stand out by default. They shouldn’t have to be willing to be “the only one”, not everybody wants to have that battle or be that visible.
My journey into the work I do now wasn’t an obvious one. I wasn’t one of those teenagers who had a computer at home and taught myself programming in my bedroom. I didn’t develop an interest in coding until I was 38 and my interest started when I found myself with a website that I couldn’t afford to have rebuilt. I do bizarrely have a GCSE in Computer Science, but it’s so far down the alphabet that it barely counts. Although I had studied Computer Science at school, it wasn’t based on an interest in computing. It was mainly based on our school having a brand new IT suite filled with shiny BBC computers, which is the main reason I chose it as one of my options. I had no intention of ever working with computers, I’d already decided that I wanted to be some sort of engineer. I also decided at this point to discontinue Touch Typing, because I was never going to work in an office and would therefore never need to type anything.
When I left school I started a YTS apprenticeship as a car mechanic. When I started in 1987, not only was I the only female in the garage where I worked (1:7 ratio) but I was also the only female on the City & Guilds vehicle engineering course at my college. On my first day, after being directed to the wrong place, I eventually walked into the induction session 20 minutes late where I was stared at by over 50, 16 year old boys, all muttering variations of the phrase “it’s a girl”.
I was referred to as “the girl” for the first couple of weeks before they established that I was OK, or at least not that bad. This is as good a time as any to announce that 16 year old me was very quick to loudly point out that since you didn’t change spark plugs with your dick, that me being a girl didn’t really matter! By the end of the first month I was just like everybody else. I didn’t fit the mechanic stereotype, but ultimately it didn’t matter.
The reality of being a 1980s apprentice mechanic was lots of brewing up and sweeping up. As the youngest of five, in a tea drinking family, I really hated brewing up! (For those of you familiar with the TV show The Royle Family, I was the Anthony of my family) After several months of oily overalls and steel toe capped boots I decided that being a mechanic wasn’t for me, so I left to join Royal Mail. I was hoping for a free bike and a lunch time finish, but actually spent my first year sorting mail on a ten o’clock late shift and the other 18 years working in various admin roles, where the touch typing I abandoned at 14 would have been extremely useful!
Having left school with very average grades, in an assortment of subjects, I assumed that my academic life was over when I left school. It never occurred to me, when I was 18, that I might ever go to university. That was for super brainy people. As far as I was concerned, university had nothing to do with me. By the time I was 26, I decided that it might be one day.
Being a mature student is the best and worst of everything, particularly as an undergraduate. As a mature student I was keen, dedicated and excited to learn. I sat at the front in almost every lecture with an A4 notebook and a full pencil case. I was there because I wanted to be, I was happy to engage in lectures, attend all seminars and do the work. At the start of my student journey I still looked young enough to blend in, especially in my brand new MMU hoodie, so they still handed me flyers for club nights. I filled my boots with freebies at the Freshers Fair and made the most of the “Young Persons” rail card, that I now somehow qualified for.
The main problem with university was that everything appeared to be based on the idea that all students are 18 years old and live on campus and to be fair the majority of them probably do, but if you need to arrange childcare for multiple children, then the casualness with which you are told that you won’t get your time table until term starts and are regularly fobbed off by admin staff is extremely frustrating. Having the entire system based around 18 year old party boys simply does not work for everybody and that’s not an age thing, it’s a logistics thing. Being old enough to be everybody’s mum isn’t necessarily a problem, not having enough information to book places at after school club for your children is.
When I left university with my shiny new degree I started looking for junior positions, at which point being 42 meant that I didn’t match the stereotype of university graduates. My lengthy management career wasn’t applicable to the jobs I was looking for. Nobody needed a front end web developer that could manage a telephone contact centre and even less people needed a front end web developer that knew a lot about Royal Mail sorting machines. I had to start from scratch, as though my entire adult working life didn’t exist. My CV was worth the same as a two decade gap year.
I didn’t hit the stereotype as a mechanic or many years later as a student, so it’s no surprise that I allegedly don’t look like a web developer now. I’m never the stereotype but I’m always still right here. Just because you don’t see lots of people that look like me, doesn’t mean that I don’t exist. My lack of visibility doesn’t make me a unicorn. It does however, in certain contexts, make me an endangered species.
A side effect of a lack of diversity is the bias and exclusion it can create. Putting aside those who deliberately make the workplace (and the world in general) unpleasant, thousands of people dealing only with others, exactly like themselves can generate an unhealthy environment. It is harder for people to learn what is acceptable and appropriate in wider society and generally leads to the creation of products and services, that don’t serve the full population. Having an all male team isn’t automatically a bad thing, but without any female influence, how likely are they to reflect the other half of the population in their work?
Despite rarely being who people expected to see, I went to meet ups and attended any conference I could afford the tickets for. I kept meeting new people and I generally met those people again at other events. My personality makes me more likely than most, to put myself out there and go to places for the first time. I’m so used to being the only person that looks like me, that it’s only a problem if / when something unpleasant happens and I have been luckier than most on that front. I have been to meet ups where I’m the only woman. I’ve been to meet ups where I’m the only person of colour and I have been in lots of situations where I’m the oldest person in the room.
When 16 year old me walked into a room full of young lads who all stared and wondered why I wasn’t a boy, it wasn’t great, but I was pretty unaffected. How many women walk into tech spaces now and experience pretty much the same thing? When large groups of men don’t expect to see women in a particular space, do they unintentionally generate the same vibe as that classroom full of teenage mechanics? If they do, what happens to those women? Do they just sit down and cockily claim their space as I did, or does it make them feel too visible? Not everybody wants to stand out. Do they feel unwelcome? Do they participate as much as those in the majority? Do they go back to meet ups where they were the “only one”? Do they feel comfortable staying behind for the social events or do they scurry off straight after the presentations? These are some of the reasons why people started creating spaces exclusively for women.
Technology needs women. Not because men are bad, but because diversity is better. Technology needs people of colour. Not because white people are bad, but because diversity is better. Technology needs people of all ages. Not because young people are bad, but because diversity is better. Diversity is always better, but to do the day job we need people to have the necessary skills.
Tech firms may well be willing to recruit more female developers, but they need them to have the same skills and / or qualifications as the male developers. At this point it becomes a numbers game. You can’t do a degree in Computer Science without the relevant A Level and you can’t do an A Level without the relevant GCSE. As a Code Club volunteer I know that the enthusiasm for learning to code at primary school is the same for boys and girls, as is their level of attainment. At some point between leaving primary school at 11 and choosing their GCSE options at 13, most of the girls are ditching computing.
There are more white men working in tech and some of these men are a problem, not only for the tech industry, but for society in general. I’m lucky enough to know lots of perfectly lovely people who fully fit the official web developer stereotype. Men with beards and hoodies ,who learnt to code as teenagers and I can assure you that none of the men I’m proud to call friends, are the toxic tech bros, I occasionally find on my Twitter timeline. There is a lot of generalisation, which is often unhelpful. In the quest for diversity, it is sometimes portrayed as though white men are the problem, when in fact, I personally believe the problem isn’t that there are too many white men, but rather that there aren’t enough of everybody else. Technology has the potential to resolve lots of the world’s problems, but we need the right mix of people, looking at the right problems, in the right way. How do we educate those that fit the stereotype about life outside their personal perspectives? Lived experience is important and we need to include a variety of different lives in order to do that.
So having established my existence, the next step is to look at how we can facilitate more rhinos. What else can we do to encourage girls and women into tech? What else can we do to introduce more people of colour into tech? What else can we do to keep a mixture of different people in tech? What are the many barriers to people that don’t meet the official stereotype? Is it the toxic tech bros? Is it that flexible working hours aren’t common? Is it simply that people don’t see any way to be something that they so rarely see?
There are a lot of questions, but luckily there are people out there working to find answers. There is a lot of work going on to increase the number of rhinos in tech and there are already more of us about than some people imagine. Organisations like InnovateHer are running education programmes in schools. There are meet ups such as Code and Stuff Manchester, who were set up specifically for women and non binary developers. Free tech meet ups offer help and support to new developers, from all backgrounds, who are retraining through online courses like Freecode Camp.
An increasing number of conferences and meet ups have introduced Codes of Conduct, which make it very clear that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated at their events. Many conferences are tackling the lack of diversity in their speaker and panel line ups. I was lucky enough to be on stage at Upfront 2019 delivering a short talk, thanks to their bursary scheme, which included free training to encourage and support speakers from under represented groups.
Sometimes telling people you exist is enough to encourage more people to follow your path, or at least tell a few more people that the path exists. It’s not everybody that would willingly refer to themselves as a rhinoceros, but as I think you can tell, I’m not like everybody else (but that still doesn’t make me a unicorn)