Women's History Month - My career in the tech industry

by Laura Eccleston

15 Mar 2021

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Women's History Month - My career in the tech industry
Women's History Month

I was 6 year's old when I first realised that the sex I had been born into was going to affect what I wanted to do, and strangely it came from a woman not a man.

This article is about my personal experiences and as it's women's history month I wanted to share my story about how being born female affected my ability to do what I wanted to do, but it's not something I can say I regret or feel anger towards because it has shaped who I have become today and the road I took to where I am today. Even the existence of HappyBerry was born from a reluctance to go back to my career and to finally set out on my own journey to avoid awkward questions and labels. I just feel a sadness that I had to fight so hard to do what I wanted to do and I didn't always win.

My first experience that I had to conform to what society expected of me was in the playground. A very typical 'tom boy' I enjoyed playing with cars and running around with the boys. I didn't consciously think much about this at the time, it was just where I felt happy the most and it was what came natural to me. I had nothing against girls, it was just my interests tending towards the interests of boys at that time. You have to remember this was the 1980s so boys were very typically boys and girls were very typically girls in those days. Anything in between was often seen as a problem and unfortunately on that day I learnt this, hence I was quickly labelled a tom 'boy' when in reality I was just a girl like any other.

This first experience on a perfectly normal break-time, a couple of female teachers called me over to have a word. These two teachers were horrible teachers at the best of times, but on this particular day I had been playing a great rough and tumble game of shoot 'em up with the boys on the playing field and probably had a few grass stains and scuff marks on me, but what I didn't expect was to be asked by these two teachers to go and play with the girls because it was not normal for a girl to play with boys. I was 6.

I was stunned and confused. I didn't understand why. I thought my mum had said something and after the teachers walked away I stood for a while unsure of how to proceed. I had nothing against the group of girls just because they were girls, on the contrary, my first friend in the school had been a girl called Tasmin, a really bubbly girl who immediately be-friended me on my first day. Regardless of who I was, we were to be friends apparently. It certainly helped with my over cautious nature and introverted-ness that was for sure. I still miss her. But she had moved away not long after starting school, leaving an unfortunate group of mainly mean girls behind that had already cliqued with each other. Even as I walked closer I could see their eyes burning into me saying why on earth are you walking towards us? I laugh about it now, but anyone who says 6 year olds just play happily together are wrong, very wrong.

But this event also defined me as a person. It became the first time I said no. I said no to being asked to do something that didn't make me feel comfortable and no to doing something that society expected of me just because I was a girl. I ran off to play with the boys again and this is where I show huge gratitude for being able to say no and for having parents who were equally appalled and complained to the school on my behalf. The matter was never spoken of again, but the damage had been done. 

My parents were accommodating to my interests as a child though. I was never given dolls and I was always bought the toy cars and roads I loved so much and I could wear what I wanted at home, except on special occasions. I distinctly remember having a huge argument with my mum around the age of 7 or 8 about being forced to wear a dress. Something that always filled me with dread. I just wanted to wear my favourite t-shirt and at the time corduroy trousers. We didn't have much money back then, so jeans were unheard of, but as a kid, fashion wasn't really my priority. I just wanted to be comfortable and most importantly for me, cool like Superman or Knight Rider. Dresses for me made your legs cold and because they were fitted you couldn't run around in them very easily and heaven forbid you fall over and show your knickers! Anyway, as my mum made most of my clothes we compromised by saying I didn't have to have any lace around the cuffs. It was the best I was going to get, but that feeling of being in clothes that I didn't identify with was difficult growing up. Even as an adult once I was free of the shackles of being told what to wear, I was often mocked by my sister for wearing baggy sweatshirts and trainers. She once commented on my very straight toes saying how weird they were, I had to inform her that that was what toes are supposed to look like, a benefit of hating pointy high heels.

Throughout school though, other than this first incident, I was mainly oblivious to the patriarchal system that was at play. You just went on with life. It was commonly accepted that maths and science were boy subjects and music and art were girl subjects. You didn't question that because it was all you had ever known and no-one really complained about it. I don't think it was until I was a teenager and thinking about my GCSE exams that I realised the subtle sexist connotations that appeared in my classes. In CDT (Craft, Design and Technology) class I remember the male teacher showing us how to do some welding, but when it came to a few of the class pupils being picked to have a go he always chose the boys. He never picked a girl, but then most girl's were happy not to do it so it was never talked about. I just remember feeling mildly annoyed at not being given a chance and annoyed at myself for not making a point of it, but it was quickly forgotten by the time the bell had gone because you had other things to think about. It was just a part of life that you accepted, but now I look back and think how sad that was. Why didn't I say more? Why I didn't I ask to have a go? But you just didn't because you didn't want to stand out and be seen as a problem or labelled weird by your friends. There was always a fear of being labelled over-emotional or bossy.

When I went for my career's advice meeting in school, I remember being asked what I wanted to do after school. At the time I was interested in the RAF, I dreamed of being a helicopter pilot or a mechanical engineer so I was curious to know more about it. The woman's face was full of horror at the suggestion and immediately asked me if I had perfect vision. Confused, I asked why? and she replied that I would need perfect vision to join the RAF. She didn't once mention any of the other careers you can have in the RAF that don't require perfect eyesight. I don't think this in itself was sexist, she was clearly just someone who hated her job, but what stood out was what she said afterwards. She asked if I had considered child care.

So there it was. My dreams of becoming a pilot may have been dashed due to my poor eyesight (I was actually born with a squint and had an eye operation to correct it at the age of 6 so my eyes work a little differently to most people), but apparently I was now expected to stop my dreams of engineering too and focus on what women are expected to do, raise children or at least care for them in some way. I had nothing against women who wanted to start families early on and a lot of my friends did, I just didn't want that for me. I replied my parents wanted me to go to art college and upon that reply she said, "well, that's you sorted then" and ushered me out of the room. She never once asked if I actually wanted to go to art college.

I actually didn't want to go to art college, but I don't regret going and feel grateful for the opportunity to do so, but not long after this experience with the career's advisor I went home and asked my parents instead for help with my engineering career aspects. Sadly, I made the mistake of just saying the word mechanic. I did love cars after-all, but I knew my Dad hated them, but I was stunned to hear my father say "no daughter of mine is becoming a grease monkey". I think I was so surprised I didn't even argue back. In those days there was no internet or Google to help you gain advice on careers. You relied a lot on your parents and teachers and my parents had made the decision to send me to art college and that was that. My father's comment though said a couple of things; how I lived my life was a reflection on him and that he owned me (and the fact that he looked down on mechanics). Just think about all those years lost where I could have fixed his car. They really lost out there. Over the years I did become quite handy with a spanner though, happily pointed out by my neighbour who said upon returning home one day that it was unusual to see a woman under the car. I'd actual forgotten about that comment until this article. Let's add that to the list. It is important to note however that at that time I loved these comments. I was like "yes, girls can do these things and I'm out here proving it". Now I lean more towards "why did I have to prove anything in the first place?" The main reason I was under my car a lot though was because I had no money and it was a banger, not because I was trying to do a man's job and make a point. Sigh, I loved that car, a classic XR2.

So began my career in art. The main reason my parents had decided this fate for me was because my father had never been able to go to art college by his parents. He was expected to have a 'proper job' and ended up joining the police force. He didn't return to art until many years later after a nervous breakdown when I was 10, which was very sad, but expected when you put a creative person in such a career. I quite imagine a few of my male class mates in school also experienced some surprised looks if they had asked to go into nursing or child care. It was a sad state of affairs. 

So, because it was thought I was good at art my parents didn't want me to miss out like he had. In some ways this is sweet and because I enjoyed art I didn't fight for my engineering dreams and I definitely don't regret going. I had a lot of fun at college, met some amazing people and the years there were some of the best I ever had. I'm really grateful for those early decisions and the support and opportunities that some of my friends in school didn't have. I did however change the course my parents had signed me up for from art and design to graphic design, I wanted to work with computers so I was still trying to add that element of engineering to my career plans. Upon leaving college my first job was in web design, just as the internet was starting up so I learnt about computer code as well as design. 

Although I was happy with my career choices, I had now entered a very male dominated environment. Any women I met along the way in the various jobs I'd had only really worked in HR or admin, hidden away in other departments. By now we were in the 90s and 00s. Women were a rarity in the tech industry. I only met one other female coder in my whole career. Sadly she was super shy and never spoke to me, but I admired her so much as she had some serious coding skills. This was in London though. Outside of the big cites, women in the tech industry were a rare species indeed. 

Strangely around this time, being a woman in the tech industry was actually a benefit. I literally got offered jobs because companies wanted to mix up their teams and show some diversity. I remember asking one boss why he had hired me and he replied "because you were the most enthusiastic and we don't have a woman on the team, it looks good". I didn't know whether to be grateful or offended. I erred on the side of grateful because I was just happy to have a job. I was also still very much in this mindset that I was doing something radical and in some ways I was. I was standing up for all the other girls and women out there who enjoyed more typically male orientated interests, but in reality it should have been normal for a woman to go into the tech industry, just like it should have been normal when my school friend wanted to become a scientist like her dad but everyone thought she was weird.
On another occasion I experienced a negative advantage when a boss in a fairly small company I worked for asked me to help assist at a trade show they were doing. This would mean an outing out of the office, valuable work experience and the best of all, free hotel accommodation and free food! My male colleagues were immediately annoyed, but I was being asked, not because I had any additional experience, but because I was a woman. My boss stated he wanted me there because it would make their company look more approachable. At least I didn't have to wear a skirt.

I was however paid a lot less. I know this because in one job I did something a bit naughty... I looked at my colleagues pay slip while he was off work because it had been left on his desk. In my defense I was young and often didn't think things through properly. This colleague of mine had been hired to do the same job at the exact same time but treated me like I was his subordinate. We had both been hired because they couldn't decide between us in our interviews so when this pay slip was just sat there calling out to me, I really couldn't resist the urge in finding out how much he got paid compared to me. The answer though put me in a very uncomfortable position. He was being paid more than double what I was earning. I was angry, but I couldn't say a word. If I had confronted my boss he (and the colleague in question) would want to know how I knew and if he found out how I knew I would have been fired on the spot for gross misconduct.

In hindsight I shouldn't have looked anyway as it was his personal information, but it also put me in a very awkward position because I had no way of saying anything. I couldn't march in to my boss' office and ask for a pay rise, but I couldn't sit there knowing I was doing the exact same job but for much less money. The only thing I could do was to go side ways and that was what I did. I started to apply for other jobs, which offered more money, but not to leave the company I was already working in. I actually loved the company I was with. When I got offered another job I was using that as leverage to show my worth. I would go to my boss and say, "hey, this is what I'm worth, can you match it?" I felt I had to provide evidence that I was worth the same as my male colleague. I'm grateful to say my boss did match the difference in pay every time, except for the final time because they were losing clients and money was tight so he could only offer me a small rise. It was less than the other job I had been offered, but I didn't want to leave so I accepted it, but I never managed to achieve the same wage as my colleague.

To be honest I felt so guilty doing this to my boss. He was such a lovely man, but it was the only way I could justify my value. He did support me in other ways though such as paying for some of my part-time degree and offering me work experience in a different department because I was thinking about moving careers within the company. The effects of being a woman in the tech industry were beginning to wear on me, but the day I finally left that company was one of the saddest days of my career and I have dreams about being back there to this day. The financial difficulties within the company led to me taking volunteer redundancy in the end.

I did continue to work in the tech industry for a few more years, but after my daughter was born I was very aware that returning to my career after her birth would be difficult. I was now a mum in her thirties, which compared to a young lad in his twenties doesn't look good on paper, no matter how much experience I had. I knew I would be labelled as problematic. It would be assumed I would find it hard to stay late. I may go on to have more children. I would need time off if there was a problem with schools, all these things could be running through my employer's mind. When I worked in London I was so desperate to avoid these labels that I often stated in interviews that I never wanted children. I knew I was getting older and I knew something like that would have been a consideration if I was in close running with a male candidate. Most often and not future bosses would smile and nod and seemed grateful at bringing this up. I even got a job after saying this. The fact I even thought I  had to say this is extremely sad.

So, rather than returning to my career after my daughter was born I decided it was time to forge my own path utilising everything I had learned along the way and to stop working for male dominated CEOs and board members. I was tired of answering to men and struggling to be heard. The glass ceiling was very real, the sexual innuendo was very real, I was never invited out to the pub 'with the guys' at lunch and over time I became tired of explaining why I needed time off for period pain and arguing as to why I shouldn't be made to wear heels. Ten years on I'm not sure I would even have the energy now to do half the things I have done over the years, but I hope that me just existing within that male dominated world has shown other women that it is possible and normal to do so and I am so happy to see more women enter the tech industry now and seeing more women being offered senior roles. I hope in time this just becomes the norm. We still have a long way to go.

For now I'm in a great place. I feel accomplished and valued in what I do and understand my own worth. It's important to say as well that I have been valued along the way too by both men and women. This certainly isn't a list of bad experiences, they are just experiences as a young girl and as a woman growing up in a man's world. I'm grateful to have been at the beginning of an exciting internet revolution, to have forged a career in unknown territory and to have met some amazing people along the way and I'm fully aware that I have been offered certain opportunities not easily available to others. But ultimately I have learned a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses and come to understand what I am willing to accept and tolerate and that's invaluable going forward.

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