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International Women’s Day - the view from engineering

12 Mar 2021
11 min read

At Curve, we’re turning the spotlight on ourselves for International Women’s Day. 

We’re a company where only 33% of employees are female. Three words: not good enough. That’s why our kick-ass COO, Nathalie Oestmann, made a plan to fix gender disparity at Curve. And we’re going to put an extra focus on our engineering team, making sure we boost the number of female employees way up from 14%.

Coding is an exciting new field that delivers products to hundreds of millions of people globally. It’s also an area where gender parity is key, to understand and delight female customers, and more broadly, to generate growth.  

So why do so few women enter the engineering profession? Aisa, Isabella, and Eunice tell us their stories.

Aisa, software engineer, PayTech

How did you get into engineering?

I don't have a traditional computer science background. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics in Germany and then went on to do a Master’s degree in Social Policy at LSE in London. I never considered doing anything STEM-oriented at school in Russia, where I grew up.

After my Master’s, I realised I wanted to do something that truly fulfilled me and I joined a two-month coding bootcamp at Le Wagon in London. I was inspired by a history student that I came across. He also did a bootcamp, before going on to work at Starling Bank as an engineer. 

This made me think that I too was capable of taking on something so interesting and motivating, even though I had never considered myself as a science person until then. After Le Wagon, I met my first employer, Cytora, at a careers fair they had organised to specifically hire junior engineers.

It can be hard to find junior software roles in engineering, especially for those who don't have a computer science degree or STEM background, but I was encouraged by that first company. The VP of engineering at Cytora knew how hard it is to find that first role. I’m really grateful for their trust in me, and the opportunity to get to the first stage, which was crucial in making me believe in myself and in landing my first job as a software engineer.

What is it like being a woman in fintech?

Day to day, I find everyone is friendly and supportive, but it's different when you go online, and when you look at the media. Comments on social media sites like Twitter can be negative and degrading in relation to our capabilities as female developers. It can be quite toxic. So I try to limit my time spent online. 

When I attended a tech conference two years ago, my friends and I were the only women in a room full of about 100 men. It was intimidating, more than it was scary. That was when I truly realised the gender disparity in engineering.

I think we tend to be very hard on ourselves as women. I was never sure if I was good enough for this kind of role, coming to the industry as I did, without a traditional engineering background.

What needs to change to get more women into tech and engineering roles?

Easier said than done, but we need more women in leadership positions, for example senior engineers, staff engineers, and engineering managers who can be role models. I imagine it would encourage more women to consider technical roles and apply to Curve. As a potential applicant, I would look at these women, and say, “I can do it too.” For now, I’d like to grow to a senior or higher level, but I personally know only one female software engineer in a senior position. Hopefully, I can be a part of the change.

In society, we also need to be mindful of our day-to-day biases. For example, people tend to use “he” as a pronoun when they talk about developers. It’s a small thing but using more inclusive language would help us feel more welcome in the industry. 

What was the reaction to your decision to pursue an engineering career? 

When I told people I wanted to move into engineering, the reaction I got wasn't entirely positive. People close to you have expectations, set around social norms. My family were quite shocked, and questioned if I was truly capable of pursuing a coding career. They wanted only good things for me, but their reaction made me doubt myself. 

I grew up in Russia, where gender norms were taught to us from a young age. Girls had cooking and household classes, and computer classes were not a part of our curriculum. I didn't even know that coding really existed. Girls were definitely encouraged to go into humanities.

It would have been really helpful to have career advisors to tell us, “Actually, you’re also good at maths.” Or teachers encouraging you to do something different like biology, chemistry, algebra, or engineering. If you're good at languages, it doesn't mean you're not good at science! I didn't know about coding or engineering and that that's why I didn't make this choice earlier on. 

Isabella, software engineer, DevEx 

How did you get into engineering?

I have an undergraduate degree in Politics and a Master’s in Digital Technologies and Public Policy from UCL. I started at Curve as a security analyst within the Engineering team and then became a software engineer.

What is it like being a woman in fintech?

I am conscious of my gender. I've been here for almost two years and I’m used to being the only woman in the room. 

I feel like I’m less conscious of my minority status in the team, now that I work from home. But before, I had to physically walk into an office full of men. So in that sense, you become self-conscious, and spatially aware. And previously, I’ve had the experience of having male colleagues comment on what I was wearing, or the makeup I’ve had on. 

What inspired you to make that career change? 

I had a female professor who taught digital technologies and ran the Master’s programme I was on which was predominantly taught by women. It was a nice change from politics, which is also male-dominated. 

That one professor inspired me to continue. She helped me understand that most of the time I’ll be the only woman in the room. And that I’m never the only one who doesn't understand something - there will always be someone else who also doesn't understand. So you need to stand up and ask questions, to develop yourself, and in this there is no fear or shame. She really instilled that in me.

What needs to change to get more women into tech and engineering roles?

The fact that there are more untraditional ways into the career should be more widely accepted. 

There can be a bit of snobbery if you’ve taken a different path into the same career as others. Not at Curve, where we see engineers with a variety of degrees or no degrees at all. Some companies will outright not hire you if you don't have a computer science degree. It makes it harder for people who’ve come to it later through a bootcamp or started learning on the job. Both women and men from non-traditional backgrounds should be more encouraged. 

Yet, we have gone backwards almost. Way back, software engineering was initially a woman's job. Over time, it morphed into a man's job - we need to strike that 50/50 balance.

There’s a critical age for young girls, when you begin to consider your career path. I went down the humanities route and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but more needs to be done to encourage a broadening of horizons. Young women should be encouraged to experiment, to explore engineering or STEM-related career paths. It's also the job of parents to do that. It's a joint effort, and that support should include girls speaking to women in these fields.

What can be done to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for women in fintech? 

People need to think harder and more introspectively about their own biases and to educate themselves. It's everyone's job, it’s a societal thing. We can’t leave it to women to educate men on equality and how they should be treated, in the same way that it should not be the job of black people to educate us about black history. The most important thing is for people to educate themselves.

This cannot just be a bottom-up approach either. Companies need to implement systemic changes in order to see any real change, because if it stays a bottom up approach, then it is once again put on the backs of people with less power to do the work.

What value does a diverse team bring to the product?

There are many studies that show that a diverse team creates a more successful product. Teams actually function better when there is that diversity. I mean there are whole books, like Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, or Insecurity by Jane Frankland, that have been written about the challenges here and how they should be resolved. And it’s not only the problem of not enough women in the industry. The issue applies to all demographics. Fintech is a very white, male dominated industry. 

Eunice, software engineer, Revenue team 

How did you get into engineering?

I only started programming five or six years ago. There was pressure from my family to go into medicine or law which I didn’t want to do. But I loved animals and wanted to be a vet so ended up doing a veterinary science degree.

It was during my bachelor's that I discovered my interest in programming and coding. In my final year project, I worked on an electronic patient record system. I picked up some SQL and learned how to work with databases. I saw the potential of coding and thought, “Wow this programming stuff is super cool.” I wanted to focus on it full time. I was discouraged from going into it initially, but I pushed for it because I knew that was what I wanted to do. 

I secured an internship in a software company working with business intelligence tools and then I started studying for a masters in computer science, working as a data scientist while studying and from there, moved into software engineering.

What is it like being a woman in fintech?

There’s an additional pressure to look capable or deliver the same as men who started out in engineering, and have been doing computer science and coding since they were 12 years old.

It's not something that I was encouraged to follow when I started to consider my future, about seven years ago. There was a focus on STEM degrees like medicine or law, but not computer science back then. I’m the only engineer in my entire family.

Given this huge uptake in computer science and everyone wanting to learn how to code recently, I think women being discouraged from a career in coding will become a less common story. When I first transitioned into computer science it was rare, but recently a lot of my friends from alternative careers have been moving into computer science through bootcamps and course conversions, and quite a few have come to me for help and resources. It’s fascinating to look back, as I find myself moving into this mentorship and role model mode. 

What needs to change to get more women into tech and engineering roles?

It was definitely more of a male-dominated field. I don't think a single girl in my entire high school in Malaysia applied to do a computer science degree. It was not something that was preferable.

You have to excite young girls at school about all the possibilities and all the things that you can do if you're an engineer. You need to inspire them and encourage them to think they can take this up and excel at this as a career choice. 

There’s so much you can do when you can code, you can build products that are being used by millions of people. There are so many different paths: you can go into data science, cybersecurity, engineering, game development, robotics, AR/VR - the horizon is endless. I don't think it’s something that we can live without in the future, so even if you don't want to be an engineer, it will help you out in some aspect of your life or work.

The onus is also on the industry to transform engineering into something that’s desirable and I think that's changing now. I see a lot of change happening. People’s views are shifting and computer science is in demand.

What can Curve do to create a more welcoming and inviting environment for women? 

There are three or four backend engineers who are women out of probably 100 engineers at Curve. It’s important on the talent acquisition side, allocating some space to try and find talent in the minority.

It's rare unless you're specifically looking for it and it’s good to widen the talent pool. Hiring different individuals with different opinions will help. If you have greater diversity it’s better for the product.

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