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How We #BreakTheBias - A Conversation with a Head of Systems Integration & Security

Through a series of articles, we asked our employees, peers and network to about what they think can be done to support women in tech in the workplace and what employers can do to make a difference. Here, we talk toa Head of Systems Integration & Security based in Germany.

March 2022

How We #BreakTheBias - A Conversation with a Head of Systems Integration & Security

This international women’s day this year, Parallel wanted to talk about how to foster more inclusive recruitment processes and best practices for hiring more women in tech, influencing employers, and educating managers in how to create healthier workplaces for everyone. Through a series of articles, we asked our employees, peers, and network about what they think can be done to support and empower women in the workplace in the technology industry and what employers can do to make a difference. 

Here, we talk with this Head of Systems Integration and Security based in Berlin about how she developed her career path in the IT sector, empowered herself to become a leader in the industry, supports women in developing their tech careers and thinks we can attract more women to join the technology industry. 


How did you find yourself working in the tech industry? Was it a career that you always though about pursuing? 

I started as I started a career in biology, I was doing my PhD and so on. But then we came in a situation that was back at the time when Germany got reunited. I’d initially started to help out our IT team and setting up the IT environment at university, so I decided after a half year of looking for a new job that I will switch my profession to Tech, which I was really interested in. This was back when it was the time of modem internet, and I was so fascinated by that stuff. 

I began my career as a normal admin, working my way up from the bottom on the ground, and I mean it literally – I started on my knees going through filthy environments exchanging some PCs and then I decided that that will not stay until my pension in such a way. I started to change jobs often, which was quite out of the ordinary for someone who works in Germany. With every new job I looked for something that could move me forward in my career and enhance my knowledge in new areas. I worked as an Exchange administrator, a cloud application manager, and a network engineer in various companies. 

I felt that usually when I started at a new company, even if I wasn't a leader or a manager, a team would naturally start to form around me, and I decided to bring my favorite topics together: leading people and educating people within IT. Then management career started when I got my first directors’ position back in in 2009. 


Do you feel this was largely driven by you initially, and the opportunities maybe weren't presenting themselves to you? 

No, it was absolutely driven by me. I remember in one company where I was working as a network engineer, when I naturally had a team of three men start looking up to me and I wanted to have the team lead position and I was not given it. They said, “Oh, no, we can't give it to you.” Well, then I decided, okay, you don't want to give it to me? Fine, I’ll change jobs. 

I have heard such things repeatedly. As an example, when I was working at a big telecoms company, I tried to progress and kept hitting the “glass ceiling”, as we say in German, where you just feel like you continue to stumble over something. I mean, over the course of three years, I didn't progress at all under various managers. One manager said to me “Oh, you're way too loud” and said I was “pushy” and so on and then he left that company. My next manager told me I tried to work on me next mentioned, “Oh, you're way too quiet” and “you are not pushing forwards” and stuff like that. And after that happened a third time, I decided to leave. So yes, it was mostly driven by me.


Is it common for to you see or meet other women who also pursued leadership positions in your field? Or other women working in a similar role as yourself?

So, as far as I know, I have never met a woman in Germany who does the same kind of job, especially because I focus on SRE and DevOps. And maybe there are some women there, but I never met them at any conferences where I was and people started to recognize me because I am just the only woman there, right if you're in a conference, and there are 100 men, and I'm the only woman then of course, people remember me. So no, there was not many.

When I was working at one of the biggest Real Estate companies in Germany, we had a CTO there and my boyfriend at the time, went to her to complain about how I was being treated. She said back to him that I was an adult, I am a grown up and that if I had an issue, I can speak to her myself. Her response to him is something I have carried with me for many years. I was able to trust her and that really pushed me forward. But there were not many female examples or leaders for me to look up to during my career.


How do you connect with other women in the industry? 

A few years ago, I joined a Facebook group called “Women in Tech DACH”, so it's tailored to women who work in technology throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and it has around 2,500 members, so it's really a women-only group and focused on tech. And I'm also part of a financial Facebook group comprised of only women, but we speak mainly about experiences from everyone’s careers. I'm always encouraging them on these platforms. They often approach me and say things like, “Oh, I don't know, I'm coming back from parental leave, I have a good offer, but I'm not brave enough to leave my current job…”. And as I have experienced these situations or know how to deal with them, I'm always pushing these women to go for it! If all the parameters are okay, as in it’s a good salary, a good company, or a good job...Go for it and don't be fearful!


Do you often find people coming to you for advice, whether through social media or joining groups that you run on those channels? Is it something that you're finding is more common now?

It's more common now than in previous times. In enclosed groups, it's like a safe space, where women can just speak each with each other without having any male presence. 

In my current job, I have two ladies in my team and as I’m working with them, I get a lot of good feedback from them. I can see how they open up to me, how they are instilling trust in me. I push them hard in earning their career promotions, building their career paths, guide them in the right direction so that they are in the best position possible to get their promotions approved by the management team.

I also believe in leading by example. This way, the women on my team can see how I'm acting in meetings and that I don't say “yes” all the time. I show that that I stand by my ideas and push against others, especially when it’s something worth fighting for.

As a female leader in the tech industry, how do you find you are best able to empower the women on your team?

Yeah, I see my responsibility not so much in the way of my female workers doing what I tell them to do, but more so by guiding them in “removing the stones that are in your way”, as we say in German. I show them what is possible, but in the end, they need to do it on their own. So how I choose to lead by acting as a guiding hand in their career development. 

For example, there was one girl on my team who was an Automation Test Engineer and she wanted to become a project manager. After watching her for three months, I realized that that path wasn’t right for her - she’s not the kind of personality for that role. So, I sat down with her to have a long talk about why I thought this, but I also came walk her through a couple of options. We took what she was doing at that moment, and I showed her a Release Manager job description, and she was totally surprised with how well that role fit her abilities. 

I also believe in leading by example. This way, the women on my team can see how I'm acting in meetings and that I don't say “yes” all the time. I show that that I stand by my ideas and push against others, especially when it’s something worth fighting for. I don’t care if I’m speaking to a C-suite or CEO or to my direct boss. I express my vision or belief and I express it in a way that isn’t, what others classify as, “girly” or “nice.”


What practical things do you think employers could do to better support women working on technology teams or how could they go about creating more inclusive environments? 

Search for support. I really believe in creating safe spaces for women where they can exchange ideas with one another. Whether it’s by creating a Microsoft Team's group or an in-person meeting where women get together once a month. 

The other side to this is fostering support on a management level, I have a wonderful boss at my current company where I can openly speak to him. Whatever I need for the women on my team, I get that without ever having to fight for it, which is amazing. That being said, this is the first time in my career that I’ve ever had a boss like this. 


Have you ever experienced or witnessed gender-based discrimination in the workplace? 

Yes, I did in the beginning of my career. One of the worst experiences that I had was when I was working as an Application Manager on a tiny team. My boss asked me if I could dress “more like a woman” and made a gesture as to what sort of appearance I should have, insinuating that I should wear more skirts, blouses, etc. I usually wear sweaters. It was unbelievable. In that moment, I didn’t know how to answer and honestly, it took me around a couple years to process how awful that experience was. That same boss told me that I couldn’t be promoted because I was “emotional.” 


How do you find employers are bringing more awareness to gender bias and tackling it in the workplace?

When I was working at the telecoms company, we had a mandatory leadership training seminar led by a psychologist who talked through the differences in male and female behavior explained through a psychological lens. That helped me personally as a leader when I came to how to speak with my team which was entirely male, and with the rest of my colleagues. It helped me understand how to not take things so personally as I had done before. 

For example, they showed an experiment where they put two girls, between 11-14 years old, in a waiting room and watched how they communicated with each other and two boys of the same age in a waiting room. The girls were sitting and talking with one another, and the boys were staring at the floor. The boys were communicating, but not making that much eye contact. It was quite funny because I used to get so mad about the lack of eye contact, I used to get from my male team members or colleagues, but it turns out this is just a different communication style. I have accepted that is how It is. I am currently fighting at my current company to start a mandatory training like the one I participated in, as I found it helpful. 


What do you think we could do to attract more people, more women really to the tech industry?

Start organizing and educating girls at a young age in all-girls technology training sessions. I know a handful of organizations here in Germany who are starting to do things like this. I have a good friend and former colleague who organizes an event where every month they offer programming trainings for girls. 

The other thing we as a society need to do is showcase women in technology roles across all forms of media – TV, movies, cartoons, comics, etc. When you see a female example in these types of careers, the easier it is to imagine yourself in that kind of career.  For example, my youngest grandchild, she's three and a half years and she loves to watch Paw Patrol. I don't know if you know that show, but there is a firefighter and now she wants to be a fire fighter. 


Do you feel positively about the way in which the industry is going in terms of tackling gender bias? What more could companies be doing ?

I think both. On the one side, I'm positive, but I'm always a positive person. So right now, I can already see a difference with me having two ladies on my team. Now, 15 years ago, that would have been impossible. They were just simply novel ladies. So, in that regard, it is moving, but in my opinion, it’s not moving fast enough. 

I believe that companies are not doing enough. It's not enough to just to say, “Oh, we want to hire 25% more women” because realistically, there aren’t that many women available on the market. To get more women into workplaces, or in the tech industry in general, we need to start introducing girls to careers in technology during their education, when they are studying in school. We also need to put more pressure on the media industry by showcasing more women in technology positions in the movies and so on. 

In Germany specifically by the way, the German language distinguishes between a male and a female worker. There is a big discussion about which one to use or to find a term which covers both of them, and especially on Facebook, some older men, and unfortunately also some women, saying that this isn’t a real issue, but it is. It is important how we are speaking about these workers. If a female doctor when my grandchild sees a female doctor, then she can apply it to herself and see herself as a doctor, however, it's always spelled by the male version of that word.

For example, “software developer” has both a male and female terminology and it’s a big fight that will probably go on for another 10 or 20 years. Germany is very traditional, I worked a lot with Americans, for example, and what I saw that in America, I had the feeling with my female colleagues, that they are a bit more progressive than here in Germany. And I mean all of the Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland, and so on, that is much easier. Germany is behind in comparison. 

There is also salary discrimination here in Germany, I’ve seen the gender-pay gap quite a lot.