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Returning to the IT Workforce - Women in Tech Leadership event at STEMM Festival

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This month, I am proud to say I participated in a breakfast event Women in Tech Leadership as part of the STEMM festival, hosted by Hutt City Council and The Ministry for Women. The morning was created to help inspire the next generation, as well as those already in the industry, and show the possibilities that STEMM jobs have to offer.

So, what was I doing there? I asked myself the same question when I saw the line-up of speakers! I was up there talking with the inspirational Victoria MacLennan and Marie-Claire Andrews, who have successfully started their own technology focused companies, and the amazing Astrobiologist Jen Blank who currently works for NASA! Quite an intimidating line up, to say the least.

But in answer to that question, I was asked because I have been talking with the Ministry for Women around some of the challenges for women returning to work in the technology industry. And yet, despite writing about the Imposter Syndrome and hearing about it from other people, I found myself in a position where I thought “surely you can’t be interested in what I have to say after these brilliant women have spoken before me?”

However, I decided that by the simple fact that I had been asked to speak, there would be people who were interested; even if I could give the smallest piece of advice to anyone who attended, it would be worth it.

Women Returning to the IT Workforce

In working for a recruitment agency I have the benefit of talking to various employers and jobseekers, which gives me insight into the different perceptions and sometimes realities in today’s market. The fact I work for a large agency which covers multiple specialisations means I can see the disparity between the tech sector and others.

I think that returning to work or finding a new position after taking a break can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, and this is especially pronounced when we look at the technology sector. This seems to be a hurdle, more often than not for women who have taken time out to raise a family. From my position, I see two main issues: A) the sector is highly competitive and B) there is often an unseen gender bias.

Right or wrong, the tech sector is one of the hardest sectors to break into in the first place! Trying to then get back into the work force, after taking a career break for any reason, is hard. Couple that with the fact that we face many challenges as women within technology, and it can seem like an impossibility to both take time for your family and keep your career moving forwards.  

I think that one of the reasons that it is hard to take any more than 6 months, out of your career is because of the speed that the industry moves at. It can be hard at times for those that are currently employed to keep up with the latest trends and movements, let alone those who have not been working recently. 

It seems to be that sometimes taking a break to have children means that women almost start their career again, either taking a pay cut to get back into work or looking at a change in profession. This seems to be having a large impact on the gender pay gap we still currently see today.

So, after painting this very bleak picture, what can we do about this? Where do you start?

After speaking to different women in technology about their experiences, as well as what I have seen in the market, these are my thoughts.

Preparation

For a lot of people, I know not all, having a child is a planned event. If that's the case, it's a huge help to consider your employer's policies in advance so that you're prepared.

There are a few great examples of companies out there that offer to top up your pay to full while on maternity leave for up to a year. Others offer child care when you return to work. Flexible working and sick leave policies are also good things to investigate because not all organisations have the same benefits. 

I also ask you to think about who your current manager is. I know that this can make all the difference when you work through your pregnancy and return to work. 

As an example, I recently spoke with one of my clients who manages a development team. She has recently had one of her developers return from maternity leave, and was faced with the question of how to best help her transition back into work. From her own experience, she had found it difficult, and felt part of that was to do with the expectations she put on herself. 

Since her team member had left to take leave, the group had moved to using a different language and framework, meaning that this person would have to take on some quite intensive training as well as still being expected to deliver work in a fast-paced environment. So instead, she gave her the option of moving to a different team underneath her. This meant she would be able to utilise more of the skills that she had been using prior to leaving. 

By doing this my client said she has seen excellent results from her team member, and her new team love having her on board as she brings a different perspective to the work. 

I thought that this was a great example of how having a supportive manager can really pay off.

Setting Expectations

Now I know not everyone finds themselves in this position, but for many reasons you may be returning to work and seeking a new position. In this case, I would say that the first thing you will need to do is set yourself realistic expectations. Job hunting can be hard. Here are a couple of key areas that I feel are important to mention.

  • Give yourself a good 6 months to find the right position. It is different in every case but I would say that it is not uncommon for it to take this long to find a role, especially if you are looking for a permanent position. The contracting market moves a lot faster, and can be a great choice if it suits your lifestyle, but regardless of the type of position you would like to go for the industry is fiercely competitive and simply put, interviewing isn’t the easiest thing to do for most of us. 
  • Make your call count. If you are calling to speak to a hiring manager, be prepared to ask questions that will help you with your application. Job ads or descriptions can be quite vague, so think about what it is that they are not saying, and how you can make your CV stand out. This is also a good time to show interest in the company; do your research if you can, but think about what is that’s motivating you to apply and ask about the team, company culture and work environment. All of this can help your application to stand out. 
  • Network. There are a number of things that networking can help with; the obvious one being that it will help you to build contacts and hear about potential opportunities. The other benefit is that it is a relatively easy way of finding out the opinions on trends in your area of expertise, helping you with what is relevant in the current tech landscape, which can then help you in an interview.
  • Be confident in your skills and abilities. I would say that in an interview people are judged on personality, learning ability and aptitude. I.e. you do not have to have worked with the latest technology, but you do need to be confident that you can and show your motivation to work in this space by doing your research!
  • Lastly, choose a friend, mentor or recruiter to help you. This one comes down to who you find it easiest to seek advice from, sometimes it can be all three or more. Recently we had Jessica Venning-Bryan speak at the Female Fuel’d Meet up about her mentoring experiences, and Cultivate Mentoring Lab which she is founder of. This is a great not for profit organisation that pairs different women with mentors and is a great way of seeking impartial advice.

In summary, I would say that while there are many challenges, these are challenges faced by many people looking to return to the workforce within the IT sector, and there are a lot of individuals and companies that are looking to help in tackling these. I say people because while I have focused on women today, I have equally seen this struggle with anyone, regardless of gender, that has taken a career break.

Thank you once again to my fellow speakers, the Ministry and Council for supporting the event, and to anyone who came along to listen – it was a truly fantastic experience and I hope the insights I shared were helpful.