Awareness - A key to a gender diverse Tech world

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

My name is Oluwatoyin Arowolo, but call me Toyin for short. I have over 16 years of experience developing applications - I started out developing with Microsoft’s .net suite, then Oracle's suit of tools and my career has morphed to include business analysis and project management, customer application support and I am becoming increasingly interested in Data.

I work with African Reinsurance Corporation and I live in Lagos, Nigeria. I am a wife, a mother of 2 adorable ladies who are almost 12 and 4 years old. I am a proud Nigerian & African. I am a business woman as well.

Why this topic? Awareness - a key to gender diverse tech world. Why awareness?

I have chosen this topic because I can so closely relate it to my journey in Tech.

  • Awareness is defined as knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.

  • It can also be defined as concern about and well-informed interest in a particular situation or development.

  • Awareness is the ability to directly know and perceive, to feel, or to be cognizant of events. More broadly, it is the state of being conscious of something.

  • Synonyms are Consciousness, Recognition, Realization, Cognizance, Understanding, Grasp

  • The quality or state of being aware...

  • Knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.

The last definition is my favorite and helps me state clearly that a lot of people believe women agitating or asking for diversity is nonsense or not necessary. There is also a belief there is no bias – usually stated by the opposite gender because it doesn’t affect them.

My goal is to ensure that your respective aware-o-meters go right up to the highest possible value. Whether you are male or female, passenger or captain, young or old.

Why is gender diversity in Tech important?

Gender Diversity is important because women represent approximately 50% of the world’s population. Very simply the world is half female and half male.

Diversity in Tech is important because the entire world as we know it has changed dramatically in the last decade. When I started studying Computer science and even after I finished, more than half of the existing jobs in technology simply did not exist. Moore's law was prophetic and did in fact prophesy about computing power and that in turn has enabled the world to change in diverse ways. In the past for various businesses, Technology was simply a tool, it is now an enabler without which no business can progress.

Diversity in the tech field and out of it is important because solutions being built for the world have to be for everyone. Companies, governments, businesses need to build tech solutions (whether its apps, websites, b2b solution) for everyone male or female. Inclusivity and representation at all stages and in all spheres is required.

Large companies with more women in leadership performed significantly better financially, like 41% higher return on equity and 56% better operating results according to a ground breaking McKinsey study. One of my favorite studies shows that Fortune 500 companies that had at least three women board directors (WBDs) for at least five years, outperformed those with zero WBDs by 84% return on sales (ROS), 60% return on invested capital (ROIC) and 46% return on equity (ROE). Tech teams should be representative of the people they build for.

Women and men are different and this variety needs to be seen in the tech space.

Back to my story:

I am one of a set of twins born into a middle class family. Born in Ibadan and brought up in Lagos, as only children for the first 10years of our lives. I did not grow up aware of any differences in gender. We were taught to be the best at what we did and had no restrictions placed on us with respect to career choices. At that age, I was not aware that there were girls in my town and village who were told only certain careers were for womenfolk or that they could not go to school.

As liberal as my family was, it was also very traditional so men & boys sat in the sitting room while the women and girls were to be found in the kitchen. My foray into the Tech world would have been non-existent had it not been for my math teacher, Mr. Olanipekun. Right up to the moment when he walked into my class for our first math lesson in my 6th and final year of secondary school, I had performed woefully in the subject. And by my final year my dreams of studying computer science which I had declared to do as a 10 year old were looking dim. He walked into class and said. 'Some of you are not doing too well in math'. In my head, I reasoned, many of us are doing badly. Then the next words made me sit up. He said there is only one reason why this is so.

You hate math and until you love math, it is not going to love you back.

I thought, 'love math?', 'The only thing I need to do to pass math was to decide to love it?" Thankfully he wasn't all talk and no action. Mr. Olanipekun took my love for math from 20-100 and by the time my final year results came out, I cried, not because I failed but because I expected an A1 but got an A3.

I attended a girl’s only school and I am grateful Mr. Olanipekun did not treat us as objects that would end up in the kitchen. I went on to study Comp science & Mathematics. My Faculty in the university was the most skewed in terms of gender representation. Rather than see it as a sad thing, I actually felt special being one of the few girls who were in the Faculty of Technology. My option (Math) had only 3 students and 2 of us were female. I was not aware that for every girl in the Faculty, there was an equal and higher number who didn’t make it in because they did not have a Mr. Olanipekun to help them, I was blissfully unaware of the girls who had been discouraged from an engineering or science course because they had simply been told this course of study was not for girls.

I started work and the same statistics played out even worse. Irrespective of where I worked, in a roomful of men, there would be a maximum of 2 ladies. By this time I had become painfully aware of the skew. I had begun to work with men who had grown up seeing women as kitchen material. I started interacting with men who didn’t know what to do with an outspoken woman. As I did, they brought to the workplace all the luggage of upbringing, culture, understanding, behavior. As I did, they brought to the workplace all the misconception of the roles of women in society. Most of the time, this didn’t come out due to ill will. It came out because it was there.

I will tell a number of stories to drive this point home as well as explain this slide.

  1. After working for a while, I got married and started a family. With a traumatic child birth experience I could only stay away from work for 3 months. I didn’t know better and had no one to advocate for me. It was my first birth and I wasn’t aware I could push for more time off. It was also a tad bit humiliating expressing breast milk in a colleague’s office and frantically calling out whenever there was a knock on the door. Being a wife, a mother …took its toll and I was burnt out. Not physically but emotionally. Work became a drag and I’d be quick to add this was not due to any gender issues but just the general stress associated with living in Lagos. At this time, I decided to join a mentoring program and my mentor- a woman who heads a global IT firm made me aware that I could be a woman and climb up the corporate ladder. She showed me that it could be done. Not only was I inspired, I could see myself in her story and took a decision to act like her. It was only a 9 month program but she’s declared she’s my friend for life. As she climbs, I climb! Work went from being a drudge to exciting once again – only because I had someone else who had walked the path I was on. Not the exact same one but one similar enough for me to see my dreams were valid and the life I dreamed of was possible.

  2. I had been given a huge responsibility to coordinate a huge and important project. I was to also coordinate the activities of an external vendor. The over 3 years I ran that project were some of my toughest. The men who came on from this external company were traditionalists who did not believe taking instructions from a woman was what they came to work to do. They frustrated me in subtle ways and openly and made statements like “we have your type at home- meaning they had wives like me’ I was frustrated but didn’t know what to do or how to confront this behavior. The project was wrapping up when I heard a senior executive of a firm asked the people who appointed her to publicly show their support for her. She read the situation well. She was young, she was female and she had been appointed to lead the transformation and growth of a huge firm, heading people who were much older than her. She made sure her sponsors support was not just on paper but in action too. Telling her story suddenly opened my eyes. I had not realized it but it was true. While I had been given an opportunity, support was missing. Shortly after, when there was nothing at stake, I raised it with my boss and another colleague who I didn’t report to but was responsible for certain aspects of the project. One dismissed it, the other told me he understood. Note that I understood and respected their decisions – and why they acted the way they did.

  3. The last story on my work and awareness is about being interrupted during meetings. It would happen week after week and I would stew week after week. I would forget until the next meeting it would happen again and I would stew again. This cycle was broken only when I decided to do something about it. I became aware that this behavior irritated me. It was like a light bulb moment. And I thought why do you allow this to happen? I picked up the phone to call the person involved, but he wasn’t in and because I knew I’d forget, I sent him a short mail explaining what I had noticed and what I hoped he’d do. Simply, allow me to talk. The next day, I bump into him and we discuss it. That brought closure to that act which I found out he was not aware of. That singular act empowered me to become aware of a number of things that I did not like, reflected to understand what caused them and why they happened and act to change the narrative.

The lessons I’d like us to go home with are:

  1. Advocate for the women at work –whether you are female or not. Speak up and ask your company to provide nursing rooms, etc. Ask them to sign up for initiatives which aim to make the workplace conducive for women.

  2. Advocate for yourself. Speak up when you want to because you simply can.

  3. Women get a mentor. There’s so much to learn from people who’ve gone ahead of you. This was a game changer for me and it has been mentioned several times that I will not flog the issue.

  4. Become a mentor. In fact, the mentor-mentee relationship can be one of reverse mentoring. I like keeping up with younger Tech savvy adults so I’m aware of the latest apps, trends, uses of Tech. I have learned so much from my daughters. When I bought my Samsung phone, after using an Iphone since forever, they helped me break into it. Your generation grew up with computing devices and many much older individuals need to become conversant with these tools. Give back.

  5. Impostor Syndrome. The impostor syndrome is one which affects a lot of people. I can add confidently more women than men second guess their every move- doubting the work they’ve done. From a personal example, studying for my MBA at ALUSB, I had a call with Prof. Duggan who reviewed a paper I had written. When she told me how well I had done, I reminded her what my name was and the topic of my paper in case she had mixed up the results. I laugh about that now. And I am sure everyone here has experienced the feeling of never being enough to some degree. You don’t think you are good enough so you don’t apply for a job, you don’t think you’ve pulled your weight so you don’t ask for that promotion or raise. You don’t submit assignments until the deadline is past, not because you are a procrastinator but you don’t think you’ve done your best.

I’ll end this section and my talk by reading you this quote. It spoke loads to me in the moments when I struggled to give myself credit for the work I had done. And it is one of the many reasons why I am confident enough to speak on this stage or at least shake and speak…

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

- Marianne Williamson

One of the reasons we are afraid is because we are not aware that our days, months and years of hard work, learning have yielded results. One day we wake up and we are afraid of who we have become. We wake up and realise we are experts and many others have begun to acknowledge this. Instead of digging in your heels, wake up and be aware of this change and who you have become. Be aware of your own power.

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