At age 31, I made the decision to change careers into tech. I was working as a Project Manager at the time, and freelancing on the side as an illustrator, and my choice to retrain as a developer may have seemed like a surprise to the people in my life.
Where it all began…
My interest in tech began young, watching Tomorrow’s World and reading magazines about the internet before I even owned a computer. The first PC my mum bought stayed with us for years and was already outdated when we got it, but it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever experienced to be able to connect to the internet and access limitless information whenever I wanted.
However, at a young age, and without anyone to guide me, I found it difficult to piece together the right resources to code the way I wanted to.
A kick-ass science teacher
Serendipitously, a few years later, I was pushed to join an extra-curricular club by my kick-ass science teacher, Ms Malik. It was called a Robot Club, and the aim was to build the best robot possible, with the same materials as everyone else, culminating in a final competition between schools.
“Come on Abigail, you can’t leave me with all the boys!” she joked, and it was enough to convince a 15 year old who hated school to stay another 2-3 hours on a Wednesday.
What she did for me was quite extraordinary, and I think this was an amazing example of women encouraging women. One of the biggest barriers to getting into tech can be the stereotypes that people associate with the role1 – when people think of a programmer, they think of a nerdy guy, and that often means women are overlooked for opportunities.
Internalised bias is tough to beat and can only be overcome by recognising it and taking deliberate steps to counteract it. More often than not, it’s those who’ve been victim to bias before who advocate for others when they have the chance.
Robot club was different from anything else I’d done before, and it was fun! I couldn’t believe how much fun it was! The materials we were given were so broad: hardware to build a robot, some manuals to learn the programming language from which we’d build its operating system, and a bold instruction to just get stuck in and make mistakes. I’d never experienced the comradery of building something like that with a team, and each of us contributed in different but equal ways. I was easily accepted by the group, and although other than me it was made up of entirely of boys, because we were still kids and used to sharing classes, there was no precedent set of it being a male space.
My team-mates were fortunate enough to get a lift from their parents though, and so after the late finish of the club and as winter nights set in, I would get the two buses I needed to catch to get home at the other side of town, in the dark. It was on one of these bus journeys that I was sexually assaulted by a stranger. It was the first time that something had escalated from lude or aggressive remarks (which unfortunately happened to me quite regularly) into action, and the fear and helplessness I felt when the bus driver didn’t stop or even turn around to help were enough to convince me that I could never put myself in that situation again.
I quit the club, and gave a vague excuse to stop any more questions, because the truth felt too embarrassing to talk about. I felt lazy, a flake, and a let-down, and for years I felt so much shame about it, even though my reason for leaving wasn’t at all my fault.
The truth is that shameful feeling stuck with me, and as an adult I haven’t thought much about this incident. I wanted to leave it, and all of the feelings it brought up, in the past. But since starting in my first dev role, and realising how much I love it and that this is what I’m meant to do in life, it’s been on my mind a lot. How much quicker could I have got to where I am? What would my life have looked like, if just being a girl who lived in a poor neighbourhood wasn’t something that put you in physical danger?
Apart from the odd foray into making websites here and there, I didn’t consider coding again for years afterwards, but when I picked it up again in 2020, it felt like meeting up with an old friend.
The importance of collaboration
I found huge communities of developers and fellow learners online, and was directed towards resources that helped expedite my learning in the very early stages (like SheCodes) and gain the teamwork experience I needed to land my first role (by participating in the Collab Lab program).
I feel initiatives like these, that actively encourage women and others who don’t fit the stereotype of what a “dev” looks like, give the room for us to believe that we deserve to learn these skills, and we have a lot to bring to the table, even, and especially if, our path to getting there looks different.
I feel unbelievably lucky to have landed my first developer role here with Herd. Despite the hardships I’ve faced along the way, I’m part of a team that wants me to feel welcome, that gives my opinion weight and listens to what I have to say. A team that give me the same chances to learn and progress as my male co-workers. I know this isn’t the experience everyone has, and there are enough stories out there of women being alienated in their tech workplaces that we know that there’s still work to be done.
What can we do to make these roles more appealing to women?
I’m no expert on this, and I don’t have all the answers. From my own point of view, what I can say is that we need to be mindful that more women may have taken a different path to becoming a developer than men. Women are more likely to be the primary carer for children, and to be the family member that takes care of elderly or sick relatives, and so offering flexibility where possible can make jobs seem like viable options for women with other commitments.
Listen to what we have to say. It isn’t an issue unique to tech that women’s voices are given less credence, that our complaints are more likely to be seen as unimportant gripes rather than serious issues to be tackled. If we raise an issue, whether it’s the behaviour of a male co-worker or not getting chance to talk in meetings, listen carefully and take us seriously.
Finally, remember that even if as a workplace you strive to put all employees on an equal footing, the rest of the world can treat us very differently based purely on our gender. Women like my teacher, who encouraged me to join a club I was apprehensive about, are so important in us taking steps forward. But men like the one who assaulted me can set us back. This isn’t an easy, actionable step, but instead a reminder that you can’t assume someone’s life experiences based on your own or know how hard they may have had to work to reach for a goal that to others is just an arm’s length away.
If you’re a woman who wants to become a developer, the best advice I can give is to find community, and to trust your own instincts! A community, (which could be through Twitter, Reddit, or maybe even a Women Who Code meet-up) will help guide you on your path, find resources, and give you feedback and validation when you need that extra push. But it will be your own instincts that will deliver you to your destination, and in a world that doesn’t always take us seriously, we absolutely deserve to do that for ourselves.
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