Empowering Women in Tech is an interview series by Templeton & Partners aimed at women in the tech field to share, learn from and get inspired by one another.
Despite some improvements in gender equality in today's society, men still dominate certain industries - and gender bias is particularly strong in the tech landscape. There is no secret that women are a minority in the tech sector, from the general IT workforce up through management and leadership roles. As of 2022, women hold just 26.7% of tech-related jobs. Notably, compared to entry-level roles, roles higher up in the organisational chart (like CTOs or heads of departments) have even lower representation of women.
Evidently, many systemic problems still need to be addressed for women to achieve greater equality in tech, including gaps in STEM degrees, inequality in pay and opportunities, lack of female mentors and workplace culture issues. However, along with the challenges, many success stories of women break the gender stereotypes in the world of technology.
For this month's Empowering Women in Tech, we interviewed Thérèse Struik, a Kanban & Scrum Master, Agile coach and Co-Founder of La Parfumista. Thérèse has been in the tech field for the past 15 years, and she shares with us her inspiring journey in a male-dominated industry with the hope of encouraging more women into tech and leadership roles.
Let's hear from Thérèse what it is like to be a woman working in tech and her stimulating perspectives on workplace gender diversity.
Thérèse, can you share a little bit about yourself?
Well, I started my career as a textile engineer, where I learned a lot about the chemicals you need to create textiles, the production, marketing and sales processes, and the IT behind it. While deciding my next career steps, I took on a management traineeship at a Dutch company that operated internationally. That was a very valuable experience for me. I learned a lot, travelled the world and met many great people.
At the same time, I was also in the marketing and sales department of the company, and that was when I started to grow more into business and marketing roles. So I became their business unit manager, and then I went into communications. After that, I reached NIMA, the Netherlands Institute of Marketing, where I became a community manager. At NIMA, I worked with many volunteers from the marketing field, from marketing directors to marketers, and we all had one thing in common: our passion for marketing.
That was quite a crazy ride, it seems. But how did you go from textile engineering and marketing to tech? What influenced you to pursue a career in IT?
Well, that's a good question. The transition started when I was working at NIMA. There, I used to help organise huge events and seminars. One day, there was this guy on stage from a company specialising in artificial intelligence and AI marketing solutions. This person presented an intriguing case study from a bank that used AI and customer intelligence to develop new marketing campaigns. The technology behind that fascinated me. So, I rolled into the artificial intelligence field and started working with that company. That was 15 years ago, I think.
During that time, I was also introduced to the agile methodology. Together with my team of software developers and consultants, we were trying to find ways to work more rapidly in delivering software. So, we started experimenting with the agile way of working. You know, the difference between the customer's expectation and the deliverable is more significant when you work in bigger circles. To improve that, we went into working and delivering in sprints, and it worked.
Coming to today, what is your current role in the field?
My current role is to make companies aware of the benefits of the agile way of working, look at their state and problems, and decide whether an agile methodology would be applicable in each case and whether it would solve the company's problems. In these cases, I work as a consultant, but I also help teams, as a scrum master, to improve their way of working and help them deliver better value to their customers. My office is in Utrecht, but I usually work on my customers' premises around the Netherlands and abroad.
Would you consider yourself a tech professional?
Well, that's a difficult question. I mean, I love tech. I'm a real nerd, to be honest. I love all the robot things, AI and business intelligence, and I'm genuinely addicted to smart tech. But, I also think you cannot see the technology isolated anymore. Nowadays, almost every part of a business process and the customer journey is digitised, and you can't always draw a line between what is tech and what is not. So, what is really a tech professional? For instance, I see many people, primarily from tech backgrounds growing into marketing processes. If a software developer is building a website, for example, they need to dive into the customer experience side as well.
In my case, it is the same. I love agile, and I've implemented it mostly in tech. But I've also worked with teams in different sectors and departments looking to speed up and improve their processes, from marketing to finance. Therefore, I can't say if I'm a tech professional, but I know that my work and passion are very much attached to the tech industry.
What has it been like for you, as a woman, to work primarily with men in a male-dominated industry?
I realised early in my career that I was in a male-dominated industry. For instance, I would enter into meetings with clients, look around the table and suddenly think, "Oh my God, I'm the only woman in the room". But I have always tried to look at it positively and have never encountered any negative experiences. No one ever thought I was the secretary or the girl that brings in the coffee, for example. I've always been treated nicely, and most men would be pleased that finally a woman has entered the room and the business. I guess I have been one of the lucky ones.
Why do you think there are still so few females in the tech sector?
Nowadays, I'm thrilled to see more and more female software developers coming into the business. However, women still remain vastly underrepresented in IT and tech-related roles, and I think the problem starts with the educational system. From a very young age, women are told that certain things are hard for them and that the "hard-core" subjects, like mathematics or chemistry, are not really for girls. So, it's only natural to start questioning your abilities and underestimate yourself. At least, that is what happened in my case. And since the whole STEM education is mainly male-focused, girls are more likely to become indifferent towards sciences and technology.
What do you think should be done to encourage more women to choose careers in tech and rectify the imbalance?
If we want to see any change at all, this change should start from the educational institutes. They need to spice it up a little for women, mostly the STEM subjects. School and society push women into careers that mainly involve communication and teamwork. On the other hand, they convince men that they have an aptitude for sciences and technology, if not for manual labour. This is why in marketing and communication roles, you see more women than men, or in software engineering positions, there are more men than women.
One way to rectify the gender imbalances amongst industries could be through the MarTech example. The MarTech industry combines two totally different sectors (marketing and technology), appealing to women and men who work together in perfect harmony and learn from one another. If STEM education would promote some of MarTech's values, then maybe more women could witness that technology can be a fascinating and inclusive field.
Technology is a vast field, and women should know this. For example, you don't need just the developers when you're building an app. You also need people who will test the product and promote it, as well as people with organisational skills to ensure that all the processes will run smoothly. I think that if we encourage all these aspects, more and more women will be drawn into tech.
What do you have to say about the gender pay gap in the tech industry, and have you ever felt that you had to work harder than your male colleagues to advance your career?
I started experiencing these discriminations while I was climbing higher up the ladder. When I had my first team, I noticed the pay gap and that women were not getting promoted as often as men - and I was totally flabbergasted by these facts. So, from day one, the first thing I did was grant the same salaries to men and women because I think the only way to change things is by starting with yourself. I was determined to set a better example for myself and others.
We've been talking a lot about gender inequalities, but women aren't the only underrepresented group in tech. What can be done to make tech more diverse across race, class, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or even age?
That's true. Unfortunately, the gender pay gap isn't the only gap that needs to be closed – not only in tech but in all industries.
In fact, from my experience, tech is one of the most diverse industries at the moment. The sector is more open to people from different backgrounds and cultures than other industries. I've also been in communication and marketing departments, mostly of white people or people who don't "look" diverse.
But to answer your question, the power to make workplaces more diverse lies primarily in the hands of the "gatekeepers", the people who make the hiring decisions. Those people must understand that the colour of one's skin or ethnicity is irrelevant to how much they should earn. Who they love or how old they are can't indicate how many career opportunities they've been presented with. Neither a piece of paper nor their gender can define whether they're worthy or competent for the position.
The past few years have seen a significant improvement in diversity and inclusion. Can you think of any great initiative that actually helped promote workplace diversity?
Well, I have some in mind. When I was working as a consultant for an international bank, we all joined the Diwali party, regardless of our background or religion. Also, when I was working with Shell, during Ramadan we talked with our Muslim colleagues about their heritage and the meaning of Ramadan. These kinds of initiatives are great for team bonding and can help a team better understand each other's backgrounds and perspectives.
Ten years ago, you could never see something like that take place within a company. It's cool to see how things are changing for the better and how everyone willingly contributes to building more inclusive workplaces.
Thérèse, can you recall the most positive experience in your career, your proudest moment?
My proudest moment was when I started my own company. At that point, I had spent way too many years convincing myself that I wasn't ready, needed more experience, and had the time to do that later in my life. In reality, I was just scared that I wasn't good enough to do something on my own and would fail. So, when I finally made up my mind to start my own business, in a sense, I was liberating myself from my fears, and it was such an incredible feeling! I'll never forget the day that I sent out my own invoice.
Another great career moment was the day I had drinks with my own team – it was a pretty awesome Friday afternoon.
Growing up, who was your female role model?
I still really, really admire Coco Chanel for starting her own company in the totally male-dominated society of the early 1920's. It still amazes me how she managed to do that and become one of the century's most influential people. She was a powerful and inspiring woman that never ceased to chase her dreams and always stood up for her beliefs.
What would you advise the young women deciding to enter the tech industry?
To all the young women out there: Don't be afraid to pursue what you're really passionate about. You're much stronger than you think. And it's okay to stumble and sometimes fall while following your dream. That's part of the process: You learn from your mistakes and downfalls, you get up stronger, and you do it better next time.
That’s an excellent piece of advice. Do you wish somebody had told you that when you were struggling?
My boyfriend gave me that advice. When I was afraid I would fail, he told me that it is better to fail and know you've tried than to regret knowing you've never tried. That would have been my worst nightmare.
A big thank you to Thérèse for a great interview.
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