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A mental toolkit for solving problems

Renee Hawkins was excited by the prospect of a challenging career that required her to use of all of the things she’d learned.

“I was one of those people who loved problem solving, maths and physics,” says Renee Hawkins. “I wasn’t good at reciting facts and history, but ask me to solve a maths problem and I’m going to get excited about how to do it.”

She explains that rather than knowing the dates of battles or listing presidents, she felt engaged by challenges that demanded she use a mental toolkit of analytical skills. To that end, she studied mechanical engineering before taking her first job with a software consultancy.

“Part of software development is business analysis,” she says. “I’d use what I learned on my degree and my problem solving skills to explain the business case to technical people, and make the technical stuff clear for business people. I was like a translator, really.”

She now works for ThoughtWorks, a software developer whose clients include the Trainline website and Channel 4. While she’s never encountered problems being a woman in her chosen field, she acknowledges that “you do brush up against stereotypes a lot”. She’s also aware of a gender imbalance throughout the technology sphere.

“I graduated in the late 1990s and I think I was one of four girls in a programme of several thousand,” she says. “I’ve been on many projects where I’ve been the only girl.”

To redress the balance, Hawkins explains that ThoughtWorks puts a lot of energy into recruiting women, but also into getting them interested in technology from an early age. The company works with school children in the London borough of Hackney, which she believes is crucial: “Unless you get kids excited in technology they’re going to go down a different path and you won’t have that pool of talent to draw on.”

Educators can do more, she claims. “It’s horrific what they teach in IT lessons. Education needs to change and we need to move away from stereotypes. We need to give girls iPads as well as dolls; there just needs to be more balance.”

The industry is open to finding that equilibrium, according to Hawkins. “I’m working on a project where there are a great number of female developers and the guys they’re working with are really receptive to them,” she says.

Ultimately. a mixed team is a more complete one, she believes. “Women approach things differently to men, and that’s why we need more women in technology. I’ve found throughout my career that having a different perspective is so important.”

Knowledge is your secret weapon

Emma Harvey’s route into technology career wasn’t planned. “I think really I fell into it,” she says. “I went to work for an advertising firm in the late 1990s who happened to be doing websites. It was all new and exciting; a lot of the time I was showing people websites for the first time.”

Having stumbled upon “the perfect career” that combined her twin passions for creativity and maths, Harvey taught herself to code and now heads up Numiko, a digital agency specialising in building websites, mobile apps and games. But early on she spent a lot of time as the only woman. “There’s been a huge imbalance,” she says, suggesting that even now “you’ll be doing well” if women comprise 25 per cent of an organisation. “I’ve worked with a couple of female designers and coders in the past 13 years, but they’ve been rare.”

Has being the lone woman ever presented challenges? “Culturally, I don’t know if the industry was ready for us when we went into it,” she laughs, recalling IT directors who “assumed I was the PA and that someone else would be coming in soon. I’d constantly be tested on my technical knowledge, but that was my secret weapon really – it was so unexpected to men that I’d have technical skills that when I did, it gave me the advantage.”

Nowadays she tries to create teams with a balance of men and women, although she admits that there remains a “skills shortage” when it comes to prospective female employees. Addressing that issue and attracting more women is important for the sector, she says.

“Team dynamics change when it’s a single gender team,” she explains. “I wouldn’t recommend having an all male, or all female, team. You need a good mix of experience, abilities and attributes, which means having people of both sexes. Then you will get a rounded view, because you have a rounded team.”

For Harvey, the key to encouraging women into the industry is considering how people are first introduced to technology, and how early. “We need to make the technology accessible to people who aren’t interested in technology,” she says. “We should focus on what it enables people to do, rather than what it is.”

Once that interest is switched on there’s the potential for a fulfilling career, she says. “It’s very varied. And it’s exciting to produce things that touch people’s lives, that they talk about and use.”