The Fight for the Future: Leading Female Technologists Discuss Lessons Learned

Eight winners from this year's Women in Technology and Data Awards provide advice for career advancement in a male-dominated field.

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This issue of Waters is dedicated to honoring the many women in the capital markets who are making an impact in the fields of technology and data. If the industry is to improve workforce and pay equality, it’s vital to examine how these women earned their place at the table. We look at the current state of women in tech and get feedback from some of this year’s winners as to lessons learned along the way. By Anthony Malakian, Josephine Gallagher, James Rundle and Wei-Shen Wong

When Sallianne Taylor and Debra Walton—the winners of the woman of the year and trailblazer awards, respectively, in this year’s Women in Technology and Data Awards—started their careers three decades ago, the capital markets were dominated by men. While improvements have been made in some areas, when it comes to technology jobs, progress has been painfully slow.

According to the 2018 Women in Tech Index, which looked at gender disparity in 41 countries and is produced by developer-focused job platform Honeypot, women account for 46.7 percent of the overall workforce. That number plummets to 16.2 percent for technology jobs. In the US it is only slightly improved, with women accounting for only 24.6 percent of tech jobs, while in the UK it’s also 16.2 percent. 

And it must be acknowledged that for all of these figures from above, it only gets worse for women of color. Yes, these numbers are bleak but they’re important to understand. If there are fewer women in tech both working as professionals and studying in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to find examples of success, which will exacerbate the problem. 

Any discussion around the treatment of women in the workplace also cannot ignore the elephant in the room, in terms of workplace harassment. As former Goldman Sachs analyst Bethany McLean expertly laid out in an article published in the March 2018 issue of Vanity Fair“We All Wear All Black Every Day”—Wall Street has yet to have its #MeToo moment when it comes to harassment in the workplace. 

The April issue of Waters aims to both honor the standouts in the fields of technology and data, but to also provide some insights and lessons learned from their careers, and to assess some of the challenges still facing women in the field at present. Here’s what our winners had to say.

Embrace the Grind

Technology can be a humbling field. There’s so much trial and error involved in all aspects of capital-markets technology—there are outages and breakdowns and hacks; there are long nights and the need to work seven days a week; and there’s a sea of requests for improved functionality, but to do it at cost and with fewer resources. 

But the figures covering the representation of women in the field, which were hardly stellar to begin with, are worrisome. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the number of women holding jobs in computing occupations is dwindling. In 1991, 36 percent of computing occupations were held by women—an all-time high. That percentage has fallen fairly consistently and sits at about 25 percent today. Furthermore, the percentage of women receiving undergraduate degrees in computer and information sciences majors has steadily fallen since 2000, as have recipients of mathematics and science degrees, while engineering majors have remained flat in that time. 

Mariya Kurchuk is seven years into her career at Pragma Securities. She holds a PhD in electrical engineering from Columbia University in New York. While she could have played it safe and became an academic in the field or applied her expertise in electrical engineering at an IBM or Lockheed Martin, she was looking for a new challenge out of university and ended up in the capital markets. 

Her advice to young women who are still in school is to always actively look for something challenging and out of their comfort zone.

“Look for something that you fear is too hard, rather than something at which you will likely do well but that won’t challenge you,” she says. But if you do that, understand that there will be mistakes learned—in which case, it’s key to learn to live, learn and move on.

“The most valuable lessons that I have learned, and in reality am still working through, is the importance of being comfortable with failure and uncertainty,” Kurchuk says. “I have learned that I should not wait to get a high level of certainty that something will work to avoid failure, thereby falling into the pitfalls of indecision, but to get just enough information and confidence to deem it worthwhile to try a solution, accept that it might fail a couple of times, learn and adjust. Though it is something I am still learning, I am attuned to it.”

Hella Hoffmann, data scientist at Thomson Reuters, echoes that sentiment. “Importantly, I learned that uncertainty can be an enabler for change and that experimenting, validating and pivoting can be a much more rewarding process than trying to imagine all possible outcomes,” she says.

Embrace Aggression 

Beyond understanding that mistakes will be made, and that can’t be a source of discouragement, one common refrain heard from many of the winners is that women need to be assertive if they want to rise to senior positions. 

Jennifer Peve, who is the co-head of the Depository Trust and Clearing Corp.’s office of fintech strategy, says that it’s important to let people see your confidence and don’t be afraid to show your knowledge of the industry, product or service that you’re working with. Your opinion matters. Accept that, and then make sure that you’re asking for what you feel you need.

“Ask for what you want—whether that’s a raise, additional resources, training, education around a different product or service,” Peve says. “You may not get everything, but if you don’t ask, then you don’t have a chance. That’s been a really important lesson.”

It’s not just a case of a squeaky wheel getting the oil, either—there is a serious issue with gender disparity in terms of representation, and pay, at the top levels. Digging into the executive branch, according to a study conducted by the research firm Payscale, women in the tech industry only represent 21 percent of executives, compared to 36 percent in other industries. Women executives make 22 percent less than their male counterparts, while a step below that, female directors make 18 percent less than their male colleagues.   

Expanding on what Peve says about valuing your opinion, Cristina Mures, senior consultant at CJC, says that even though this is a male-dominated industry, it’s important to know your own strengths and contributions.

“Whilst it’s true that this is a male-dominated industry, I have never looked at it as a battle drawn along gender-based lines. I have always believed that no matter what industry you work in, success is gender-neutral,” she says. “I believe it is equally important to be accountable for your mistakes as it is your successes.”

Additionally, in a male-dominated industry, it’s important that women don’t segregate themselves from other women, says Dawn Patrick, COO of Numerix. 

“Men have always had their clubs. You know they go and they play golf. You know they have these things, these activities they do together and they have never been a really good vehicle for women,” she says. “So it is really important that in every organization that the women in that organization mentor and help to show ways that new workers can develop.”

Embrace the Innovation

While technology can be complex, there are many avenues that can be traversed in the capital markets, being that the field is so vast. 

Boryana Racheva-Iotova holds an MSc in probability and statistics from Sofia University and a doctor of science degree—a qualification of even higher academic standing than a PhD—in statistics from Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. She’s currently the director of risk research for FactSet. 

Like Pragma’s Kurchuk, she could have taken her vast education in a number of directions, but liked the possibilities that finance presented.

“Getting into finance was a practical decision for me—because of my education in probability and statistics I knew that I could do applied science and, in particular, quant finance well,” she says. “My inspiration, however, was not directly related to finance—it always was and continues to be to take something from the world of ideas and make it real, visible.”

And to get younger generations to take up STEM fields, it’s vital to show just how interesting these tech projects can be. The use of the word “vital” is not just hyperbole, either. As more and more jobs require technical backgrounds, the result is that the best jobs of the future will require STEM skills. According to McKinsey Global Institute, 32 percent of the workforce in the US will need to find new jobs due to automation. 

Furthermore, a study produced by analytics firm Burning Glass, in conjunction with Oracle Academy, looked at 26 million online job postings from 2015 in the US and found that “half of jobs in the top income quartile ($57,000 or more per year) are in occupations which commonly require coding skills from job applicants.” Sadly, though, the educational organization Girls Who Code notes that in 1995, 37 percent of computer scientists were women. Today, that number is only 24 percent. And fewer than 20 percent of computer science graduates are women.

That’s why initiatives such as the RBC Teaching Kids to Code program are so important. Kim Prado, global head of client insight, banking and digital channels technology at RBC Capital Markets, says it’s strategically important for the bank to develop a pipeline to find new talent and to get kids interested in technology. 

“One of the biggest appeals of working in technology is the variety and pace of evolution inherent in the sector,” says Prado, whose career features several major projects that she was a part of, especially in the field of data analytics. “I am also committed to ensuring that, as a sector, technology is doing as much as possible to develop a pipeline of new talent. We’ve been running the RBC Teaching Kids to Code initiative for the past several years, while we also spend a lot of time working with various external bodies that go to schools and other professional settings to increase the appeal of technology as a career for women.”

The obstacles facing women in technology are real and pervasive. It’s easy to get discouraged. There will be times when a woman has to do twice as much as a man to succeed, forcing them to adapt, improvise and overcome—and that’s where mentoring becomes most valuable. A study by nonprofit Isaca, which was previously known as the Information Systems Audit and Control Association, asked over 500 women working in technology what the main barriers for advancement were—the two leading responses were lack of mentors (48 percent) and lack of female role models in the field (42 percent).

And sometimes, the key is to forge a path regardless of obstacles, if you can. Emma Margetts was a co-founder of Alpha Exchange, acquired by Visible Alpha in 2017, where she’s now the senior project manager. She says she’s been successful because she never focused on the fact that she’s a woman in a male-dominated world; rather, she concentrated on making herself invaluable and an expert in her field.

“My advice for women is to spend your life doing something that you are interested in and that you love regardless of how many men might dominate in the field. One of the ways I think about doing this is holding myself to the standard of excellence and putting in the hours to make a difference in moving my business and my career forward,” Margetts says. “I think women can fall into a trap of waiting their turn or holding back in meetings in the workplace or not speaking up at the table; I think that’s really prevalent and I think that one of the best things that we can do as women is just to speak up and get used to your own voice, and others [get] used to your voice.” 

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