According to Girls Who Code, while women make up 50% of the workforce, they only make up less than 15% of STEM jobs. In a recent study commissioned by CWJobs, 60% of women working in STEM say that they were inspired by a role model, and 7 out of 10 18-24 year olds were inspired by a role model to pursue their chosen career.
As part of our new Now+Next initiative – in which we aim to inspire girls into careers in data, design and technology – our intern Sophie Passaretta talked to different women at Candyspace about their experiences with STEM and what inspired them to pursue a career in digital.
Sophie Passaretta: Thank you for joining me to discuss your experiences within the technology industry. First up, could you briefly introduce yourself and your role at Candyspace?
Charu Tiwari: I’m a QA Engineer and my role involves testing web and mobile solutions to ensure they meet our high quality standards before they are launched.
El Reeve: I am Senior UX Designer at Candyspace, and I’m really passionate about ethical design, accessibility and equity in design.
Michelle Meehan: As Senior Delivery Manager, I ensure that projects are delivered on time and on budget to delight our clients and their customers.
Ally Banham: I joined Candyspace six months ago as a Marketing Executive, so I work on everything from insights and socials to events and awards.
Sophie: Let’s start with talking about your experience of STEM in school?
Michelle: At school I did the international baccalaureate, which meant I studied 10 subjects instead of specialising like you do in A Levels. I studied science and maths all the way through and I felt that IT was really useful knowledge to have so I took that all the way through as well. At the time, digital work was just growing and growing, so everyone felt it was a really beneficial subject to take. We even had a whole IT suite with the latest Macs at the time and technology was a core part of my education experience.
Charu: I’m from a science background and in my school I studied optic for computers. My main subjects were physics, chemistry and maths. At university, I studied Computer Applications for three years and once I graduated, I obtained a masters in Computer Applications in India.
El: I really wanted to be a doctor, so at A Level, I actually took biology, chemistry and English literature because I always loved these subjects. For various reasons while I was at university, it felt like a very isolated place. I decided to leave and then attended King’s College in London to study English Literature and Language.
Ally: I’ll be honest, my experience of STEM in school was actually quite rubbish. When I was 12, I moved abroad and attended an international school. My teachers were really unengaged and I sort of flew under the radar as a student who didn’t thrive in their classes, so I focused more on the humanities instead. My goal was to go to university and become a forensic psychologist, but I was told my A Level choices weren’t appropriate for my desired course of study, so similarly to El, I swapped to English Literature and Creative Writing instead.
Sophie: So some really interesting and different routes into STEM – some positive, some less so…
El: Yes, it was quite a journey!
Sophie: And what would you say inspired each of you to pursue a career in digital?
Charu: Around five years ago, my first job was as a Quality Assurance Engineer, but it wasn’t within digital. Then I moved into a role testing web applications. My role at Candyspace is my first role where I am actually testing digital apps. I enjoy it as it doesn’t usually happen that you are actually using that software product [the ITV Hub] in your real life as well!
El: My dad is a graphic designer and so I grew up surrounded by design. It was very exciting to me as a child and he would be creating these amazing designs and I always found it magical. I also grew up loving video games. With my passion for video games and design, it’s always been a natural part of my life. But I didn’t pursue a career in design and tech at first – it was one of the only times that I took advice from my dad and I shouldn’t have, because he said to me that “a career in design is too competitive El, you won’t like it, you shouldn’t do it”. For some reason I listened to him, and it was the worst advice I’ve ever received! I grew up and realised that every career worth having is competitive, so you may as well be competitive doing something that you love.
Ally: I took inspiration from someone in my life, too. My partner is currently studying for his PhD in Computational Chemistry. I started hearing a lot about the coding and research that he was doing. It sort of reignited a passion for technology that I’d forgotten about in school. He tried to teach me a few bits of coding, and while the most I could do was the basic C++ “Hello, World!” program, it made me realise that maybe digital and technology wasn’t as closed off to me as I’d originally thought.
Sophie: So you came into a role in tech later on in your career?
Ally: That’s right. At the time, I was working at a global law firm, and as much as I loved the experience, there were a lot of times where I was wondering why we were pushing so hard for technology innovations for our clients, but not investing in our in-house technology. I decided to look for a job where technology and innovation would be a part of my day-to-day role.
Michelle: I decided that the quickest way to grow my knowledge was to work at an agency, so that’s where I started. That was kind of my foot in, and the more projects you work on the more you learn about these new technologies. It's a great way to progress your career since it’s constantly changing.
El: I originally started in a different industry as well. When I graduated, I began working in product management in the energy industry. I felt like it wasn’t really for me as it was very dry and there wasn’t any room for creativity, but I found that I really enjoyed problem solving and working with other people and persuading them, motivating them, making their life kind of easier. So I decided that I wanted to apply those skills to working in digital. Eventually I got a job in production management at Candyspace, so even though I wasn’t getting to design or write any code, I was learning all about it and helping people to do their best work.
Sophie: So how did you move into UX?
El: It was after talking to Tom and Martin, the founders of Candyspace, that they provided me with the greatest gift of my working life – they offered me the chance to move sideways into UX design. That was three years ago and I could not love it more. I love my job. I wake up every day and I’m excited to go to work. It's my dream to be here doing what I’m doing.
Sophie: What were some of the other challenges you faced in the industry?
Michelle: As El mentioned, it’s a very competitive industry. There are probably more guys working in digital, if I’m being honest, for a variety of reasons. I think sometimes schools maybe don't push the girls as much towards IT and technology, but I think that is changing now.
El: To be candid with you, I found that in various jobs in my adult life, I discovered that I was not being paid the same as my male peers and luckily for me, I’ve always felt confident and comfortable addressing this with my employers and sorting it out. But it has always been me that has had to be proactive and go and ask them to address an issue. I don’t have those issues at Candyspace at all.
Ally: So my first role in technology was actually in recruitment, and I had a really bad experience with some quite elitist attitudes. During my first week in the role, I was having an introductory chat with a potential candidate with a job when he got quite defensive and started asking me about my background. When I mentioned that I had a Masters in English Literature he immediately said “Well how did you qualify for this then?”. Overall, it made me feel like I didn’t have the ‘right’ to be in the industry, since I didn’t have a tech background. It took quite a while for me to unlearn that perception, and realise that taking a less than conventional route into the industry doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to be here.
El: I think one of the other main challenges being in design and tech is just to keep yourself learning, because it’s a very fast moving world where technology changes on an almost daily basis. For example, 10 years ago people would not have been thinking quite so much about accessibility or equity in design, but now those kinds of things are very rightly – and very long overdue – getting to be at the centre of our radar.
Charu: I agree, I think that to work on ourselves and to get updated in terms of technologies is one of the real challenges in this industry.
Sophie: With all that in mind, what’s some advice you would give to someone who’s just starting out in digital and technology?
Charu: There are so many opportunities, and there’s a lot of technologies and areas that you can go into. Work hard and stay open to updating yourself and growing.
Michelle: I would say try and spread your experience as far as you can, and agencies are a great way to do that. Don’t just focus on one technology, but spread your learning across a variety of them. It’s far more beneficial to know a lot. Just working on multiple projects will teach you so much every time.
Ally: There’s room for everyone. If you think you don’t have the background or you’re unsure of how to make the transition into the industry, know that it isn’t impossible to get there. We need diversity to keep things moving forward. It’s okay to ask questions and it’s okay to get things wrong along the way. There’ll always be someone who can get you back on track or help you understand things a bit better, and most of the time they’re learning just as much as you are. No one starts their career with all of the knowledge and a flawless track record!
El: Not only asking questions but try to develop a mindset where you're comfortable welcoming feedback from your peers and from other people, because feedback is one of the best ways where we learn. You might not always agree with it, but at least be aware of why you don’t agree with it, and don’t take it personally. Don’t settle either – if after a couple of years you're not happy and you feel that it isn’t a good fit, don’t be afraid to try and strike out in a different direction. Don’t be afraid to take some risks.
Now+Next is a partnership programme between Candyspace, MixPanel, Airship and mParticle, inspiring young women and girls into careers in data, design and technology through understanding possibilities, providing connections and gaining experience in data, design and technology. You can read more about the initiative here.