April 8, 2021

Women in Tech: Personal Reflections from 3 Generations

Diversity and inclusion are at the top of many tech company’s agendas – and as a woman who has been in tech for more than 30 years I wonder if I can make any reflections based on my own experiences. Why is gender diversity still such an issue that we need to set corporate targets around it?

Importance of role models in your close family

I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s as the eldest of 3 sisters in an academic family. My father was a professor at Chalmers University and my mother had a career in the City Planning Department in the city of Gothenburg. What was a bit unusual at that time in Sweden was that my mother went back to work after 6 months maternity leave and we kids were taken care of by au pairs. So, for me equal opportunity to focus on your career has always been the norm and in that part my mother was a role model for combining both family and a job she really enjoyed. But she was also, which I perhaps then did not consider, a role model for being an early woman in tech.

My mother grew up in a working-class family, in which all three children actually managed to complete university studies. I wondered what inspired her to enroll at the Civil Engineering program at globally-ranked Chalmers University in the late 50s. At that time, she was the only woman in the program and the second ever to complete it. What was that like? I now know her role model was her brother, who was 14 years older than her, who had done the same studies. She was inspired by his career, which involved travelling around the world constructing bridges to improve transport infrastructure in both Africa and Central America.

So, when my time came to choose a university education I decided, after some consideration, to study at Chalmers University to get a broad and international education. But what topic should I chose? I did not want to work in an industrial environment and physics sounded too abstract. At that time there were 64bit computers available for kids to program with, for example, BASIC, but that had never attracted me so I had little practical experience from computers. I still chose Computer Science, though, and I imagined working as an IT consultant in a nice, high-tech office. But even if at that time I was not clear on what I would actually do in that nice, high-tech office, my vision was enough motivation to sign up. I remember it as an important decision in life based on emotions more than facts.

When I enrolled, we were around 15 women out of 120 accepted to the program. During my years at Chalmers, I never felt excluded or treated differently – perhaps because I was brought up with both my parents having done the same studies. Maybe that’s why I didn’t see any patterns in how I was treated differently from my male friends – if I even was?

Today, my 2 eldest daughters are the third generation to study at the same university, which is amazing. I have really made a point of not trying to influence my children’s decisions in adult life – I believe they have to have an inner drive, no matter what they choose. When asking my oldest, she said it was because she had seen both me and my husband having international jobs we enjoyed, with a lot of exciting business travel to exotic places. During the last 10 years or so I have in both my former role at Ericsson and currently at Tele2 been involved in delivering fantastic digital solutions which improve lives, creates smarter cities, etc. I have of course shared this excitement at home, which also has inspired my daughters to see what tech, especially ICT, can do.

So, my first reflection is that being in a family where the parents have equal and real opportunities “vaccinates” you from accepting special treatment due to gender. I never saw myself as different from my male fiends. And role models, male or female, in your close family is important even if you don’t see it at the time, because it might be difficult to understand what an education can lead to in terms of job roles.

Importance of managers and corporate culture

My first ever manager after graduating from University was a woman. I started working at a small IT company developing business support systems and from a gender perspective the company was very diverse, even if I didn’t reflect upon it at the time. I actually started the same day as a male friend from university and we had the same opportunities to develop in the company, despite there not being any stated diversity targets. So, I had a very fortunate start in my professional life.

A few years later I joined a joint venture between Ericsson and HP, EHPT, which was a high growth start up in tech. When I started in 1995, there were 30 of us, and 7 years later some 1000+ on all continents.

A year after starting my position I had my first daughter. I followed my mother’s approach and, after 6 months parental leave, returned to the Product Manager position I previously held. But then there was a specific and decisive moment in my career. My manager’s manager, Lars, approached me while we had a company exhibition in Rome and said he wanted me on the leadership team as Head of Business Development and Strategy. Wow – that was something I would at that time never had considered for myself. But I trusted him and took on my first manager role and really enjoyed it. Lars gave me the confidence I have used ever since when approaching new challenges, and I believe having this kind of manager or sponsor is extremely important, especially for women, as we tend to be conservative about our own capabilities. Research has shown that women often want to be sure that we can do a job before we apply.

During the end of the 90s the diversity topic was raised and my company tried in different ways to recruit diversity in terms of gender, nationality, etc. They even used me as one of 4 employees in a recruitment campaign – I appeared on the side of a tram and in full page ads in national newspapers. By using a number of “wanted profiles” represented by real employees, the company hoped to attract different categories. Unfortunately, I do not know if it was successful, but some of my female colleagues from that time have leading roles in both local and global tech organizations today, such as Ericsson, Sweco, Swedavia, Volvo Cars, etc. So, there is no doubt it was a great environment for a woman in tech grow and develop in many different ways.

This leads me to my second reflection, which is that it is important to pick the right corporate culture and manager early on to build confidence in your abilities and get roles where you can develop and deliver value.

Why is there still a gender imbalance in tech?

In the late 80s when I studied at Chalmers there were some programs which were more or less balanced in terms of gender, such as chemistry. But Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, etc. didn’t have that same balance. Since then, though, the University has spent more than three decades trying to increase female enrollment through campaigns, workshops, and mentoring, but progress is slow. The million-dollar question is why? My personal view is that perhaps women are more driven by the value created by tech, not the tech in itself. My daughters say that that is what is driving them in their choices: being able to apply tech, not necessarily develop it. So, if that is not clear to young women, they chose other studies, and they might choose different paths with clearer value creation.

Important things are happening, though. I think that we will see some really positive results by making programming a mandatory subject in Swedish schools – this would be an opportunity to expose everyone to a real, practical tech subject. In doing that, hopefully more girls will be attracted to ICT, more women will graduate with technical degrees from universities, and then more women will work in tech in general – and there will no longer be an excuse for the current imbalance at the top of many organizations.

Is this a social tipping point? I really hope so. Today it is a hygiene factor for a company to have a clear stand on sustainability issues – we accept nothing less from suppliers, employers, etc. When will diversity have the same significance for business? At the end of the day, it is all comes down to business – and we know that today a diverse culture is crucial to every company’s bottom line.

Linda Ekener Magi
Business Development Manager
Tele2 IoT

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