KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 3 — The world's first computer programmer was a woman. It was a woman too, who pioneered the development of programming languages in English.
Why then is the tech world seen as a man's domain? Perhaps it's because of Silicon Valley names such as Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs and what soon grew into what many call the “tech bro” culture.
It doesn't help that pop culture perpetuates the notion that men are the true geeks, as examplified by the boorishness of shows such as Big Bang Theory. In it, the men are the smart ones while the female lead is blonde, sexy and supposedly not that smart.
IT for women then and now
I spoke to three women working in the tech field to get their take on what it's like these days, and compare it to my own.
When I graduated in IT in the early 2000s, I remember struggling to get taken seriously. “You speak so well, are you sure you wouldn't rather be in marketing?”
Then when I ended up editing a tech magazine, I'd often get asked at briefings if something was “too technical” for me.
Never mind that I have a certificate in IT hardware as well as vocational certification as an IT trainer, or that I did my honours thesis on search engines.
My experience seemed worlds away from what I heard from three different women in IT development, who I met on the sidelines of the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2019 in San Jose, California.
Hong Zhou is the product co-founder of Makaron, a quirky AI-powered photo-editing app. The app has over 30 million users and was on Apple's App Store list of the best local apps in China for 2018.
In her previous role with a video firm, she was primarily coordinating between the tech and product divisions, but with Versa Inc, she works with an algorithm to create a product that appeals to users.
Women, Zhou says, are seen as having an edge for Internet firms in China. As women form a large segment of their target audience, it would be natural that women too would be able to more easily identify the point-of-demand from women.
Lareina Ting, an iOS engineer with the Rakuten Viki streaming service, concurs saying she thinks that women engineers go beyond just being engineers.
“We are sensitive towards our users,” she said. From her perspective, women engineers often look at development from a product point of view.
“We shouldn't just be engineers; we should also think about our users at the same time.”
Brenda Lau, a mobile app developer at Malaysia's Apptivity Lab, said that app development for her isn't just something you do within a room.
“It's about wanting to create something great. Something that everyone needs.” And that is something that goes beyond the gender divide.
More women, inevitably
From Ting's perspective, she sees IT as being more attractive to women in Singapore.
“More and more women are seeing that the IT industry is not so foreign to us,” she said, noting similar trends in Malaysia.
Lau said personally she never saw IT as something gender-related: “It was just (a field) I enjoy.”
Zhou said that in China, there was a trend for more women to join the IT sector. As someone working in algorithm engineering, she was also seeing more women becoming algorithm engineers.
“In the internet companies, they are holding better positions nowadays than before.”
The numbers back her up: a KPMG survey in 2016 found that women held 19 per cent of IT leadership roles, a 14 percentage point increase from the year before.
Greater China in the survey placed third in terms of female IT leadership behind Hong Kong and Norway
As it stands, only 25 per cent of computing jobs are held by women.
Whether that will change in the next few years is anyone's guess but as these three women have shown ― there's still opportunity and a chance for a fulfilling career in the field.