Women in tech: new perspectives, new focus
In our ongoing series exploring the experiences of women in tech and the changes that need to be effected to bring equality, diversity, and inclusion to the industry, we reached out to Shalini Palmer, Corporate Vice President, EMEA at Analog Devices. Shalini was able to mine a highly significant career in tech to give us her perspective on the necessary changes.
Why do we need to change the tech industry? From your own experience of bias and sexism, what does the industry look like? What’s your experience been?
I’ve been in this industry for 30 years now. I previously studied electronics and there was no gender diversity then. I was one woman in a class of 50 men. I was already getting into a world that was pretty imbalanced in terms of biases. I’m a British Indian woman and I did face prejudices as a child.
Barriers into challenges – the engineer’s way.
You start to take something like that, which might feel like a barrier, and turn it into a challenge. You look at it as a challenge, as an opportunity to educate and inform. I would think, “How do I get this person on side? What am I going to do differently?” Or, “How do I connect, how do I explain, that the fact that I’m different means I’ve got something to offer here?” When I entered the working world, I could detect it straight away and then you have to deal with it.
It’s been a fight from the beginning. On the other hand, when I first started looking for work, I was offered more roles than my peers… but none of them were in design. There was one company that went as far as to say “We really liked you, but you’d be a distraction on the bench,” so I realised that that wasn’t going to be my home.
But I was offered technical writing roles and roles in distribution, and I was also offered an application for an engineering role. That’s a positive – even 30 years ago, there were companies that said, “Hey, we want something different.” Being female, you bring something different. So overall I would say yes, I did face challenges, I had to work very, very hard to be seen and heard.
Of course, there were times of frustration when you knew you could achieve the same if not more than a male counterpart in a particular role, and there was a reason why you weren’t selected for that promotion or a certain opportunity.
But I would look at that as an opportunity, and ask myself “How do you overcome that?” I concluded that you have to use the people around you to build sponsors, build a network of people who advocate for you.
Unfortunately, this is still going on. I spoke to an undergraduate who was pretty frustrated that she would have an idea and no-one would hear it, then it would be taken by somebody else – and heard.
The challenge of being heard.
Women want to be recognised for what they do. But often, they don’t like to broadcast what they’re doing. They may think, “Well, I’ve delivered these results and leaders will see them and select me for the next role.”
That wasn’t happening, so I had to be more pronounced about my actions, getting more involved and really putting myself out there. Of course, this was uncomfortable. Everyone says, “Oh, you’re very confident and you’re loud.” Maybe now, but I had to learn to be, I had to push myself out there to be heard.
The customers I’ve worked with have been amazing. There was always a little bit of intrigue and surprise when you’d come in, and people are happy when they learn and understand more about what you can do and what you can bring, so I would say in that respect, gender isn’t so much of a topic anymore.
In the last few years of my career I haven’t felt that I’ve been disadvantaged by my gender. If you meet someone you don’t know, then you always have to go through that process of educating them. Of explaining “This is what I do, this is what I can bring.”
Years ago, there were not very many women in the industry, but the few that were there, particularly in the distribution and sales environment, inspired me to think if they could do it, I could do it. As women, I think we just need more encouragement. It’s all about lifting up other women, alongside educating other people around you.
A different perspective.
My experience has been very challenging and I’ve had to work very hard, I’ve had to fight. However, I would also say that there have been moments where it has been a great gift being a woman, even an advantage. I say this because when you’re trying to solve a challenge, as a woman you can bring a completely different perspective – and if they’re listening in the room, it’s of huge value.
Women in tech: the pipeline problem
We’re heartened to hear you say that recently in your career, the inherent sexism hasn’t been as much of an issue for you. But having spoken to other women in tech, what they described as “the pipeline” – the low numbers of women coming into the industry – are still less than ideal.
Arguably, in terms of gender bias, it is better now than it used to be, but yes. My husband says to me, “You should have been where you are now 10 years ago – and if you were a man, you would have been.” But I have a very strong business network of support and people around me who do advocate for me, which has helped me a lot. So I haven’t felt that kind of bias as such with people who know me.
Now, when I’m in an environment with people who don’t know me, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s funny and does make me smile because I know exactly what I need to do, I already know how they’re looking at me and what they think.
Changing the picture.
How do we attract and retain more women into the industry?
This one’s important, particularly with where we are now with some of the newer technologies. Technology reflects its creators, so we’ve got to have balance in terms of who those creators are.
I have a nephew and a niece, and my nephew is very engaged in the digital world and online gaming, and my niece is not. That’s a reflection of the influences they’re exposed to.
Right now in 2023, as opposed to those days of 30 years ago.
Attracting women to tech starts at a very young age, and providing more information about what’s out there, getting them interested in technology, getting girls to engage in STEM subjects and building up that interest at such an impressionable age is crucial. In my own experience, I went to a girls’ school and found my learning to be focused on legal work or domestic science.
For just one year they introduced an electronics O’level. And this was exciting – I hated Biology, so I thought “Oh, I’m going to do this electronics O’level, this is amazing.”
In terms of having the exposure to electronics, that was really it, which I think is evidence that there is definitely more work to be done through the education system. But I think what is emerging now is the importance of how we position this technology and engineering on social media to reach young girls.
It’s lovely to see cars and watches advertised in women’s magazines, which 20 years ago would have been unheard of, and it’s no longer the case that certain toys are “just for boys,” – girls are interested in these topics and advancing in these skills too. I think the key to attracting women is that you’ve got to have role models.
When you are thinking about a potential employer, you’re thinking about where that career can take you. Having diversity at work enables people to envision themselves in that career and is encouraging.
The interview parameters.
One example of this is the support opportunities in the interview process. In my hiring, I make sure to include a diverse range of people in the interviewing process. That entails making sure there’s a mix of gender, age, and background when we interview so that firstly, you get a really diverse set of opinions and views about a candidate, but secondly, candidates see the diversity of the people that they would potentially be working with, so they don’t see a single archetype that we’re looking for.
Another aspect you’ve got to think carefully about as an employer is what you put in your job profile. McKinsey has done quite a lot of research on words that are used within a job profile. There are certain words typically used in a job spec, such as adopting an “assertive” or “aggressive” tone, that can be off-putting for women.
Because in our society as a whole, those traits are seen as being negative in women, and positive in men?
Exactly. A Woman could potentially look at the job spec and think “Oh, that’s definitely not me.” There’s also that well-known thing where if a job spec says it “candidates must have X, Y and Z experience,” women won’t apply for it unless they have exactly those experiences, and more years of experience than are required. Whereas typically, a man would look at that and say, “Well, I can meet five out of the seven criteria they want,” and go for the role. So your wording and tone on a job profile can have an impact on the overall numbers of women in tech.
In Part 2 of this article, Shalini talks about the need for work flexibility as a must-have to get – and retain – women in tech throghout long-term careers.
21 September 2023
20 September 2023
20 September 2023