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A powerful polyphony of women’s voices at Spiria

March 10, 2022.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we gathered women employees at Spiria for a virtual round table to hear them talk about women in the field of digital technology, on how far we have come, what remains to be done, and what inspires them on any given day.

A huge shout out to Andreea Bobaru, Erika Randall, Isabelle Thériault, Julia Correa, Laura Blanchard, Magali Bélanger-Bonneau, Vanessa Galiana and Zakia Messaoudi for taking some time out of their busy day to share their experiences with us, as well as their thoughts and hopes.

We can’t help but notice that a minority of women hold jobs as software developers. Do you think this has changed since you started your career?

Laura’s observation is that more women are getting into digital, but Zakia has noticed a gap in Quebec. “I find that in Quebec, there aren’t many women in software development. There were more women in my computer science studies program outside of Quebec.” When she started her career here, she mentioned this to women colleagues who had a few more years’ experience. They mused that “the numbers had gone up at some point, but then fell again.”

Vanessa is seeing tentative progress, but it’s not enough, of course. “There’s more awareness and a better acceptance of the issue. It’s become easier to talk about our concerns and challenges. The support isn’t always as concrete as I’d like, but the situation is improving.”

How can we improve diversity and the inclusion of women in traditionally male-dominated fields?

Magali feels that mutual support and solidarity will lead to progress. “I think it’s important to create communities within companies in which women can share the challenges they face with each other. It’s so reassuring to realize that we have allies!”

Julia recommends reaching out to young people “by taking part in school activities in some way or another, such as science fairs. Women programmers from Spiria should go speak about the work they do here, how they got here, the challenges they deal with and the opportunities that have helped them along.”

Vanessa agrees that what young people hear is critical. “You have to start them early, encourage girls, and present them with ideas, topics, and jobs they might not even know existed.” What’s more, she asks men to pitch in. “I would also like for men to reach out to their women colleagues. Support them in meetings, echo their words and ask them to share their thoughts.” Basically, Erika is putting out a call. “Give women a voice and a platform. Stand up for them. Amplify their voices. Let women know that they’ve already succeeded in moving the needle in the software industry and that they’re helping open the way to a more inclusive future. Let them blaze a trail and others will follow. Show women that their point of view is valued, and that sexism, deliberate or not, is no longer tolerated.”

Zakia commented that “We can’t hire women who aren’t on the job market. Unfortunately, there aren’t many women in our field”, and complemented Julia and Vanessa’s suggestions: “Children should become aware of the field earlier in life. Secondary school is better than nothing, but it’s already too late in some cases, when the choice of what to do or not do has already been made. You need more activities and workshops in primary school, and ideally, it should be part of the curriculum.”

For her part, Laura thinks that Spiria should make a more sustained effort to place women in positions we’re not used to seeing them in – in the IT department for example, or in the role of Dev Lead.

Do you think that women bring a specific added value to the field of software development?

According to Zakia, we have to look at things in a broader context: that of inclusion and diversity. “It’s not only the specific things that women contribute, but also the diversity that comes in their wake. With greater diversity, we gain more ways to approach and solve problems. We’re also overlooking the concept of generational mix. We usually talk about what the most senior can teach the more junior, but we forget to mention young people’s contribution: a fresh outlook, spontaneity, new points of view and ways of operating. Sure, that makes us question ourselves sometimes. But let’s not forget how much richer an encounter between different cultures, lifestyles and experiences makes us.”

Andreea is convinced that women bring a different and essential perspective, and that their workstyle within a team tends to be more imbued with warmth and humanity.

Based on Julia’s experience, women are more organized and meticulous than men, both important qualities she looks for in software development.

Isabelle has found that you get a better product when software is developed in teams that are not homogenous. “To better meet the varied expectations of a multiplicity of users, you need a diversified team with divergent skills who value and see things differently. We usually attribute qualities such as cooperation and empathy to people who identify as women. These capabilities are an undeniable asset on a team.”

Erika is on the same wavelength and adds, “It’s crucial to have multiple points of view when developing software. The solutions and products we come up with must reflect users’ needs, and these users and their needs are as messy and complicated as we are. If we understand users and can stand in their shoes, anticipate their needs and solve their problem, then our work will be that much more effective, and we will have a greater impact. An entire perspective would be missing without women in the field of software development.” She goes on to say, “Though it’s definitely not a gender-related quality, women usually bring to software development a deeper emotional intelligence, and an elevated level of communication and empathy.”

At some point in your career, have you ever been treated differently because you’re a woman? How did you respond?

Though some on the panel hadn’t encountered this dismaying scenario, it was unfortunately not the case for everyone.

Magali: “No, since I started my career, I’ve been fortunate to work with inclusive groups and managers who wanted their team to shine. Ultimately, regardless of gender, the least we can ask for is a respectful work environment.”

Zakia isn’t sure she’s encountered this, but perhaps that’s due to her outlook. “I might have been in this type of situation, but I always attribute the cause to something else. By not paying any attention to this kind of barrier, I haven’t penned myself in. I do what needs to be done, to the best of my ability, and then a little more, and things naturally follow. If you fixate on problems, you’ll inevitably encounter them. A good place to start is using positive thinking and persistence.”

Julia has averted these situations, at the cost of wearing an armor that she’s now trying to shed. “I was lucky in that I don’t think I was ever treated differently, but I also think it’s because people saw me as a strong person who wasn’t afraid to say what she thought and to raise her voice to be heard. This trait gave the impression that I was hard and thick-skinned. At first, that didn’t bother me. Perhaps my behaviour was a direct reflection of my work environment, or perhaps I didn’t want to appear insecure. Eventually, I realized that that wasn’t the way I wanted to be perceived. I wanted to change and to learn to assert myself without coming across as aggressive. Some of the key elements on this professional and personal journey were, and still are, having a solid team I can trust and who trusts me, noticing the behaviours I no longer want to engage in, and understanding that asking for help and being vulnerable is fine. It’s a continuous improvement process that makes it possible to adapt to the changing realities of a world in constant flux.”

Andreea, on the other hand, has seen a difference in how she was treated and changed her habits in order to be heard. “It’s so strange to be a woman in her twenties and to take part in meetings organized by and for men who neither want nor need my opinion. So we tend to speak louder, to be more articulate, less emotional and generally more masculine than we would otherwise be, just so we can express our ideas and opinions.”

Laura dealt with discriminatory treatment, not within the company but at the hands of a client. “Yes, I had a client who was clearly misogynistic, who didn’t speak to me as he would to other men. The way he saw it, I was inherently incompetent. A few years ago, this kind of behavior could deeply affect me, to the point that I sometimes lost confidence in myself. But now, with maturity and experience, I am able to take a much more detached approach to these situations. I tell myself that I can’t take ownership of people’s problematic behaviors in general, and that it doesn’t concern me. It helps me move forward and stay focused on my goals!”

Erika’s experience leaves no room for doubt. “Absolutely, 100% affirmative. I experienced all kinds of situations. Whether it was having my abilities or my experience dismissed, being mistaken for an assistant, getting interrupted mid-sentence, my contributions being ignored, being called “emotional” when I insisted on making myself heard… And then being subjected to inappropriate comments and advances from both clients and colleagues (…) I learned to be firm, to hold my ground and to defend my interests. I civilly and indirectly refer to my experience and the reason why I’m here. Generally, I start from the premise that most people do not intend to harm others and are not aware of the impact they have. (…) When it comes to inappropriate comments, we must adopt a zero-tolerance policy. Women – and men – need a safe space to flag these issues internally and to receive the necessary support to get out of an undesirable situation.” Erika clarified that this zero-tolerance policy should be fully applicable to clients as well, even if it means risking a relationship with the client or losing an account.

Have you noticed a glass ceiling in our field? What is your advice for women who wish to pursue a leadership role in a predominantly male field such as software development?

The glass ceiling doesn’t limit people based on gender alone, says Isabelle. “Several demographic groups bump their heads on the glass ceiling: women of course, but also older and younger people, and new Canadians. Inclusion is a long-term goal that requires perseverance given that humans are the way they are – meaning, more inclined to gather with like individuals, as several studies have shown.” Isabelle’s advice to those groups is to rely on their expertise and credibility. “People who are committed to and passionate about their work will find it much easier to break through this glass ceiling. Besides, shouldn’t management teams be exclusively made up of this type of person?”

Zakia points out that the ceiling isn’t necessarily where you expect to find it. “Truth be told, I never saw a ceiling, except when I built it myself…”

To rise to a leadership role, Magali recommends above all else taking risks and taking full responsibility for your career goals. “Get rid of the imposter syndrome by any means. You must acknowledge your successes and be unafraid to take credit for them. Talk to your manager about your hopes, and together work out a plan to develop into the role that you see yourself in. The key to success is preparation, work, and communication. Ask nothing, get nothing.”

Julia confirms that one must take risks and be unafraid. “Speak up, assert yourself, prepare to argue your case, and be yourself! People can sense when someone isn’t being true to themself.”

Vanessa also mentions self-affirmation. “I strongly encourage you to express yourself when something’s not right, even if it’s hard, even if no one is listening. It’s about speaking your truth so that at the end of the day, you can be satisfied that you did what had to be done. Each time you do this, you’re helping to pave the way for another woman. Change isn’t instantaneous, be patient. It’s a long game so don’t give up.”

So then tell us, what are the key qualities necessary to become a good leader?

Magali, who has a leadership role at Spiria as Finance Director, shares tips based on her own experience. “In my mind, a good leader practices transparency and integrity. You have to instill a sense of trust in your team and I’d even add, to dare to influence people, to encourage them to leave their comfort zone and take risks. That’s how a team grows and projects reach the next level. Needless to say, you have to surround yourself with the right people. Even better is when people on your team are the experts in their field. Delegate so these experts contribute their points of view, and they will certainly move the project forward more effectively.”

To build this kind of trust, Zakia recommends that we “listen with empathy, but above all, stay true to ourselves. There should be no disconnect between what we say and what we do.”

The concepts of empathy and integrity recur frequently. “Empathy, integrity and listening skills are, I think, essential qualities in a good leader. And I’m pleased to say that I notice these qualities in Spiria’s management team,” says Julia.

Laura maintains that good leadership starts with listening, experience, and effective speaking skills. For Vanessa, this involves not only listening skills but also the ability to inspire and motivate. “A good leader leads by example. They inspire those around them, they challenge them, but above all, they listen. Strong leaders are transparent and own up to their mistakes. They are their team’s biggest fan and, when push comes to shove, they step up and stand up for their team.”

“Good leaders should have a clear vision of the assignment. They should be able to communicate this concisely while also incorporating the team’s ideas in the strategy. Easier said than done! Above all, it takes a lot of self-confidence to set clear and realistic goals,” explains Isabelle. “Also, a generous dollop of humility helps when adjusting one’s strategy to take into account the ideas that colleagues bring to the table.”

In the early ‘70s, Robert K. Greenleaf introduced the concept of “servant leadership.” Ever since she found out about it, Andreea is a vocal proponent. “Someone recently turned me on to the notion of servant leadership, and I wonder where it was my whole life! It embodies everything in a good leader: nurturing, present, at the service of the team, and especially, they get that they’re not the center of the universe. A project doesn’t go far with just managers with no worker bees, just as a company is only a logo without its employees!”

And last, Erika thinks along the same lines. “A good leader makes room for colleagues to take risks, to make informed decisions and to develop their innate competencies. They trust their team and support it through thick and thin. Their approach to leadership is human-centered.”

What are your hopes and forecast for the future of the tech industry?

Obviously, our panel unanimously wants more women and more inclusivity in the field, especially in leadership roles. Erika brings ethics to our attention. “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. We must be mindful of technology’s impact as it increasingly permeates our daily lives.”

What is your advice for the next generation?

Andreea: “Check your insecurities, imposter syndrome and tendency to want to please people!”

Laura: “Stay true to yourself and your beliefs.”

Isabelle: “Dream, work, stick to it and be giving! Hard work isn’t fashionable, but to feel pride in yourself, you have to surpass yourself, and that requires effort and perseverance!”

Julia: “In these chaotic times, we can’t underestimate the strength that comes from understanding our past. As with work, we learn from experience, our own and that of others. Ask for assistance, you don’t have all the answers. We are stronger and less pressured as a team. So reach out as soon as you feel the need for a helping hand.”

Vanessa: “Don’t let anyone, least of all yourself, dim your light. You have so much to offer, let it shine. You’ll inspire others to do the same. Don’t play in the hands of society that pits women against one another. We are stronger together.”

Zakia: “Do it! Leave your comfort zone and your beaten path, blaze your own trail!”

And finally, what inspires you?

Andreea: “The kindness and courage of decent people. The beauty of our planet. And the unconditional and guileless love that dogs have for their humans.”

Isabelle: “I’m inspired by people who have simple yet innovative ideas that help their community and society as a whole. I’m so impressed with those who find a way to execute a project that initially nobody believed in. You know, those stories about people who persevered to realize an impossible dream. I’m a sucker for all stories about passion, courage and perseverance, and I try to include those values in my journey.

Julia: “People working together, helping each other, and having fun while doing it. Work hard, play hard.”

Laura: “Seeing women fight to abolish stereotypes. Noticing the freedom of speech around feminist concepts and approach in general — and for once, this is where I find that social networks have an immense power of positive influence. And to witness that change. Slowly, for sure, but it’s shifting.”

Vanessa: “I’m very inspired by the immigrant women in my family and those I’ve met throughout my life. The reason I’m here in this country today is because of the sacrifice and arduous work of Carmen Estrada, my grandmother. I often think of her when things get difficult. She fought to work at a bank when she was quite young. She supported her family financially after her father was murdered for speaking out against the dictatorship in Spain. Everything she did, she did it for her family. To me, she was sweet Grandmother, but as I grew older, I realized the extraordinary strength this woman had. On a lighter note, I’m inspired by the kindness of strangers. When they seemingly have nothing to gain, it’s truly a good deed.”

Zakia: “Challenges. To feel that you can make a difference in the quality of people’s lives and in their professional development. And especially, to make their work life more motivated and fulfilling.”