We interviewed Laura Kirsop, Head of Product Management at FutureLearn on her experience and thoughts on women in tech.
I work in product management. When people talk about products they usually mean digital products like websites, apps and hardware. As a product manager you are responsible for working out how to make a product successful and prioritising and leading the work that your team do. You work day-to-day with software engineers and product designers and just about everyone else in the business too. It’s really fun as you are constantly uncovering problems and working out how to give your users what they need. I now line manage all of our product managers and really love helping them improve and develop. I am also responsible for processes across the product teams and getting things done effectively.
Honestly, it was a bit of an accident. I used to be a primary school teacher and grew really frustrated with the old-fashioned curriculum so I got the kids blogging, coding and making digital films as a way of inspiring them (and myself). I also got really involved with introducing the new computing curriculum and have worked in education technology ever since.
No, I studied sociology at undergrad and did mostly humanities A-Levels. I always had really terrible STEM teachers at school and thought technology, maths and science were really boring subjects. In my spare time I taught myself to make websites and was really interested in nerdy things like space but never made the connection between this and related school subjects.
While I was teaching I got involved with Code Club (a global network of free coding clubs for 9–13 year olds) and my school had one of the first clubs. We were on Newsround and everything! When Code Club first got funding the founder offered me a job and I made the leap out of teaching and into education technology. We built the organisation together and I learnt about managing digital products and building and running a team. It was a steep learning curve, but fun.
Yes, women are underrepresented in that they make up just 17% of the tech workforce according to Women In Tech. It also feels very white and middle class compared to other industries I have worked in. I have, however, had a great deal of support from the people I’ve worked with and lots of people want to change things so it’s not totally bleak!
I think this stereotype has developed in recent decades but it’s changing thanks to the hard work of a lot of organisations and leaders who are creating different narratives… but we’ve still got a way to go. I think the work that organisations like Stemettes do is brilliant and we need more things like this for young people.
I think we have to start in schools with teachers. If we have great teachers that are passionate and knowledgeable about STEM and inclusivity then this will pay off in the future with kids that are inspired to learn more formally or informally. I am excited about the National Centre for Computing Education as I think it will give teachers the high quality training that they desperately need.
There are two types of barriers. One is igniting that initial passion which will lead to young women choosing to learn about technology. The other barrier people face comes when they make it into the industry; an industry that is overwhelmingly male is not going to be inclusive for women without a lot of effort from the people working in it. We’ve all heard the horror stories about sexism and discrimination in tech so I think leaders in tech have a responsibility to create anti-sexist, anti-racist, pro-diversity cultures in their organisations.
I think knowing what career you want is really hard and a lot of people are like me — they stumble into things by accident, following their interests. I hadn’t even heard of product management until I was about 27! I think we need to tell more jargon-free, accessible stories about the diverse range of jobs available in tech and make sure young people are hearing them. This is why I think STEM Ambassadors is such a great idea. As an industry we could also be more open to hiring people who want to move into tech from another industry.
Don’t panic and be patient — there is no rush. You have to work for many decades so you have a looong time to figure out what you’re passionate about and find a job you love that pays the bills. I also wish I’d been less afraid of failing and more honest when I didn’t know things. Asking for help and support from other people and admitting you’re not perfect (yet) is ok!