We interviewed Jennifer Manson , Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Podium on her thoughts and experience on women in tech.
We’re a start-up, so my role is a bit of “anything and everything”. Podium is a user-moderated social network, solving the problems of abuse, misinformation, and toxicity online. This is a big vision, and is the context and purpose behind all the individual tasks I do day-to-day.
My executive role is everything that keeps the company running smoothly, from liaising with accountants and lawyers to co-ordinating business planning. Now that we’re hiring, I also oversee that process, so we can give our job candidates a great experience.
When it comes to our core tech projects, my experience as a games industry producer as well as my early career as a coder means I can comfortably fill the role of project manager.
Another important task at this stage is building relationships with customers and investors, and refining our communication for each of these relationships.
I love the variety of being involved in all these aspects of the business.
I had a natural aptitude for sciences and maths at school, and I was fortunate in that my teachers and parents strongly encouraged me to follow this path. At university, I began studying Electrical Engineering, with an additional course in Computer Science. At the end of my first year, I was invited to join the prestigious Computer Science honours program, so I made the change.
After several years as a high-tech coder, I took some time out of the industry and founded two businesses in other markets. I learned a lot along the way, about how to build and manage a company, but there was only so much difference I could make with services that were not easily scalable. Realising I needed to make a more positive impact in the world, I came back to technology and looked for an inspiring project with a like-minded team – which ultimately resulted in co-founding Podium.
At school, I loved everything – science and maths and music and modern languages and English literature. My teachers were supportive and I was able to take all of these subjects through to the end of school. I passed Grade 8 piano in my final year and was even able to continue with German and Maori at university. As I said earlier, my B.Sc. is in Computer Science (from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand); the breadth of learning has also been of great benefit. Software is always a way of doing something specific, rather than an end in itself, and unusual combinations of skills and knowledge can be very valuable in this industry. I am fascinated by new ideas and continue to read and study a wide range of subjects.
Having the crossover skills of programming and speaking multiple human languages was rare, so I was able to get a job with a Natural Language Translation software company in the summer break between my second and third years at university. Between my third and fourth year, I worked for a commercial software company. Once I graduated I moved to Cambridge, UK, and worked for several start-ups there. I’ve worked on all sorts of software projects: financial instruments, educational software, retail point-of-sale, electron microscope UI, games – and now social media.
Yes, and I think there are a whole lot of factors here. Early expectations play a big role. People assigned female at birth tend to be socialised to fit in. That’s something that needs to change – we want to discover who each individual is, not get them to fit into a box. The aptitudes that make a good coder, or a good scientist, often don’t fit those expectations. I believe there are a lot of women who would be happy and fulfilled in technology careers, who don’t follow that route – because they don’t feel welcome or safe in that environment, or because a lack of role models makes them feel it’s not an option.
Then there are the issues of getting start-up funding as a woman founder. Female-led companies are much less likely to get investment, even though they produce better return. Female investors are also encouraged to take safe investments, instead of higher-risk-greater-potential-return. It’s one thing for women to come into tech and build a career – those things take courage and commitment – but we need to open up entrepreneurial opportunities as well.
I’d also like to address the fact that gender is not a binary thing. We have a full spectrum of non-binary and transgender people to welcome into the industry. A big part of my role is to encourage everyone to thrive and be able to express themselves fully, particularly those whose voices have traditionally been suppressed.
Another factor is the intersectionality of less privileged groups: for example, the challenges are much greater for women of minority race than they are for me as a white woman.
There is that – and there’s also the stereotype of neuro-diversity amongst coders. This is another way early conditioning and later prejudice plays out. Neuro-diverse women are more likely than men to mask their difference, to pretend to be what others expect. The cost of this is high – we need our inventors to be focused on what they can add, rather than spending precious energy on conforming to external ideas of who they should be.
To be encouraged to fully explore their interests and aptitudes, starting from birth; to have people from technology careers to talk to and ask questions; to see role models who are fully expressed and happy and successful.
I think the measurable barriers are reducing, as many companies actively want to hire a broader range of people. The barriers I’ve seen and experienced are less tangible. Many women don’t speak as confidently about their accomplishments and talents; they may not apply for a role if they can’t fulfil 100% of the listed requirements.
And once in, a friendly-competitive culture exists in many teams that can be a barrier to progression. Conditioning can mean that women don’t put themselves forward as quickly, or are unwilling to grab for opportunities at the expense of their colleagues. It’s important for leaders and managers and recruiters to notice when a good candidate or employee is holding back.
Mentoring is a good start. Just having someone to talk to about what’s happening, what they want to do. Personally, I’d be very happy to make time available for 2-3 who are making this journey, either at the start, or wanting to move forward.
Mentors don’t necessarily need to be in the same industry. Successful women in any arena can be a powerful sounding board, encouraging boldness, providing reassurance, and helping you laugh instead of cry when things don’t go to plan.
Know that it’s okay to be who you are, and do what you want to do. It may seem like people are happier if you fit their expectations, but actually, you make a greater contribution by being happy and fulfilled. You can do this loudly or you can do this quietly, whatever suits your temperament best.
If a career in technology appeals to you, follow that. My experience is that if you state what you want, clearly and firmly, people usually accept it; but even if the people around you aren’t supportive, you can still do it – although I know it’s harder if that’s the case.
If you can do a university course, great; if not, you can start learning online. Forums and message boards where people discuss technical challenges can be good for getting a feel for how the industry works. You can engage and ask questions if you’re up for that, but you don’t have to. Once you know the world a bit more, you can move forward, one step at a time.
And finally, be okay with “failure”. Having something not work out does not define you. You learn, you grow, and next time you go in knowing more. Looking back at my own life, there are so many abandoned projects and false starts, where things worked out differently than I wanted or expected. And there have been successes, where I did achieve what I wanted to, but then left those behind to try something new. All these things have been stepping stones to where I am now.