The Inclusive Code Podcast - Episode 3: Women in Tech, Authentic Allyship and Unmuting It with Ellen Schwartau

In this episode of the Inclusive Code Podcast, we were joined by the brilliant Ellen Schwartau.

The pair delved into a number of great topics, such as the problems that women in tech face, how an ally can ensure their support is authentic and effective and how overcoming stage fright can serve you in more ways than you think.

Ellen is a leading voice in the DEI space and utilises her experience and platform to support engineers and developers when it comes to career decisions, public speaking and creating blogs and podcasts of their own. 

She is currently offering 1-on-1 mentoring to women and non-binaries who have a background in or are moving towards tech. You can find out more by clicking ⁠here⁠. 

Ellen is a fantastic guess, and we'd wholeheartedly suggest that you head over to ⁠Unmute It⁠ to hear more from her.

To read the study that Ellen references in the episode, click here.

To listen to the full episode with Ellen, click the preview below or head here.

You can also find the full transcript of the episode below.

How did you end up where you are today?

Ellen - I never intended to be a woman in tech. I never had that imagined for myself. So it was more by chance. Actually, I often say by accident, but I think by chance has a way more positive tone to it. But I'm really happy that I ended up in tech.

After I finished school, I always struggled with decisions, and I had no idea what to do. That left me unable to decide anything. My father was like, “Ellen, what are you doing? Do something with your life”, and then I flew to London to be an au pair.

I had a huge goodbye party, and then one week later, I came back because it wasn't what I was hoping for. Then, I started studying transport and logistics for one semester, as I'm from Hamburg and it's known for shipping.

I did 10 weeks of the internship there, and I started the semester and did all the exams. I was so happy, and it took me a while to realise that this was not what I wanted to do. So I quit again. Then, my options were limited because lots of universities had already closed their applications, so I couldn't apply.

Then my big brother said, “Ellen, why don't you look at computer science?” Because he studied it as well. So, actually, it should have been on my radar, but it wasn't. It was in my direct surroundings. Then I went to the university just to talk to a professor about it. The professor completely discouraged me because he said I would never do it in time, and every third person left in the first semester. But I still did it.

I took it as a challenge and signed up for computer science, and I really loved it. The whole process of having a problem, finding a solution and then translating that solution into the machine language really sparks joy. It's great to know, "I did everything behind that, not just the button design but everything that comes behind that website."

Did that initial conversation with that professor fuel you to become a woman in tech?

I think he was telling that story to everyone, to be honest. He wasn't telling that to me because I was a woman. So, I didn't really connect the two parts to one another. But I'm still thinking about that conversation, and I think that it accompanied me a lot during my studies. Also, I think it made me want to finish in time, to finish without failing an exam, to finish whilst I'm already working in a company. I think that I really wanted to give him that finger in his face.

So maybe it was a good speech.

How did you start talking about women in tech and DEI?

Ellen - Most of the things I’m doing are aligned with my profession. But podcasts, blogging, going to meetups, organising meetups and hosting diverse speakers are not my profession. But I'm doing it because it's really important.

I actually didn't start it thinking it would be about women in tech. At first, I wanted to give something back to the tech community because we, as techies, all take advantage of that. We take advantage of other people giving their spare time to share their knowledge with us. I felt the urge to give something back by, for example, giving talks.

How did you overcome your stage fright, and what was the driving force behind it?

Ellen - I have a horrible memory where I had to prepare a presentation which was just 5 to 10 minutes long. I was talking about Facebook, so it was all well-prepared and nothing complex. But I was standing there, and my hands were shaking. I couldn't hold my notes; I couldn't breathe. It was very horrible. I felt really nervous before every presentation.

It took a lot of courage from me to say, "OK, now I'm going on stage, and I'm going to present something to other techies", but I wanted to do it because of the tech community.

Then, before I went on the stage for the first time, I was with my co-host from the podcast, and we were presenting some machine learning stuff. Back then, neural networks were not as popular as they are now. So we were together on the stage, but still, I felt so nervous that I went to get hypnotised. I have no idea if that works, but I really didn't want to end up with another horrible memory.

OH - I completely get the stage fright. I think there's something humbling about it, but also the fear of speaking in front of other people who know what you're talking about is a lot.

Do you do speeches and talks often?

Ellen - I had a couple of ones recently. Just the day before yesterday, I was moderating a meet-up about web accessibility, and then before that, I did an interactive Q&A session about how to speak in public if you hate it. That was a challenge because I'd never done that without having slides prepared, just interacting with the people surrounding me.

And then, before that, I did a talk about web security as well at the DEVFEST. So, now I really need a break because that's enough for this year at least,

But at first, it was really about the tech community thing, and then over time, it changed to wanting to help women in tech be visible. I always have that tiny voice in my ear that says, “Yeah, you only got the spot because you are the woman in tech” I want to convince myself that that's just not true.

Now, I think I like to be a woman in tech on stage to just encourage others and to show others, "Hey, there are women in tech; there are competent women in tech". Then the Unmute It podcast, for example, is a podcast where we only have women speaking.

Normally, we have women talking about topics to unmute women in tech. That's where the name comes from. It sparks so much joy to just work towards that goal.

OH - That's amazing. Because I guess you start finding more and more women in tech as well. More and more connections, more and more empowerment. Because you see, there's someone there, There's someone else there that we can speak to, and then you suddenly you're surrounded by all these women, and you're like, wow, there's so many of us.

How to deal with false allyship and difficult situations

Ellen – At the DEVFEST, it was such a weird situation. There was the welcome speech, and then I went to go and get some coffee, and there was someone shouting behind me, and I was turning around, and he was like, “Hi, are you working in tech? I always wanted to meet a woman in tech.”

I said, “There's a lot of women in tech today.” He then said, “If you could take the chance to get to know me”. I was like, yeah, I'm going to give a talk later, so just join the talk. But I'm not really sure what his intention was or if it was really just about talking to a woman in tech.

OH - There are so many more women in tech at the moment. The more I do this outreach, the more I dive into the DEI community at the moment. I also do my research on tech because I do the recruitment side of things. Obviously, the quantity is very different regarding women in tech, especially in CTO or team lead positions. But there are a lot more than I would have initially thought, if I'm honest. So it is quite empowering to see that it's changing slowly, but it looks like it's changing steadily.

It's also great to see people like you just holding these conversations, just really sticking to it and talking about it, even if you have a full-time job. I think people sometimes feel like our job might not allow us or scrutinise us for doing this or talking about this issue because they might not be OK with it or it might trigger them.

I think it's so important that we still have these conversations regardless. I think it's also important to work in an environment where they can support the ideas and changes you want to carry with you.

The realities of supporting the DEI space alongside work

Ellen - I started Unmute It when I was already working at my current employer, and at first, I was just doing it on the side, so next to my 40-hour week and then at some point, I asked my employer to reduce my hours. Right now, I have every other Friday off, so I have a whole day for the podcast.

So that's how I kind of implemented it. But I also find podcasting does not feel as if I'm working, actually. So it's like if I compare it to when I had this full-time job, and I started the podcast, and then at another point, I started with another project next to work because someone convinced me of a product idea that they had.

That felt much more like working. So I’d spend a Saturday on that and felt like I didn't have a weekend at all. But if I spend a Saturday preparing talks or preparing Instagram posts, cutting an episode or recording them and researching them, that doesn't have the taste of working. It's actually more giving me energy than it's taking from me. No, that's great, that's great.

How you can reach out and make a tangible difference

Ellen - I think there are many small events where I felt like I was making a difference. So, in terms of my company, we started the DEI initiative. That was not only my impulse, but it was popping up. So we were actually working on improving our DEI, checking where we lacked some things, what we could do to improve, and sharing my knowledge, for example, about allyship, what bias is and how we can alter job descriptions.

We've started to analyse our job offerings in terms of bias because, in German, it's even worse because you have these female and male word endings, but there's also bias in English.

Just because the words should be neutral, that doesn't mean that we don't connect something to the word competence or to the word family; there are really nice tests online that show you your biases as well.

That's a very outward-facing thing because our job descriptions now aim to be at least neutral. And besides that, I think the most impact I feel I can have is with mentoring sessions.

Supporting the community through 1-on-1 mentoring

Ellen - I'm offering mentoring sessions to other females or non-binaries in tech if someone wants to talk to me. It's really about recurring topics such as imposter syndrome, how to deal with sexism or how to do public speaking, but also a bit of how I can grow into IT. It's really nice to see people who thought, “Oh, I won’t stay in IT because it’s very masculine,” and convince them to stay in the industry.

It feels great to influence the career of someone who would have otherwise dropped out of IT already, which is a lot of people.

Maybe you can guess how many women in Germany drop out of IT before the age of 45. What do you think the percentage is of how many started a career and don't continue with tech?

OH - Oh my God, I want to say really high, but at the same time, I wish it wasn't that high. I would say, I don't know, my head goes to like 70%.

Ellen - It's more than 90%. So, only one out of 10 women right now stay in IT longer than the age of 45, which is crazy. And I think it's going to improve because the people who are now 45 don't really have many role models they can look up to, and that has already changed.

OH - I never would have guessed that it was that high. It's crazy. I thought I was even too high. Oh my God, that has blown my mind. That is actually crazy. Oh my gosh. Yeah, very sad that that is very sad.

But hopefully our next generation can change that because I think there is a lot of a lot more talk around that, a lot less taboo and a lot of things happening, which is great.

The key do’s and don’ts for allies

Ellen - I think, first of all, it's important to understand what being an ally actually means. For example, I always thought, yes, I'm also an ally for women in tech, but I can't be because I am a woman in tech. The thing about allyship is that you, who are not part of a minority, support the minority.

So it’s supporting someone who's in a wheelchair or me supporting a black woman in IT, for example. That's where I can be an ally. I think for me, in terms of IT, it's a lot about awareness and also being willing to reflect on your own biases, have open ears for what other minorities have to say and maybe even ask them, “Hey, how can I support you in that?”

In the past, I had one experience where I, for the first time, had the feeling that I was mansplained, and I got really angry.

I didn’t say, “You're mansplaining to me right now”, but I was saying, "Hey, why? I find that what you're saying very problematic. Let's talk about that via coffee." Then someone else was like that’s not what Ellen was asking for.

He took the time to talk to that person up front and to explain to him what his mistake was. So the conversation that I had with that person directly started with him being like, “Oh my God, I'm sorry for that”, because he already understood the problem, and that really saved me a lot of energy because what we have to achieve is that minorities don't have to do double the work.

So, we are already disadvantaged in specific situations, and then we have to do the work to improve that. That's not really working. On the other hand, we have to educate or help educate other people in terms of making them able to help us.

OH - I think there is a lot of self-motivation needed for people to educate themselves as well on these topics, on the minorities, and on how they can help. And I think it is great to ask for help and definitely be direct and ask, “What can I do to help you?”

What can we do to help support minorities?

Ellen - I think one thing would be to be active in allyship, but not for false reasons. So we had a podcast episode, which we called False Allyship. The interviewee that we had visiting us was talking about a situation where she was in a team with only women, and only their lead was a man. He was hiring only women. He said that he does it just to support women in that area.

But then, over time, she figured that was not the reason behind it; instead, he was hiring women because he didn't feel that they were as competent and didn’t have to be afraid of them. That was the reason why he was hiring them, because of a sense of superiority.

He was looking down at them and thought, “Yeah, you can never be more competent than I am because I am the man in the team.” So that's what you should not do. Like greenwashing in terms of being CO2 neutral, do it because of the correct reasons and be honest.

OH - I guess there would have been an underlying current as well, not of empowerment for those women but a different underlying current.

Is there anything that you'd say to leaders or team leads or any man in their power position that they can do to help? Is there anything that should be at the forefront of their minds? Because I know that there are statistics out there that people have talked to me about in terms of every number of men, you should be hiring one woman or black woman. What would you say is the right first step?

Ellen - So first of all, I think that everyone needs to understand that doing something for diversity is also doing something for your company because it's an innovation driver. If you only have like-minded people, then there's not really space for discussion and innovation. Also, these excuses like, yeah, we wanted to hire a black person, but there are none applying, then that's maybe because your employer branding is wrong and your employer branding is screaming, yeah, we are all white privileged people.

Do something against that and take your time. And then I think also in terms of leadership, it's important to set the sign to tell your company, “Hey, we have to work on that also from the top and not only from the bottom.”

Then, do the reflection work. Learn about your own biases. Be aware of this, but it should be in everything you do. Be aware that if there is a person not on the same level as you, there is a drop in power involved. And be aware of what that can do to the person with less power than you.

One thing a listener can do to make a difference

Ellen - Check out the culture calendar and add it to your work calendar to, for example, see, OK, it is Ramadan now, so maybe people who are fasting aren't up to speed or up to their normal energy level and be aware of what's going on in other cultures.

OH - Oh, I love that. That's such a that's such a good tip.

Ellen’s aha moment

Ellen - So I had an aha moment about being a woman in tech, and it was how I found out about my misogyny. When I was little, for example, I was playing soccer, or if I was talking to you about it to other people, I was always thinking, yeah, I'm not that typical girl, but that's misogyny at its best. Because by thinking or by saying that, I was talking down to every other girl who is that typical girl. So that's a very, very good example.

And then also when I started my IT career, there were people saying, oh, you don't look like a typical programmer. At first, I took that as a compliment because it was something where I stood out. But it's not a compliment because it's degrading every programmer to be that stereotype of sitting in a cellar all day and not talking to people. And IT needs so many communication skills. That’s when I figured, OK, that's not good taking that as a compliment.

I actually only recently figured out that being a woman in tech consumes so mucb energy because I was part of a programme which is called Women Tech Makers or Women Developers Academy. It's a programme by Google where they search for women who have 3 years of experience and want to learn how to do public speaking.

It supports them in being skilled enough to go on stage and to be visible as a woman in tech. There were only women; it was like 40 women in tech, and it was really easy. You didn't have to explain anything. The fact that that was so easy for me was the first time that I realised.

So that was my aha moment where I recognised that there is something very subtle that is not easy in my general working surroundings.

OH - I had a similar experience. I worked in a very male-dominated industry as well before moving into my current role, which was in film. So, I worked in the film industry, and I remember I had an exact moment like that when we were shooting this semi-nude scene where one of the actresses didn't want any men in the room.

I ended up being the camera operator for the scene, and we were all just women, and we were all just looking at each other like, this is so easy like this feels so much easier. This feels so different.

I just remember having that same feeling of, wow, this is so easy. We don't need to explain anything like it's just flowing. It's crazy because we spend our lives being pinned against each other, especially as young women. But then, when we come together and let ourselves be together as women, the space just completely shifts.

We're all going through very similar experiences, and we're all women. And when we come together, we're actually really powerful. And it's insane to see that when you grow up, and you suddenly untangle all of these ideas that you've been taught through films, through television, through society, and you're like, wow, when we work together, we're actually incredibly powerful.

The DEI struggle across industries and companies

Ellen - Since we are talking about different industries now, there are industries where it is even worse. So medicine, for example, I don't want to know how it is to work at a hospital for example. In tech, we have a very privileged position because we don't have to stand it if something is sexist because we can just go somewhere else. So our companies have to take care of that.

And then often also companies say something like, yeah, I mean it's not that bad at our company, look at this and that company and how much better it already is here. That's not an excuse; the devil is in the details.

For example, if a company has a 50/50 women and men percentage of people who are employed, start looking at leadership; how does it develop there? Because it gets thinner the more you go up in the hierarchy. So it's really, really in the details.

Being sceptical about that stuff is annoying. It would be way better if you could just believe all this data, but you really have to go into the details. And also, it's not about just the numbers; it's also about what you do about it. You can't just hire diverse people and then not be able to give them the environment and the culture to really thrive because it's about treating them equally, which is not about giving everyone the same tools.


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25th March