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March 24, 2022

Breaking the Bias in Tech: A Conversation with Zoé Collins

The theme for International Women’s Day this month is #BreaktheBias, and in light of that The Equal Group hosted a Women in STEM webinar, focusing on the current state of gender equality across the UK’s STEM industry. The session was an informative one, full of insightful contributions from an amazing panel of experts. One of the panelists was Zoé Collins: an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) consultant at The Equal Group. After the webinar, I had the opportunity to catch up with Zoé to learn more about her experiences in the technology sector and what advice she would give to others.  

Zakiya: Let’s start with an introduction. Tell us a bit about who Zoé Collins is?

Zoé: Zoé Collins is an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) consultant focused on helping organisations reach their EDI goals by using data and listening to staff. I’ve worked in fashion, energy, government, housing and healthcare so I’ve done quite a few projects across the globe in different industries, but my main focus is on empowering young women to progress in their careers. I look at what things EDI wise can be a barrier for them. Is it their race, sexual orientation, what they identify as or is it their age?

Zakiya: You’re currently working as an EDI consultant but you used to work as a Technology Change and Communications Analyst. What’s your career journey been like and how did you end up getting involved in the technology industry?

Zoé: I’ve always wanted to do something that helps others be their best self and I’ve always been very efficient at problem solving, but I never really knew where I could go with that.

After graduating from university in Events Management and Public Relations, I had my eye on an online fashion company that was just starting up. However, my qualifications couldn’t get me in so I saw a role for Service Engineering and thought ‘I can problem solve, I’m quick on my feet, I can do all of that’, but only after starting the role did I realise that;

1) this is a tech role and this is what tech looked like

2) this is a place I would be able to learn and grow because I didn’t have to know everything beforehand.

I made sure to shadow people and really understand what being a Service Engineer was and from that experience I noticed that there was a huge gap in relation to women in tech jobs in the workplace. It was predominantly men and it still is to an extent, but there were not a lot of women and women who identified outside of being white.

I thought more needs to be done to empower women to get more involved in technology, so I put on an event that brought women together where women in high positions within technology, spoke to recent female graduates who wanted to switch to a career in tech and those who wanted to progress. Essentially, we all shared our thoughts, ideas, encouragement and from that event I realised that this is what I want to do.  I want to invoke change and that’s how I ended up becoming a technology change manager, learning all about behavioural and transformational change.

Zakiya: The socialisation of women in regards to technology was a huge topic that was discussed during the webinar. Can you tell us about your own experiences growing up?

Zoé: Back when I was growing up, we weren’t told that you can become an engineer or work in technology as a woman. Instead, we were told these are the toys you should play with, these are the clothes you should wear, these are the certain careers you should go after and that you are basically here to an extent to serve the man. That’s why growing up I thought that technology and engineering was something manly and not what women do.

I also think that a person’s location and the background of their parents play a huge role. My parents are first generation migrants and the London borough that we lived in had a high concentration of pregnancies so rather than telling us about career options, all the girls were simply told ‘don’t get pregnant’. Looking back there was so much more that school could have taught us in regards to aiming high and pursuing STEM careers.

I also feel like that when it comes to technology people are just shown the coding or language options, when in fact you can do anything from being a project manager and change manager to an agile delivery coach. You can be anything but people just don’t know, so for me it's about putting that information in front of people.

Zakiya: We know about the under-representation of women in technology, but there’s even fewer women of colour working in the sector. So as a Black woman in the tech industry, how did you find that experience?

Zoé: It was an interesting experience. I think I was excited at the time and still am because I still consider myself a techie, but it was also hard because at first you question whether you are meant to be here and if your skills are good enough. As a Black woman you also have to face the fact that some people may view you as aggressive or too feisty, so you then worry about your level of intellect and not wanting to come across as one of those stereotypes. To make sure you don’t leave a bad impression you end up code-switching and having imposter syndrome.

On top of that, I did not see many women who looked like me in senior positions. This is why it was so important for me in my previous company to organise these women into tech events, where there were women who looked like me to show others that it is possible. It is a challenge as a Black woman in tech, but I think things have changed and are continuing to slowly change.  Now there is greater representation, you even have pages on Twitter dedicated to Black Girls in technology.

Zakiya: How did you deal with overcoming imposter syndrome?

Zoé: Imposter syndrome is when you doubt yourself and your ability so you end up thinking you’re a fraud who is not capable of doing something because of your background, or maybe truthfully, your lack of ability at the time. When it comes to imposter syndrome women in particular are focused on what they don’t have rather than what they do have and what skills they can bring. Are you able to plan? Are you able to help facilitate and be a good manager? For example, when it came to roles outside of coding, a lot of it is about people management so I had to tap into what I did and didn’t know. For the stuff I didn’t know, I thought how can I get it? Is it by attending webinars, taking a course or utilising platforms such as Meetup?

You might feel like an imposter but remember that’s about 10% true because there are so many other skills that you do have. That being said, do not be oblivious and think that you know everything. Be honest with yourself, identify where the gaps are and go get it. Also, acknowledge that this is not going to be an overnight process, it’s going to be a journey so give yourself time and grace.

Being confident and self-motivating is also important. Every day before I used to go to work, I would say ‘I belong here, I know I belong here, so what can I learn.’ And honestly, by constantly telling myself that it helped so much.

Zakiya: What do you think can be done then to make the technology industry more diverse across race and gender?

Zoé: One of the things that can be done to make tech more diverse and that is being done more frequently now, is organisations that have a technology element in them exploring talent in less conventional places.  For example, go on Eventbrite, go on Twitter and explore where people are going to search for jobs and careers. When I used to work at the online fashion organisation, I made sure they went to a festival and exhibited there and since then they have been attending and intentionally sourcing talent from there.

I would also say that as women we need to be especially conscious of what we represent in the positions that we are in. If you are a woman working in STEM, you don’t necessarily need to be a role model, but you do need to be aware of the people around you. Have open, honest conversations and see what you can do to engage the younger generation with STEM.

It’s all about having conversations and creating room to uplift other women too. Many times I’ve heard women saying “there’s this woman I know who is in a senior position, but I feel like she is the type to pull the ladder up behind her. We can see from this that representation is there, but it’s an illusion. This is why you have to be mindful about what you look like to others, especially when you are in that kind of senior position.

Zakiya: How can men, and those in privileged positions, become better allies to their marginalised co-workers?

Zoé: One thing that I think men and organisations can do is conduct an audit, because you don’t know your problem until you know what your problem is. You might be saying ‘yeah I support women in tech’, but there may already be a lot of women in technology within your organisation that you didn’t even know existed. Therefore, do an audit, understand the demographic of your organisation, understand the policies and recruitment processes. This way if there are women in your organisation that you didn’t know about, you can then work on highlighting, encouraging, motivating them and ensuring they are aware of the career progression opportunities for them. However, if there are not a lot of women in your organisation, now you are aware and you can see the areas you are lacking and what steps you need to take to change this. Overall, it’s all about knowing.                                              

Also, then it comes to events such as International Women’s Day, these sessions should not just be filled with women. They should be full of men too since they are the ones who can also influence and pass on knowledge to younger generations. It's about men taking part in these conversations and not simply asking women ‘what do you want?’, because it isn’t them who created the problem, so why should they have to fix it alone.  

Zakiya: It’s no secret that there is a lack of Black women in senior positions within the technology industry. How can organisations and employers go about improving this?

Zoé: In my previous role there was always a limit to women in senior roles. For example, they could be managers, but they were never in CEO or director positions.

What I would say to women who want to go into senior positions is

1) educate yourself in the area that you want to go into and do not be oblivious or naive about the gaps in your knowledge.

2) Document all the great things you have done.

I always say to anyone I interact with that if you receive good feedback, save it. Note it down because when it comes to applying for a new role and the employer asks you for evidence, you can just show them your list to back yourself up. This is not because people are doubting your ability or you need to always prove yourself, but rather it’s a practice that simply supports how great you already are.

Zakiya: Is there anything you wish someone would have told you before starting your career?

Zoé: When I was at school or had finished university, I wish someone would have told me that it’s okay to not know what you want to do. As a society and also due to my African background, you are very much told that you have to go to school, then get married, then have kids ect. When in reality, you can do everything at your own pace or even not at all if you don’t want to.

When it comes to careers as well, don’t feel like you have to stick to something just because it’s what you have been told to do. If you have a passion for something else or want to explore areas like technology, engineering or the sciences, then go for it. Take a chance and see how you can make it work in your life. And as a final point, if you are in a conversation and you don’t understand an acronym (these are used a lot in tech) then just ask! I can guarantee that there is someone else who also doesn’t understand.

Zakiya: And finally, what piece of advice would you give to young women who want to get into the technology industry?

Zoé: I would say that the tech industry is massive! There is so much room for you and although it might seem as though everyone is a techie now, remember there is always space so don’t ever feel like you will be rejected. I would also say read, research and explore if there is an area you want to learn more about. Engage in events, free online courses, training and tap into all the resources that are available nowadays.

Even when you begin to doubt yourself, remember that you belong there because there is a set of skills and expertise that are missing from the industry that only you have and so we are waiting for you to come.

Click here to watch Break the Bias: Women in STEM Webinar