How women in cloud are challenging the narrative

Woman clicking on cloud
Woman touching a cloud (Image credit: Shutterstock)

It’s no secret the IT industry is heavily male-dominated, with women traditionally struggling to achieve representation for reasons ranging from implicit bias to discouragement from taking up STEM subjects at school.

While there are plenty of success stories, important to recognise as we approach International Women’s Day, there are also tales that speak to toxic work cultures, workplace discrimination, and women being overlooked for opportunities.

The last few years have heard a crescendo in the commotion on ‘women in tech’, although it’s hardly translated into concrete improvements. For instance, progress has stalled for the Tech Talent Charter (TTC), an organisation dedicated to raising gender balance in the UK. Women held just 24% of technical roles among TTC signatories last year, a 2% dip against figures from 2018.

The picture isn’t unified across the entire tech landscape, however. The exciting frontier of cloud computing is challenging the narrative, Ingram Micro Cloud’s Microsoft business manager Violetta Yordanova tells IT Pro, with the sector’s rapid expansion opening up new opportunities and roles for women to fill.

“As cloud is a relatively new technology, my experience of being a ‘woman in tech’ may not be typical, as the cloud industry is extremely diverse,” Yordanova says. “In fact, my team has an equal gender split with a real mix of personalities, cultures and strengths from people who grew up with this technology.”

Her experiences are reflected by those of F5 Networks’ principal threat evangelist with the office of the CTO, Lori MacVittie, who feels the cloud industry is more welcoming because there’s less of an ‘establishment’.

“Whether it’s coincidental or not, the rise of cloud was accompanied by a significant drive to recognise and support women ‘in cloud’,” MacVittie explains. “The culture of the cloud industry is very welcoming and cloud as a technology is often credited as democratising the resources needed for women to take their place as entrepreneurs.”

Startups tend to be more progressive because technology has allowed women to more effectively drive their ideas to fruition, she adds. There’s been an explosion of women-led cloud startups, partially fuelled by a rise of flexible working practices.

“The adoption of cloud-based solutions in the workplace has also meant that it’s easier to balance work and life, because the tools you need to work are always accessible from anywhere – even home,” she continues. “I see that accessibility as broadening corporate acceptance of remote work when it’s necessary and alleviates stress on women who struggle with work-life balance.”

While many, including MacVittie and Yordanova, recognise differences, for senior software engineer with Red Hat, Rebecca Simmonds, these are few and far between, despite the fact the growing cloud segment is fed with plenty of resources, she tells IT Pro.

“At Red Hat, we have equal opportunities for all of the different sectors in the company, not just cloud. So my experience as I have moved around different companies is that as long as you are willing to work hard then there are similar opportunities in any of the tech sectors,” Simmonds says.

Despite these opportunities, the challenges that women face persist, albeit differing from person-to-person. For Simmonds, as she moved from a startup to a Java EE company, and then to Red Hat, she has felt pressured into always needing to demonstrate her expertise.

“Proving myself and making a great impression when meeting people has been the biggest challenge I had to tackle,” she says. “Women in the tech sector are still stigmatised, and I constantly feel pressured to demonstrate my knowledge. The good thing is that it’s really motivated me to work harder, push my limits, and fight the stereotypes in the industry.”

It’s similar to the experiences of F5 Networks’ MacVittie, meanwhile, who hasn’t come across many roadblocks based on her gender, although there are aspects of workplace relationships with men that have proven frustrating.

“Throughout my career I have experienced male colleagues who wouldn’t take direction from a woman, and also men at conferences who are completely taken aback when they realise I know what I am talking about,” she says. “My question is, what made you assume I didn’t? It’s frustrating but something I try to move past quickly – you can’t let people like that bring you down!”

She also sees wrestling with career progression a major challenge, especially as women become more established in their roles and industries. There are, she adds, fewer options to progress the more established one becomes, with women having to be more strategic about their personal development to ensure they have the skills needed to advance.

“The challenge, in early stages, is to establish yourself in your field of expertise and figure out how to build a reputation that will help you later when you start planning more strategically. Choosing a company that best suits your priorities for your career and life is an important factor in balancing both. If your priority is family, you don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t respect that. If your priority is your career, you want to make sure there are opportunities to [progress] where you work.”

This represents only half of the equation, however, argues head of EMEA and VP of global customer experience with Dropbox, Adrienne Gormley. Effective management plays a critical role in personal development, and women must be empowered to feel at ease with the demands of their work and home lives.

“I really believe that it’s part of being an effective manager today to help others balance their life at home with work, and to model setting boundaries for your team,” she says. “We can bring empathy for the pressures of home life into the workplace, underlining that we understand the demands on individuals, whether as parents, or carers looking after a relative or other commitments. Looking at how we can make the workplace easier for people is deeply important to me: how we can help alleviate the pressure of trying to do it all.”

Gormley’s biggest piece of advice is for women to set their boundaries early on in their careers, and take an active role in their futures. Moreover, if something isn’t working, take a risk and speak up, or ultimately make a move.

“Different people will be there for you, but they come and go, ultimately it’s your journey. The sooner you understand that, the sooner you can really be empowered to make choices and changes, and your actions will help shape the workplace at large.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.