Women in tech need other women in tech
Olivia Vahsen
Mar 8, 2021
Life at TomTom

Women in tech need other women in tech

Olivia Vahsen
Developer advocate
Mar 8, 20215 min read
Women in tech need other women in tech
Women empowering other women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematic fields starts early – a personal recount.
Editor’s note: As part of our coverage on Women in Tech, Olivia-Christiana Vahsen, Developer advocate, has been reflecting on the career journey for women in tech. At TomTom, we’ve worked hard to build a diverse workforce offering unique skillsets while reflecting the world we serve, and acknowledge that there’s still progress to be made. Olivia looks to the beginning of her career journey to find the meaningful touchpoints to keep women of all ages in STEM.

This International Women’s Day, I’m looking to the past and present, thinking about all the women who have helped me get to where I am, and my team who still support me today. Looking back, I realized that there hasn’t been much discussion on the value of women-centric spaces in STEM. This is an opportunity for change, as I believe these spaces can make all the difference for young women entering these fields, and even work to demystify tech for women cautious of a career change.



Showing young women that STEM is for them, too

This year is not the first time I’ve thought about what magic touchpoints really opened my mind to working in tech in the first place. To give credit where credit is due, I had to work backwards.

For years now, any person searching “Women in Tech” on the internet is usually met with pages of lopsided statistics of representation in engineering programs at universities, as well as management in technical areas – following a trail of breadcrumbs up the proverbial corporate ladder. I always wondered, at what age does the gender ratio begin? At least from what I remember, girls always seemed to excel at math and science throughout my schooling. By the time I graduated high school, hardly any young women I knew planned to pursue computer science as a major. It left me wondering – when did all those girls cross STEM off their list of future careers?



It starts early

In the middle of high school, I volunteered at an outreach day where hundreds of younger teen and pre-teen girls came to our school campus for a day of exploring STEM project booths. There was everything from robotics to interactive hardware setups, all created by the students at my all-female high school. The goal was to show younger girls that it was okay to be interested in these subjects.

Sadly, after breaking out into short 5–10-minute small group sessions, it was obvious that all the girls were nervous. They were worried about asking questions, speaking up, and it felt like they were constantly looking around for permission to speak. Luckily, I’ve been able to have women in my field point out when I’m too apologetic, and know that there’s this community of women becoming self-aware of the self-conscious of habits we don’t need to have.

Looking backwards, I want to inject a little bit of present-day Olivia-wisdom and hazard a guess that a day lead and mentored almost exclusively by women turned the tables in the best way possible for girls that may have already been used to being the only robotics-fan in the room. Self-consciousness went out the window and self-empowerment went in! That’s a beautiful thing.



Finding a community can be intimidating

Jumping ahead into university computer science, I at first was lucky enough to have much more than the regular 20% of women in my courses, but not for long. Even as my specific graduating class had quite a few women, the amount fell the more the course went on. It was then that I realized what a privilege it was to have a foundation set where I felt I could learn without feeling ostracized, which is something that scholarship incentives, motivating talks and even inspirational articles don’t often address directly.

It occurs to me, even today, that it’s much harder to tackle breaking into a male-dominated field when you can compare yourself to your friends who delved into fields more commonly populated by women and are finding their community there. There’s obviously no reason not to make friends with male peers, but just the knowledge of being the only woman, or one of a few, can add subtle stress for countless reasons.

Feeling like you lack the ability to find your own community of women in your field, even if you know you’re not the only one, can be daunting, which is why I think that creating even more female-centric spaces can set us up for success later in life.

This is why it’s so important for employers to appear not only accessible to women looking to grow their professional experience in tech, but ideally to hold themselves accountable with ways to quantify their efforts. At TomTom, I know one example is to set a goal that there be at least one female candidate interviewed for each open position, in order to make sure steps are being taken to market opportunities to women in many different areas of STEM. Through this, the hope is also that our female TomTom’ers to develop and see potential in the long-term within the company, so that we can reinforce that TomTom is a safe space for women to find their community with other women in tech.
Quote Olivia-Christina Vahsen, Developer advocate


Feeling represented in your career does matter


Looking at the present, where I sit on a female-led team with male and female coworkers alike who support me in my career, I can’t help but feel a little too lucky, because I know the same isn’t always true for my gal pals who also went down the computer science path. Away from TomTom, I too have experienced things like microaggressions that can sour an otherwise dynamic work environment. For now, however, I want to focus on the all the positive things that can happen down the road.

I feel proud and represented working on a team of people primarily made up of women from many different backgrounds and fields of interest, led by a female manager who helped us all come together – by hiring our team from her own strong ideas and vision. I don’t have to worry about fair competition or continually confronting the glass ceiling day-to-day in my role, because I know there’s all that combined experience behind the decision-making, and that’s an amazing thing.



TomTom’s initiatives in tackling gender diversity


I've shared a bit about my experience, and now I'm going to share some key objectives and initiatives that TomTom is carrying out, some of which can help us bring that desired gender diversity in our tech-driven world.

Recently, while planning the company’s objectives for the coming year, TomTom outlined the long-term plan to find more women that fit the roles we have available, ensuring that we have at least one female candidate per open role and per managerial role. We also want our female TomTom’ers to develop and see potential in the long-term within the company, so that we can start to build a community of women within our company and the tech industry. Finally, we want our TomTom’ers to feel our commitment to diversity as something more than a quota – we want women and other minorities to feel represented, not just considered.

Everything we’re working towards in relation to Diversity & Inclusion comes back to TomTom’s commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), which asks for “lifelong learning opportunities for all.” TomTom’s keenness to improve representation is a big part of building towards this, as we can provide the solution for those who are willing to learn in our field. But specifically tying into this article is SDG 4’s other request, for “inclusive and equitable quality education”. Education is the root of the problem and it needs to accommodate all, so we can build diverse teams in TomTom and beyond that reflect the world we live in. This is where initiatives and courses such as Codam come in.

Codam is an organization close to our hearts as our co-founder and CMO, Corinne Vigreux, founded it in 2018 as a way to maximize young people’s potential and social mobility.It’s a tuition-free, 24/7 course that teaches students how to code and program from the ground up – no experience needed. The significance of this is that, with those women who even just share an interest, will feel enabled to join Codam and make a career out of that interest. The career opportunities are vast, introducing opportunities within AI, data analysis and more. They’ll also enter a community of like-minded people, something I think is incredibly key to more women feeling confident about joining tech.

My advice to women who are interested in, or already working in tech but are struggling to find a place where they can feel comfortable expressing themselves and growing their skills – don’t stop seeking out your community, even if you need to find it outside of work. Take the time to find areas where you connect with other women and get inspired by their ideas. It’s amazing to see companies such as TomTom being open about creating and supporting these areas, and soon, you might just find an opportunity at one which speaks to you.

I know that from the experiences I’ve shared, I’ve been one of the lucky women in tech, but I strongly believe that for all the very real struggles that surround working in this field, there are still opportunities to show how many wonderful people there are out there to learn from, work alongside and make lasting friends with. And from that, I believe that shining light on those communities, initiatives and goals for the future can make all the difference.
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