Women in IT: Beating 'imposter syndrome'

02:58, May 06 2014
Helen Durrant

In the second part of our feature on the shortage of women in New Zealand's growing IT sector, two women share their experiences beating "imposter syndrome" when working in a male-dominated field.


Helen Durrant is a 27-year-old who works with Orion Health in Auckland

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do in high school. I ended up studying at Massey University in Auckland and I took the widest possible degree that would allow me the most choice of subjects - including computer science 101.

"The only reason I took it was my brother is a software architect and he said 'you'll love it'. It took one lecture of computer science to say, 'yep, this is exactly what I want to do'.

"The first thing the lecturer asked us to do was write down the steps to filling a kettle. Some had five or 10 or 15. I had about 10 and thought 'how could you get 15?' He was using it to demonstrate that when you're writing code you need to break it down and break it down. That little display of the logic involved really spoke to me.


"I didn't know any girls from my own set of friends who were doing anything even relatively similar. In comp sci I met a few girls in my first class who were doing engineering and things like that but they very quickly filtered out as the years progressed and by fourth year I was one of only two girls, I think, out of about 25.

"What I found at university was the guys who were taking comp sci were the kind of guys that went home and programmed. I loved programming and problem solving but it wasn't my hobby. So I really developed this sense of, 'if I'm not passionate enough to do it in my spare time maybe I shouldn't be a programmer'.

"I remember in one of my classes the lecturer put up some marks, with our student IDs next to them, not our names. I got the top mark, and this guy sitting next to me said, 'I wonder who that is who keeps beating me?'. There was no doubt in his mind that it wasn't me.

"In 2009 I graduated and started my first year of work. I applied at Orion. I hadn't heard of them at the time but I loved the look of the office and the people were friendly. I got the job and started as a graduate software engineer. I later moved into a different team, then got asked to team lead. It was a big opportunity - they recognised I had some people skills and it was huge recognition so early in my career.

"Later I decided to move back into development for a while; I felt like I wanted to further my technical skills before going solely into management. I've since been asked to team lead again, leading a team of dedicated web developers. One of the things I love about my job is you never get bored. There's so much variety, not just in terms of changing roles within the organisation, but also because every day you have different issues

"Programming is a very human activity; it's not this antisocial thing it's made out to be in the stereotypes. We're working on big projects, with lots of different moving parts, so if you're in a silo, it doesn't really work.

"One thing that has seemed consistent throughout my career is a doubt in my abilities even though all evidence is to the contrary. And I know other women developers within my own company and around the industry who have experienced the same thing.

"I was talking to someone recently who said one of the reasons the imposter syndrome is prominent among women in tech is because it can be caused by being a minority.

"I think that's an issue we need to solve and have support for because I don't think it's well recognised, but it can be really detrimental to your career."


Edwina Mistry, community engagement manager at Manukau Institute of Technology

When Edwina Mistry got her first job in the IT industry almost 30 years ago, she found herself the only woman employed in a technical role in an organisation of 200 staff.

All up Mistry spent 11 years in the sector both offshore and in New Zealand, working for organisations including Wang and Apple, before shifting into the academic world in the mid-1990s.Now industry and community engagement manager at Manukau Institute of Technology's faculty of business and IT - a job which involves building bridges between schools, the tertiary sector and industry - Mistry calls on those industry connections big time.

"There weren't many females when I was working in industry, so everyone remembers me," she laughs.

"That really helps."

Students in the final year of their IT degree at MIT have to complete an industry project, but they struggled to make connections with industry themselves. So a couple of years ago Mistry took on the job of setting up projects for students.

Around half of those students now end up being offered jobs directly in those organisations after their project, she says.

Mistry has also long taken an active role in encouraging high school students into IT, starting around seven years ago with paying visits to schools to talk about the subject.

"I felt we weren't getting a lot of young people looking at it as a career. At MIT we were getting a lot of second-career people, and in schools it wasn't seen as an academic subject," she says.

Mistry can reel off a long list of other initiatives she's been involved with. Six years ago, for example, she started running the Programming Challenge for Girls at MIT - an annual competition run at venues around the country for year 10 high school girls designed to introduce them to computer programming.

And last year, along with Davanti Consulting, MIT started a programme for year 10 and 11 students called Business Career Experience, which involved taking 32 students, mainly from low-decile schools, into different organisations during the school holidays to see IT in the workplace firsthand.

"It's only when kids go into these places that they see that IT is part of every organisation," she says.

"It's about opening the eyes of the students that it's not only about internet or technology companies; when I took them to Foodstuffs, they said 'what are we doing here?'

"They were shocked to learn it has such a big IT division. It makes them look at IT from a different perspective.

"I'm passionate about making a difference in South Auckland, because the students here don't have the industry connections; there's that digital divide. Kids know a lot more these days about technology, but it's educating them about the things that IT has to offer as a career."