Female role models in the tech industry: Software Developer Annabel Schiebol about her unusual career path
Annabel's path into software engineering was anything but direct. At school she wasn't at all interested in technical subjects; not only that, she couldn't see any female role models in these areas, either. But thanks to a chance event, and then to a lot of hard work and self-discipline, Annabel – now a Requirements Engineer – has nevertheless got there. Today she is involved both in her job and in her own time with the Ready to Code association that helps girls and young women gain easier access to programming and technical professions. Annabel does a lot to be a 'role model' for others, the role model that she never had.
I owe my entry into a technical profession to a coincidence. At school I was mainly interested in German and politics and was always averse to subjects such as mathematics and physics. After secondary school I originally wanted to study journalism. By chance I came across the 'Audiovisual Media' study course and decided to go for that. In addition to lectures on film and photography, the basic studies also included many technical subjects such as physics, mathematics and, last but not least, programming. I was suddenly involved in website development, computer game programming and interactive media. What were once my most dreaded subjects were soon to completely fascinate me and fuel my motivation.
I was fortunate in having very good lecturers. For the first time I was able to do something with the subjects mathematics and physics. The programming lectures in particular I really enjoyed, even though it was very difficult at the beginning. I remember sitting for hours, even days, on my first 'Hello World' programming attempts. But the motivation was there, and at some point the penny dropped and I suddenly understood a lot of things that I had found difficult to grasp at school.
After my bachelor's degree, I knew that I wanted to continue specialising in programming for my master's degree, so I decided to study Applied Computer Science. Here, too, the beginning was very challenging, because I was missing some basics that would have been covered if I had done a bachelor's course in computer science. So I had a lot of things to catch up on, but I did it, and I was able to complete my master's course successfully. I have been working in technical positions for several years now, and I couldn't be happier with my career.
Making it easier to get started in software development: Ready to Code
When I look back on my own school days, I see many things that could be improved. First and foremost the way the subject is taught, and individual support. I had practically written off the subjects that I wasn't good at. In part, because I never felt that they could be any use to me in real life. Practical applications for maths and physics are seldom, if ever, demonstrated. It all seemed so abstract to me that I just didn't want to deal with it at all. During my degree course, and thanks to great lecturers, both men and women, my interest was suddenly awakened and encouraged.
That is why I am now a member of the Ready to Code association in Stuttgart. Our goal is to focus on groups that are under-represented in IT and to inspire and support them towards careers in programming and technology. We do workshops for schoolgirls from the age of around 11, in which the aim is to teach the girls some initial programming skills to create first points of contact and overcome inhibitions.
We have noticed that girls are just as interested in IT and programming as boys are. Unfortunately, however, schools often don't have suitable programmes. Girls and boys have different approaches. In mixed groups, girls are often reserved, lack confidence, or are too self-critical. But programming is all about trying things out, making mistakes, correcting them again, starting from scratch. This is exactly what girls often find more difficult to do than boys. Ready to Code has recognised the need to create these programmes especially for girls, and that's exactly where I'm working with them.
Female role models in the tech industry are hugely important
There are studies that show that interest in technical subjects is initially the same for boys and girls, but that this interest fades away in girls during their childhood and adolescence. One reason for this is that girls often have no role models in technical professions and are also less encouraged in technical subjects by the environment. In all my years of study I never had any female role models. I was the only woman in my environment who was enthusiastic about IT. There were 4 women and 58 men in my term, and it was a highlight for me to see a female lecturer.
Today, things are a bit different. There are still big hurdles, however. The social role models still need to be questioned critically and changed. That's where I want to start. I invested a lot of time and passion in my training, which was not always easy. I had to learn a lot on my own in order to catch up with the other students in the master's course. In retrospect, I am proud of the fact that I, a career changer, completed my master's degree course in Applied Computer Science as the best student in my class and received a prize for my master's thesis. Just a few years ago, I would never have called myself a role model. Through my work at Ready to Code, however, I see how important it is for girls and women to have female role models. That is why my declared goal today is to be just that.
Zühlke supports my commitment
I have been with Zühlke for over two years now. During this time, my career path has steadily developed. While I started out as a software developer, I am now increasingly active in project management and requirements engineering. This year I supervised my first project in which I actually didn't write a single line of code. I find this position at the interface very exciting. I am a mediator between our customers and my colleagues. In this role I can influence not only a project, but also the people I work with.
Zühlke is a very open company. We have a great feedback culture and I can make a lot of difference here. I feel comfortable addressing even sensitive or delicate issues. Since last year, I have even been part of a diversity working group through which I can make a still bigger difference. This is primarily about making diversity visible in all its facets in the company, making processes barrier-free and fairer, and drawing attention to certain things. But even in my daily work I always try to encourage a change of perspective. Often it is enough to introduce my point of view, to show my counterpart how I have experienced something, to question the status quo. Likewise, I always try to be open to other points of view and to question myself and my own views. I think it's great that not only in my commitment to Ready to Code, but also in my daily work, I have the opportunity to promote and support women and other under-represented groups.
The future for women in STEM professions
It is very interesting to see that, particularly in STEM professions, women are still catching up much more slowly than in politics or other professions. Although women study for technical professions, they still do not get into the relevant jobs or at least don't get very far. One obstacle is supposed to be the compatibility of work and family, but in my opinion, this is a paradox, because especially in IT professions you very often have flexible working hours. There is hardly any other profession in which it is so easy to work part-time or from home. Particularly in IT professions, this compatibility is, or at least should be, a given.
Women who are interested in technical professions should not be afraid to start. They can expect an extremely diverse job market with an infinite number of possibilities, both in terms of working hours and location as well as the opportunities for further development. My career is the best example of this: I first wanted to do something with the media, then I worked as a software developer and now I'm working in project management. Who knows what's coming next! The possibilities in the tech industry are so many and varied. All it takes is a little courage, passion and conviction – and the rest will follow.
PHOTO: Christian Reinhold