Like the technology her company is known for, Dr. Rebecca Parsons can be described as disruptive. The encouragement of a high school math teacher, her own passion for languages of all kinds, and a growing interest in the possibility of technology have led Parsons on an interesting journey. As Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of ThoughtWorks, a software development and IT consulting company with 30 offices in 12 countries, Parsons is part of a small group. According to a report by Forbes magazine, research firm Gartner found that the number of female CTOs globally in the tech industry has remained static at 14% since 2004.
Not one to let statistics or convention hold her back, Parsons embraced the opportunity given to her at age 13 by her math teacher, Mr. Christian. He was studying a course in computers at the university and, since Parsons had already mastered the math syllabus for her grade, he encouraged her to explore the possibilities of programming. From BASIC to Assembly, Fortran and beyond, Parsons set off to master a variety of programming languages, and despite some prejudice, has worked her way up to CTO.
“One of my professors told me in a class that women were incapable of understanding math and science,” she said. Rather than let that discourage her, Parsons decided to prove him wrong.
The LatAm Picture
The numbers of women in technology are growing, but are still not up to snuff. Her Latin American counterparts are equally under-represented. According to a 2014 Inter-American Development Bank report by Rafael Castillo, Matteo Grazzi, and Ezequiel Tacsir on Women in Science and Technology, “although 60% of tertiary graduates and 45% of researchers in Latin America are women (UNESCO, 2007) – surpassing all other regions, including Europe (33.9%), Oceania (39.2%), and Asia (18%) – in STEM disciplines this percentage drops to 36%. Only 11% of Latin American female graduates of tertiary education are in STEM fields, while STEM fields represent 12.3% of new enrollments at the tertiary level (UNESCO UIS database).”
When ThoughtWorks first opened its Ecuador office, they had a 50-50 ratio of men and women. Much of this, Parsons said, was down to the Managing Director of the Quito office, Leslie Jarrin, who is committed to empowering women in tech. Jarrin set the equal gender ratio as a goal, “but hasn’t been able to maintain those numbers,” Parsons said.
In her experience, having met with a number of professors in Ecuador, female student enrollment in technology fields is good. “They study it but don’t end up having a job in it. It is seen as a good way to meet a husband,” Parsons added.
In Brazil, Parsons noted, there are fewer women enrolled in Computer Science or technology programs, even lower than in the US. ThoughtWorks’ offices in Brazil have put together a gender justice campaign to try to address some of the issues.
Emerging From the Cocoon
Parsons’ own journey in the world of technology has not always been smooth sailing, but she has, she said, been fortunate to spend the past 15 years in the supportive environment of ThoughtWorks. “It’s almost like I was in this lovely cocoon. I felt safe, and respected for what I could do. I was living in a bubble – until the second time I attended an event to celebrate women in computing,” Parsons explained.
She added: “I had lunch with these students and one of the graduate students was telling me that she needed to find a new advisor because he had told her she should ‘go home and make babies’. This is the 21st century and we still have women who are hearing things like that. At that point, in about 2007, I became much more active in promoting and encouraging women in technology again. I feel a sense of obligation to do what I can to change things.”
Parsons’ core approach to empowering women in the technology field is to “put myself out there”, by speaking at events and generally making herself a visible role model for other women. “I look for opportunities to speak not just at women in tech events but at tech events in general. I can have much more impact giving a talk at a conference. I’m a face that doesn’t look like all the faces they are seeing and that can impact a lot of women,” she said.
Although Parsons said that much of the more explicit prejudice against women – the sexual advances and the comments made in open classrooms – do not happen as much anymore, there is still work to be done to address gender inequality in the technology sector.
Pizza, Beer and Girls in Bikinis: Challenging the “Brogrammer” Culture
“The tech industry really wants to believe it’s a meritocracy and it’s not. We need to come to terms with the unconscious bias and recognize the assumptions we make without knowing our biases are influencing us,” she said. “We have to think about the ‘brogrammer’ culture; it’s a kind of fraternity.”
Many women leave the tech field, Parsons said, because they are tired of receiving signals that they do not belong. “When a hackathon in the US, advertises the fact that there will be girls in bikini at the event, the message is clear. Who is the audience for pizza, beer and girls in bikinis? It’s not women,” she said.
Parsons added that there is a need for more men to stand up and advocate for women in the industry.
Despite these issues, Parsons remains passionate about her work. “I’m a geek; I’ll always be a geek. There are times I get frustrated but I still love the work I do. It’s still possible to carve out a career for yourself and feel like you are making a difference.”
To the next generation of women interested in technology, Parsons said: “Don’t listen to the people who tell you you can’t do it; if you love it, go for it. Don’t believe the perception that all programmers sit around alone and never talk to anybody, because that’s not the way the industry is either. It’s a great industry to be in. There is great work to do in the industry and it’s a growing field.”
Parsons’ own vision for ThoughtWorks is as an organization that wants to partner with clients that are trying to achieve something startling. “Whether it is to completely disrupt the business model in their niche or to leapfrog the competition, ThoughtWorks wants to work with our clients to solve problems in particular domains,” she said. One thing is clear, though: Parsons will continue to disrupt the status quo and challenge perceptions about women in tech for as long as she is able.