A survey by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, found 45% of women working in IT believe their gender is the main barrier to getting ahead in their career, and when it comes to getting that all important first job in IT, almost a third of women (30%) thought their gender is their biggest barrier, compared with only 4% of men asked the same question. Here’s the case study of one highly-skilled woman who found it hard to get a foot on the ladder.

Zara AhmedZara Ahmed, a twenty-five-year old computer scientist graduate, is not surprised by the BCS report’s findings that almost a third of women in IT felt getting their first job was harder because they were female. She says: ‘I didn’t think it would be this hard to get a job. I felt I had to do a lot more work compared with my male friends.’

Zara loved everything techie from an early age: ‘I always had a passion for technology and wanting to know how things worked and that was one of the main reasons for applying to do computer science.’

It was natural that she would go on to study the subject she loved, and she left Aston University in 2016 with a degree in computer science. She had a summer internship at Microsoft Research in Cambridge and went on to study an MSc in project management, graduating in December 2017. So far, so good.

Highs and lows

But then she faced endless rejections when trying to get her first job, despite being highly qualified. She applied for over 100 jobs: ‘I was having constant assessments, including video interviews, verbal and non-verbal tests and I went to a couple of face-to-face days at assessment centre as well.’

‘At my first interview, just after I graduated from my masters, there were three candidates and the feedback was vague - they highlighted what I’d done well, but didn’t give me much information about how I could improve my interview techniques.’

With many of her applications, after the initial assessment, silence then followed: ‘There was no indication of when I would hear back from them. I found it quite frustrating actually.’

Gender bias

After a second major interview later in the summer, she got the distinct impression that her gender was a factor when she wasn’t picked: ‘I felt that I didn’t get the job because although they told me I was also suitable, they gave the job to a man.’

Such feelings were, of course, subjective - but Zara points out that when she looked at her peers - she could see her experience was different: ‘Men that I graduated with all got jobs within about six months, maybe less, as some of them had already got jobs lined up - they didn’t on to further study as I did.’

She continues: ‘I found it quite frustrating because when I compared myself to others it became quite demotivating. I felt I was going the extra mile, finding internships and volunteering and they weren’t. And I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.’

Finding supportive networks

Whilst at university, Zara had become involved with organisations such as Code First: Girls which campaigns to get more women and girls into technology. As she struggled to get work in her chosen industry, she was drawn more to female networking groups: ‘Women networks are so important because mutual support encourages you to keep going.’

Zara also volunteered as an ambassador for STEM Learning, a charity that provides education and careers support to young people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. ‘Even though it was volunteering,’ she said: ‘it helped me and made me feel like I was still working in the industry too.’

Another factor Zara believes she faced was unconscious racial bias. She was born and brought up in the UK and both her parents are of Pakistani origin. ‘I do feel that my ethnicity was also an issue. It’s not so simple as racism - it was more like I wasn’t being chosen because I didn’t fit in.’

Success in the end

Finally, her sheer determination has paid off and she has now secured a graduate trainee position for an international industrial software company, AVEVA. As she talks about her new post, what it entails and the areas she will working in, it is clear she is delighted: ‘I’m happy that I have a job, now I can prove myself and show that I am capable, that I can do the job.’  

Clare Bye, Global Head of Talent and HR Services at AVEVA said: ‘It’s fantastic that we were able to find Zara a role which really suits her skills and experience at AVEVA. We recognise that our teams are made up of people from different backgrounds and diversity is integral to our success. By encouraging an inclusive culture, we give our people a platform to showcase their strengths and demonstrate success through their unique skills, positive attitude and their contribution to the organisation.’

Read our other case study - Diversity: Passionate and visible role models