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Nancy Pham

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

What is it like to be a woman in technology?

I have successfully infiltrated Women Geoscientists in Canada. I am not a geoscientist. I am a Data and Information Coordinator in the mining industry with an educational background in environmental geography, geographic information systems and data science. I am geoscience adjacent. The same way you are the S, and I am the T in STEM. We undoubtedly share many of the same problems being the minority gender in our respective fields, but I have my own set of grievances as a woman in technology. Not only a woman actually, but a twenty-something, able bodied, hetero, agnostic, second generation, Asian- Canadian, cisgender woman in technology.

I’ve always had an interest in computers, but it wasn’t until my early 20’s that I realized a passion for it. I’m right on the border between millennial and gen Z, so while I resonate more with millennials, I definitely have the gen Z gene of tech addiction and dependency. You could not pull me away from the computer. If I knew that I was interested in this stuff decades ago, why didn’t I just take the computer science route straight out of high school instead of floundering around for years? Marketing.

Newsflash to everybody everywhere: NOBODY sits around reading binary. Humans taught computers to read binary so we don’t have to. There’s this misconception that a career in computer science will mean long lonely hours in a dark room in front of a black screen with flashing zeros and ones. That is not the case and that has never been the case. But as a kid, this is what I saw a career in computer science as – I was rightfully turned off by it. Fast forward to high school computer science class. The semester was four months long and we spent two of them doing All The Right Type. Can you really blame me for thinking this was the boring-est field ever?

I didn’t have all the information to make an informed decision when it came to post-secondary. I heavily relied on school and media to broaden my career horizons as I was sure that my immigrant parents would not be able to. In their heads, my options were doctor or marry rich. No joke.

There’s an obvious gender imbalance in STEM fields and we often question why young girls aren’t choosing or staying in our beloved disciplines. In my case, it was because I had a very narrow idea of what a tech job looked like. The good news is that I eventually took a GIS course which propelled me into the position I’m in now. The bad news is that the more I’m exposed to the glorious tech industry, the more frustrating it is when I realize that some grade school children might never explore these things simply because society has placed a bias on the field. I think the onus is on all of us to ensure that our jobs are not only represented but represented accurately for the people who will come after us. It’s a matter of redefining roles and removing stereotypes in STEM fields.

I often get comments about how I live a double life and it makes me cringe every time. You see, I’ve been pigeonholed into being a ‘computer nerd’, so for some people, it is quite alarming when I spend my free time gluing fake hair to my eyelids and not reading binary. What I’m hearing from these commentators is that I have traits that fit into two stereotypes but I’m doing a crummy job of fully embodying both. If I were living a double life, I would have a second family that I only see on weekends or work trips. I am most definitely living a singular life. Stop with the stereotypes. Start with the intersectionalities.

I am 2+ years into my tech career now and on any given day, you can find me developing web apps, automating workflows, or building business intelligence (BI) reports. I find it oddly satisfying to take paper and spreadsheets and turn them into databases and insights. My team is fabulous, and I work in a supportive environment where advocating, educating, and pioneering for inclusion and diversity are encouraged and respected. Despite all of that, it still feels lonely sometimes. I’ve yet to meet another woman who does a job similar to mine, and there are still many days where I enter a Teams meeting as the only woman in the midst of an industry dominated by pale, stale males. There’s the argument that tokenism can lead to a competitive edge for women by helping them stand out, but I’m just not sold by it. It creates a sense of isolation that has on occasion, made me question my abilities and competencies as a subject matter expert in data. When you’re more visible, you somehow feel like there’s less room for mistakes. Luckily, there hasn’t been a single day where I thought about leaving my job or the industry. I have excellent female (and male) mentors who have helped me build the confidence to be more vocal, assertive, and brave in standing up for myself and my work. It’s a bad ass feeling.

We’ve all navigated the rocky path to a STEM career. The terrain is bad, your compass is broken and you’re probably a little dehydrated. And when you finally reach that dream job, you realize that not much is different. Your footing is still shaky.

So, what do you do now? You be the person to create waves and move mountains. Change the terrain for those young girls who are on their way to your position. Make it easier and more accessible for women and minorities to explore STEM careers. Lean on each other for support and inspiration. Create a sense of belonging for marginalized groups. Challenge the status quo and make diversity the new standard in your field. Wouldn’t that be the dream!?

I really look forward to meeting another me in the industry one day... Just once, I would love to say to a girlfriend “this integrated development environment, that well documented application programming interface and your lip gloss is poppin’!” Just once.

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