Young women coding their way to the top of Australia's tech industry

June 26, 2014
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Deanna Hood is talking to Hijacked from Lausanne in Switzerland, where she’s working on her latest project: a robot that children can teach how to write. No biggie, right? Taking cues from the saying ‘those who can’t do, teach’, Deanna hopes to engage children so that the learning process is more constructive. Instead of having someone correct them all the time, which may negatively impact their self-esteem, the technology gives children a way to learn through self-reflection. “I want to make an impact with the work that I do,” says Deanna. “I’m using the same skills that I could be using for military drones, but it’s all about how you choose to apply it.”

This isn’t the first time that Deanna has used technology to push the boundaries of what’s possible. In 2011, Deanna developed a brain controlled driving simulator interface that allowed completely paralysed patients to control cars using brainwave technology. By 2012, she designed a low tech respiratory rate sensor to diagnose pneumonia in children in Mozambique, which she then gave a TED@Sydney talk on a few months later.

Graduating high school at the tender age of 15, Deanna entered the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) with a passion for maths before stumbling into electrical engineering. This moment of serendipity certainly left an impression on the young engineer, but it was her passion with helping people that eventually shifted her focus from conventional electronic devices.

The interesting thing is that Deanne had never even heard of engineering before university, and it was through a fair dose of luck that she ended up working as a medical electronics researcher. Now 22, she says this journey has made her want to be a role model for women interested in pursuing engineering. “Before we can have complete gender balance, I think that we will need to get girls interested in these things…but also help girls feel that they actually belong in these sorts of environments,” she says.

We do live in an era of innovation. With Apple, Google and Samsung fighting to control market share, we are slowly seeing our living rooms invaded by devices that are, quite frankly, smarter than the average high school students. Films such as The Social Network and Jobs have made us well aware of the Zuckerbergs, Jobs and Gates. But where are the women in the tech field?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women only accounted for 8 per cent of those with higher level qualifications in engineering and 25 per cent of those in information technology. Tech giants are now stepping up and trying to fix the problem. On May 28, Google released a diversity report regarding its workforce. Currently, 30 per cent of its technology department consists of women, so the internet giant is aiming to do better and says it has contributed around US$40 million to various organisations since 2010 to promote computer science education to girls and women. 

Of course, none of this could be possible without the original pioneers in the field. These include women such as Frances E. Allen, the first female IBM fellow in 1989, Anita Borg, founding director of the Institute for Women and Technology and Sally Floyd, a computer scientist best known for her work on internet congestion control.

Deanna believes in the importance of proactive advocacy, and previously served as the president for the QUT Women in Engineering Club and as the manager for a rural and regional branch of the Robogals organisation. She acknowledges that tech has a blokey foundation, but says there are “intersections” where “a stereotypically male skillset can be applied to a stereotypically feminine application”. Her coding work in child learning development is one example.

So, is the industry a boy’s club? “There are certainly more men than women, but all the women that I know kick the guys’ arses,” says Deanna. This is certainly true when you look at promising tech heads like Sasha Bermeister – a young woman that finished a computer science degree at The University of Sydney last year and was awarded the Google Prize for Excellence in Computer Science. It was not long before Sasha was hired by Google.

When Hijacked chatted to Sasha, she had just finished working on a new top secret feature for the web browser Chrome. She says of the most important people to influence her success was her female high school IT teacher. “She encouraged me to try my best and keep learning about technology,” says Sasha. Other influencers included the programmers she met when attending summer school with the National Computer Science School.

“I think some companies are worse at this than others,” says Sasha when asked about male dominance in the field of tech. “There are definitely some places where you work where it is very male dominated and…it can be very uncomfortable to be the first or the second or the third girl in that company.”

There are a number of support groups aimed at helping women succeed in engineering. Sasha goes out for a snack every couple of weeks with a group called Girl Geek dinners. “It’s basically women in technology that meet up bimonthly or weekly and get coffee together,” she says. There are also support panels at various events that let women discuss strategies on how they handle difficult situations.

Sasha praised the efforts of big companies like Google, Atlassian and Microsoft for improving working environments for women. “Big corporations really do care about diversity and they’re the ones with all the money and they’re the ones with all the jobs,” she says. Her final piece of advice for young women in tech is “don’t give up and be strong”. “If you see something you’re not happy about, chances are, you’re not the only person who doesn’t like it that way. If you’re not comfortable in that environment, you’re not doing yourself any favours by not saying about it or just staying there”.

With the tech field slowly becoming less of a boys’ club, we can expect to see more women like Sasha and Deanna coding their way to the top. These women aren’t tinkering away in their parents’ garages hoping for their big break – they’re hacking themselves into the majors of the industry.

Jason Vu

Jason Vu is in studying medicine in Queensland and likes writing about health, daydreaming and reflection. Jason is trying to maintain his sanity one latte at a time.

All photography is of Sasha at Google's HQ in Sydney. Images: Michael Croft, The University of Technology, Sydney