The realities of women in tech
Do we understand the realities of being a woman in tech? We hear from three successful Ocado Technology women about their unique challenges, and consider how the industry can be more inclusive and supportive.
Women are making great strides in the industry, challenging stereotypes and leading the way in innovation and impact. They can be powerful agents of change in the tech world, so it's important that we recognise the barriers they face, and develop strategies to cultivate and support their success.
Meera is a Site Reliability Engineer in the Bot Comms area - an important part of our OSP (Ocado Smart Platform) that ensures successful transmission of commands to the bots in our smart warehouses. “The breadth and depth of our application stack spans from low level embedded all the way to cloud computing,” says Meera. “I was certain that the role would be technically challenging and would provide a lot of opportunity for me to learn and grow. Running and maintaining this product is mission critical to our business and I can make a direct impact.”
Estelle is a UK-based Senior Product Manager working with a team in Las Vegas that develops software and electronics for robotic arms. “My team is contributing to our on-grid robotic picking initiative,” she explains. “Where robotic arms will be used in our warehouses to pick customer orders. My team makes sure that the arm moves fast, and is accurate and reliable; I work with partners and stakeholders, prioritising requirements so we can add the most value.” As a Product Manager, Estelle previously worked mostly with websites and apps, but the opportunity to work with robots was impossible to resist. “I love to challenge myself, and this was certainly a challenge. I have surprised myself at how much I have learned and understood about robotics. The product itself is really interesting, and I know we’ll be making a huge difference to the business. I’ll be able to point at those robots and tell my friends and family that’s what I worked on.”
Abigail is a Senior Software Engineer in the Fulfilment stream, building software to manage the inbound flow of stock into our warehouses around the globe. She lists the team’s challenges as prioritisation, throughput optimisation, service reliability/availability, and designing user-facing apps that are efficient to use. Her motivations for joining the team began with the opportunity for learning and growth: “I get to work with challenging problems, and gain insight into exciting concepts… I felt I had the opportunity to make a positive impact and be proud of my work - improving supply chains across the world, ensuring access to goods, and creating a potentially safer, healthier working environment within warehouses, where roles that are unsafe or inappropriate for humans can be solved with automation instead.”
Speaking from experience
In discussing negative experiences as women in tech, both Estelle and Abigail cite historical issues of confidence. At a previous company, Estelle found herself experiencing imposter syndrome as part of a male-dominated product team: “They were all younger than me. The Head of Product at the time gave them all senior roles and they’d head off into meetings together - and I was not included. I had been in the company a while and had very good domain knowledge, and that was just ignored. It made me feel terrible. Eventually, a couple of other female PMs joined us but nothing really changed. In the end, I realised that nothing would change. I wasn’t given the chance to grow or develop, so I applied and successfully got the job at Ocado Technology and left the company.The rest, as they say, is history. We have an extremely inclusive culture here at Ocado. I have been encouraged and supported to grow and learn.”
Abigail has also experienced low confidence in male-dominated environments. “Confidence issues are certainly not limited to women,” she says, “But I know for a fact that I've previously doubted my place and potential in the workplace - just because I'm a woman and I was unsure if the mostly male classroom, or workplace, was accommodating of the differences between me and my male counterparts.
“Fortunately I've been able to overcome many of these doubts over time thanks to support from my colleagues and peers along the way - particularly those who did take me seriously, saw my abilities, and championed my potential which I didn't know I was capable of. This really highlights the importance of allies and the people around me rejecting gender biases.”
Meera understands these issues too, and the importance of realising your own value: “I commonly find myself as the single woman on conference calls, meeting rooms and workshops. This can be an intimidating experience, and it's easy to get consumed by the occasion and feel like an outsider. You need to back yourself - back yourself in spades. You are there for a reason; your voice and your opinion matters. I have seen instances when really talented women underestimate their abilities and hesitate to initiate the promotion conversations or apply for the next big role. We can be very self critical and often our worst enemy. Remembering we don't have to meet the 10/10 exacting requirements to make the leap is important and liberating.”
No through road
On the idea of barriers to women in tech, Estelle feels that a primary concern should be education and information - helping women understand what is out there. “I really fell into my role in tech", she says. “I don’t have a background or qualifications in anything vaguely scientific although I did bring other skills with me that have been useful. 13 years ago I had no idea what a product manager did. There is no degree in Product Management. There are some great courses out there but it’s not always a role that people have heard of.
“My daughter is studying Maths and Statistics at university and it was only when I was telling her about our data analysts and the type of things they do that she realised there were so many opportunities out there for her. Maybe more could be done at secondary school level to explain to young women the type of jobs that are out there for them in the tech industry?”
This idea links nicely to Abigail’s thoughts on barriers to entry in the tech world. She thinks underrepresentation itself is a barrier - the problem of not being seen to be part of that world. “For aspiring women trying to set goals and form their place in the industry, it can be difficult to do so without first seeing a reality where women are valued and celebrated equally with their peers.
“Cultural stereotypes on gender roles can deprive women of opportunities too. For example, some cultures perceive behaviours differently in men than in women, like assertiveness: assertive men are often seen as successful or confident, but assertive women might be considered difficult or unpleasant. These same stereotype perceptions can also lead people to make incorrect assumptions based purely on gender - about an individual's interests, capability, or whether their lifestyle - like being a mother, for example - affects their capacity at work.”
Ocado Technology actively seeks to make sure diversity and inclusivity is at the core of recruitment, workplace, and culture. Amongst other things, the business supports a range of ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) that enable employees to connect over common interests and shared characteristics and, in doing so, they drive and shape our culture. Estelle: “We have a very active Women in Tech group, and I was also involved in creating the draft menopause policy… Ocado is definitely the most inclusive place I have ever worked in. I’m a female in tech and I’m also older than many of my colleagues, but neither of those things have ever been an issue for me.”
Ocado Technology also goes the extra mile in its employee benefits, particularly in the areas of wellbeing and paternity provision. “The Support for women through maternity break and returning from maternity leave is phenomenal,” says Meera. “There are options for part-time working and flexible working hours so you can create a work-life balance that best suits your family’s needs.”
“I recently had a family issue that I had to prioritise over work,” adds Estelle. “Our senior leadership team was extremely supportive, which is something I appreciate… We put a real emphasis on mental health support here.”
Ocado Technology addresses the issue of fairness in advancement and promotions too. Abigail: “The role promotions are guided and assessed using transparent, objective criteria. This ensures that each promotion is judged with the same requirements, and is not purely a matter of a third party subjective opinion, or the individual's ability to self-promote, both of which vary due to human factors.”
Another important source of support and education is the ‘OT Academy’ - a virtual learning space designed to help with any aspect of life at Ocado Technology, including topics around women in tech. “Employees have access to a wealth of resources,” says Abigail, “ including many that cover topics about equality and women's experience in the industry, such as books and webinars.”
The emphasis on education doesn’t stop with our employees. Amongst the Ocado Technology outreach programmes is the hugely successful Code For Life initiative. Meera: “Our grass root level programs are inspiring the next generation of engineers. Code For Life is a non profit initiative making technology accessible to all.”
The bottom line
Ocado Technology values diversity and inclusion as a true business asset and a critical pillar of creativity. In turn, that creativity drives innovation and value for our partners around the world. It’s crucial that we continue to listen to our employees and do everything we can to support women in tech, and all the richness that brings.
Change your world with us
Across Ocado Technology, we have a diverse, rich mix of teams and expertise working to solve complex problems. Learn more about our full range of opportunities here:
International Women in Engineering Day
Three of our women technical operations engineers visited a London school to promote gender diversity in engineering. The results were inspiring!learn more
How to be a Bot Whisperer
Terry O’Neill, Engineering Operations Trainer at Ocado Engineering lifts the lid on the training given to every new joiner.Learn more
Software graduate insight: Ananya
Ananya is on the Software Engineering graduate scheme - already making an impact on our smart warehouse technologies. This is her story.Learn more