Empowering women to return to computing: a game of snakes and ladders

By Adriana Wilde

A snakes-and-ladders reinterpretation of the leaky pipeline of women in computing (as generated with the aid of Leonardo-AI)
A snakes-and-ladders reinterpretation of the leaky pipeline of women in computing (as generated with the aid of Leonardo-AI)

This ACM Women post aims to be as celebratory for the women returning to the field of computing, as much as a reflection of the challenges that as a whole community we experience. To the former, first of all, a warm welcome back to this exciting discipline! If you have just returned to the tech world after perhaps a few years’ break, you are now rediscovering a massively changed landscape that goes far beyond coding, so these reflections may be especially helpful. To the rest of our readers, this is a call for your efforts in aiding the navigation into the diverse and exciting avenues that computing has to offer to everyone.

Uncharted territories all over again 

Embarking on this journey can be daunting, as irrespective to previous experience, restarting a career in computing is perhaps like rediscovering a vast canvas, where the brushstrokes do extend far beyond the lines of traditional coding roles. Both academia and the tech industry are continuously evolving, and so are the roles within. The canvas of computing is a vibrant tapestry, woven with opportunities ranging from data science to cybersecurity, including human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence, and in all of these there have been important new curricular developments in recent times. More than ever before, interdisciplinarity rules as computer applications are present in just about every other discipline. Whilst this creates lots of opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to find where their experiences can be useful, it also creates some challenges in terms of understanding what are the gaps to fill and identifying a feasible plan to address them.

Crafting a Diverse Skill Set

Consider the holistic nature of skills development. It’s not merely about mastering coding languages; it’s about embracing a comprehensive approach. From project management to leadership skills, the industry values a diverse skill set. Still, you can explore resources that can help you with upskilling in computing. Retraining is a valid option, and with a little research, it is not difficult to find schemes that support a return to work (or study!) for well-motivated applicants. 

Confidence Across Domains

Confidence is not a single note in this symphony; it is rather a harmonious blend across various domains. Take inspiration from the stories of individuals who have excelled in roles ranging from data analysis to IT consulting. For many of them, the ability to transfer skills from one domain to another is what made them successful. I remember mustering confidence whilst answering in an interview for a teaching fellowship (after an extended career break) by referring to how I had solved a seemingly non-technical problem as an evidence of my technical mindset. Being aware of your own limitations or gaps in your experience can feed into the well-known impostor syndrome, but looking out for relatable role models may help you in dispelling it as you discover that your own story can be transformed into one of belonging, no matter how long ago it was since you left the profession.

Challenging the Narrative: Beyond the Leaky Pipeline

The narrative around the “leaky pipeline” is overused to characterise the droves of women who, at various stages in their lives, turned away from computing. Thus,  it needs to be challenged.  As a community, we recognise that it oversimplifies the problem and the challenges faced by those who left. If I were to give a visual image of my posture regarding the paradigm shift required to improve gender diversity, I would steer away from this overused metaphor. I consider that this imagery is unhelpful because it characterises women who have left the profession at diverse stages in their careers as having been irretrievably lost, just like water leaking out of a pipeline. I much prefer the visuals associated with the “snakes and ladders” board game, whereby any  misfortunes as well as valid life choices at given times (the metaphorical snakes) may set women back, but they could return with the right “ladders” put in place. I have thought about this new metaphor for long, as an intersectional woman in academia who, alongside her career, has been swallowed up by snakes of varying sizes, yet I have always been able to find a good ladder to bring myself up and go much further ahead. Perhaps you have experienced this too, and are now in a position to build ladders for others to follow you.

Resources for a Diverse Tech Community

Discover organisations and platforms that cater to the diverse facets of computing. From following conferences on your topic of interest to reading publications on state-of-the-art research, including taking an e-learning course, the resources available are as varied as the roles within the industry. The ACM is a great place to start.

Share Your Story, Shape the Narrative

Share your story, challenge the narrative, connect with professionals across the computing discipline, and be part of the community shaping the future of the profession. Whether you are a woman returning to the discipline after a break, a champion advocating for diversity, or just someone who has faced challenges in their professional journey, your contributions will enrich our collective experience of navigating the multifaceted world of computing.

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