Of Role Models, Prejudice, and Positive Developments in IT – Interview with Student Pia Schäfer
We took this year’s International Women’s Day as an opportunity to check in with our female colleague, who is also a computer science student, and asked about her life at university and at work. Student employee Pia Schäfer took the time to give us some insightful answers to our questions.
Pia, please introduce yourself: who are you and what are your tasks at your job at DAASI International?
My name’s Pia Schäfer, I am 25 years old and I am a Master student of computer science at the University of Tübingen. I’ve worked for DAASI International since 2016. My tasks include testing software and, together with the rest of the hosting and support team, system maintenance to ensure everything’s running smoothly and all my colleagues can work. Additionally, I help out with the customer support, wherever I can.
What sparked your interest in computer science?
Originally, I wanted to pursue a degree in mathematics as I’ve always had an interest in the subject. However, when my boyfriend first started classes for his degree in computer science, I decided to tag along for the lectures. I quickly realised I wanted to study computer science myself and that realisation lasted so I’m pursuing my own degree now. (laughs)
Do you have any IT or computer science role models?
No, because I actually don’t consider myself to be the type of person to look for role models. Instead, my motto was always to focus on my own strengths, work on them and then improve along with them. Nonetheless, I do think it’s a good thing to see especially more female role models in IT and computer science. For example, I’ve noticed that there are far more female professors and lecturers than when I first started. Even in the tutorials, which were exclusively taught by men when I started, I recognise a few more women taking over. You can see this kind of development in the business world too: nowadays, many IT companies – especially in the open source sector – have female CEOs which wasn’t nearly as common merely years ago.
How important do you consider the opportunity to have role models of the same gender? Does female representation in STEM professions matter, what do you think?
Even though I personally don’t have specific role models, I think it’s important and good to have them. I am very grateful myself for all the women who were trailblazers in their professions and thereby opened up the path for me to fulfil my personal goal in pursuing a career in IT.
Of course I have my own circle of friends at uni, which includes all genders; and I also have my partner studying with me, so there is always someone I can rely on if I need to. Nonetheless, it makes me feel more at ease to see other girls in class, they can sometimes relate more to my frustration at an inappropriate comment by a peer than my partner can. I also think increased female representation in typically male professions normalises women as part of the industry – by the way, this also works the other way around with more men choosing professions which were typically considered female professions.
You are currently enrolled in a Master’s programme at the University of Tübingen. Would you tell us about your experiences as a female IT student?
Honestly, at uni as well as in a professional setting I do come across people time and time again, who will just assume I know less than my male peers, or who won’t take me seriously at all, just because I’m a woman. Obviously, some may just have concerns because I’m still quite young. However, it happens quite frequently in class, that my peers want to see my boyfriend’s results over mine even when we worked together on the assignment. Also, I noticed when I answer the phone, women usually describe the reason why they’re calling and ask me if I could help them, whereas men often want to immediately talk to one of my male colleagues. Maybe they just know the colleague from their project; I just noticed it quite a few times, and it made me feel like I was being disregarded.
About uni I can generally say that the gender distribution changed over the time of my studying there, I notice this especially now that I am in the Master’s programme. In the beginning, it was pretty much an equal amount of men and women. This might also be owed to the fact that the early lectures in the Bachelor’s programme are not exclusively for students of computer science but include media computer science, teacher trainees, mathematicians, and so on. Now, in the Master classes, I’d estimate there are about thirty men for every three women.
Do you have or have you ever had the feeling that you have to prove yourself more than others because you’re a woman?
My answer to this has to be a big YES. A lot of times I can’t help but to actually “grab” people to literally demonstrate that I am capable of doing a certain job and actually know what I’m doing. Sometimes it is very paradoxical. On the one hand, people will explain the simplest thing to me again and again, even if I have more experience in the area than the person explaining; on the other hand, I often have the feeling that I am expected to be able to do and understand things immediately, without having been given the chance to actually engage in the topic.
Are you thinking of a particular situation right now?
It has happened before that I had to admit I didn’t feel confident in my ability to successfully complete a task, and the supervisor loudly demanded of me to do it anyway multiple times. This went on until another colleague intervened to emphatically explain it didn’t make sense to force a task on me I wouldn’t be able to complete anyway. This situation taught me the importance of a confident attitude, especially as woman, so that everyone involved is able to achieve a satisfying solution to a given problem.
I talk about this kind of stuff a lot with my female friends who either still study with me or are already in a full-time job, and they all are familiar with all the scenarios I mentioned before.
How did you find DAASI International?
Someone I know recommended the company to me. As I had been to a couple of lectures at uni held by DAASI International employees I also knew the company from an academic setting.
What do you like the best about your job?
I appreciate not being treated any different by my colleagues just because I’m a woman. Everyone is always happy to help and I know they appreciate the work I do as well. Moreover, I really like being able to actually apply the theory I learn in class.
Is there anything you would like to say to girls and other women who are looking to have a career in a STEM profession?
Don’t let anyone get you down! You know what you’re capable of, be confident about that. Even if you do end up making a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. Everyone makes mistakes and it’s part of the learning process.
Is there anything else you would like to add now that we are at the end of our interview?
I really hope I don’t scare anyone off. Overall, I made a lot positive experiences in my still rather short (professional) IT career, which I wouldn’t want to trade for the world. Ultimately, men have to deal with unpleasant encounters and prejudice as well. However, I believe the industry is doing a good job to eliminate these old stereotypes – and as I said before I think I see the same kind of development in other industries, where prejudice towards men slowly but surely disappears.
Thank you very much, Pia, for this insightful interview and your time.