Being a woman in the tech sector

Béatrice Piquer Durand, of Ipanema Technologies, discusses the challenges of being a female in the male-dominated world of IT.

It was 8:30am on Tuesday morning, and I was yet again camping out next to the coffee machine. I’d be there every day for the next couple of weeks. It was part of my strategy to get the small team at my highly-technical start-up to do one very simple thing: talk. I wanted them to talk to me and to each other – and not necessarily in the language of business.

I had found that at the coffee machine was where the small talk happened. Lingering next to the coffee machine was just one of the things I did to overcome the unique challenges involved with being a woman working in a small business environment. Eleven years have now passed since I first joined Ipanema, a highly-technical company co-founded by three men, and I have learned a lot. Two lessons stand out: the importance of, and intricacies surrounding, quality communication, and the undeniable need for balance.

Crucial communications

Communication at start-ups can be difficult. I learned this quite quickly when I began at Ipanema. In my first year, I was given the task of adjusting our company website, the first the company ever had. Written by someone in research and development, the website had a number of technical terms. I think such is often the case for start-ups; developing from the ground up, the small size and intimate nature means that most within the business speak in the language of their product/offering.

Highly-specific terms become commonplace. I was tasked with changing things. I started by talking repeatedly to the three main founders. I brought in an external company to review the website and the company’s language. I conducted research of what was going on in the market, examining competitors and relevant websites. I then arranged a series of face-to-face meetings, fighting for a company consensus.

The process taught me an important lesson, one crucial for women in the start-up space – the importance of communication. I believe communication happens on numerous levels. My job was to adjust the company’s communication to the external world. To do this, I needed to shift internal communications as well, hence my camping out at the coffee machine, where employees would go before work. I stood there to talk and bond with them in a non-confrontational environment. I also organised lunches and brought in a mini-football table, encouraging staff to play and connect with each other. Such connections helped make our business-focused discussions more productive.

A male-dominated space

There was also an element of being a female in a male-dominated space and learning how to adjust interactions appropriately. I’ve noticed that occasionally women in business are perceived as being less efficient, seen as having less time to dedicate to work because of home. This is particularly true of start-ups, which tend to be male-dominated.

I also work in France, where there’s the belief that women are into shopping and houses, not business and technology. I found that to handle this, I had to prove I could communicate competently. I had to learn and understand the technology, making me prepared to negotiate at the same level. I had to be as forceful as the men – and sometimes even stronger. When I presented a topic, I would fight just a bit, showing the others that while I was indeed a woman, I knew what I knew, and I was able to handle the situation.

I’m not saying women in a start-up should stalk the coffee machine. I’m saying they should find ways to break down old barriers and build new bonds. By doing so, they will be able to communicate more effectively – and in a start-up, as I have found, communication is crucial.

Finding a balance

During my first few years at Ipanema, the company’s energy was very strong. There were around 20 of us, most with entrepreneurial spirit. As we were small, all of us had to work hard. We had to be very efficient. As a result, I found my hours were very long. I would stay late in the office always thinking of the next thing. With the website, for instance, we didn’t have the budget to hire an external company, so I trained myself. When I wasn’t in the office, I was thinking of work at home. When preparing food during dinner, or shopping for groceries, I would focus on the company. The job was with me everywhere.

On one hand, this start-up buzz can be very exciting. I always carried a pen and a notebook with me, jotting down ideas as they happened. On the other hand, the lack of a work-life balance was challenging, particularly as a married woman. Focusing on work at home wasn’t healthy. It meant I wasn’t giving my relationship the attention it deserved, and such work/life overlap could not last forever. Rather than burn out, I learned to manage my time. I created clear boundaries in terms of where the work day finishes and family time begins. Today, I work usually until late in the evening. Then I close my laptop and don’t open it again.

When on holiday, I implement a ‘phase out’ period. The first three days, I respond to emails. After that, I switch off. I’m only available by emergency calls. This allows me to be there for my husband and focus completely on him. I also allocate ‘me’ time. Every Wednesday I have an hour slot in my calendar for tennis. I block it out in my diary and honour it in the same way I would a customer meeting.

Part of such time management is learning to outsource certain tasks. I now have someone who helps me with home cleaning and those details, and I do my shopping online. By finding a balance between work and play, I’m able to fully concentrate on each task in the moment. I’m not thinking of home at the office, or vice versa.

From camping out at the coffee machine, to table football teams, to the exciting buzz of constant development, working in a small business environment can be amazing. As a woman, it can also be uniquely challenging. There are husbands and families at home, and still very-real biases at work. I’ve handled these challenges through communication and balance – and a good deal of coffee.

See also: Top 9 women founders leading the UK’s high-growth UK scale-ups

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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Women In Business

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