Part of our role as a recruitment company in the tech industry is to continue to foster positive change, build communities and challenge the status quo. Of key importance to us is removing stereotypes, championing equality and building a strong workforce of females in technology.
We hope that we get to a day where this is no longer a conversation we need to have, but unfortunately, it still is. While some progress toward an equal state has been made, we have some way to go. . We need to understand that prejudice, sexism and ageism still exist. As females we need to build strong and supportive communities around ourselves, and limit this to background noise.
Recently, our very own Kylee sat down with Ezel Kokcu, CEO and Co-Founder of Passphere and to discuss overcoming challenges for females in technology, what she’s learnt along the way building start ups and some of her biggest learnings.
Even though these challenges exist, it is still a really exciting time to be a woman in business. There is a real willingness to grow our tribe and to connect more than ever to support each other as we grow. When you were growing up, were you ever exposed to messages that made you feel the role of a woman in the workforce was different to that of men?
Ezel: When I started my first company at 18, I was incredibly naive and did think of everyone as equal. Growing up I hadn’t been exposed to sexism or inequality - I went to an all girls school in Nelson so we were taught there was an equal footing for everyone. But leaving school and entering tech, I realised I was mistaken. Being a female in tech is still relatively rare - there really aren’t many of us.
My first experience of being exposed to inequality in business is one I remember so vividly. The first board meeting I attended was at one of our investors home - not only was I the only female - I was also the youngest. Our advisor turned to me and asked me for my elevator pitch. I took a moment to collect my thoughts - about 30 seconds - and as I went to answer he cut me off and said they needed someone who could respond quicker. This was the first time in my life I had the feeling of wanting to retreat - not because I didn’t know what to say - but because he simply wouldn’t allow me the time I needed to answer.
What shift do you see needs to happen in order for females to not only continue to enter tech, but take a leading role in organisations?
When I started university, I found it quite overwhelming – I entered this giant lecture hall with a sea of males and there were only 5 females. I must be honest, none of us felt comfortable being in the lecture hall, and sadly, by the time I left 3 had already left, and I was the fourth to go. Only one of us stayed on and completed our degree.
Part of the issue stems a little from our parents, but more so the school system. Because there is still the perception that coders are males who sit in front of their computers all day shutting themselves off from the world, I still hear people saying to females “you don’t want you to be stuck in front of the computer coding”
So how did you continue on your journey, even in the face of adversity and these stereotypes?
I was lucky that early on I found my niche in product management – it combined the two areas I was passionate about – technology and product - and sales and delivery. Being able to understand what is technically possible, work closely with customers to understand what they need, and then visualising and delivering the product on time (and within budget).
I think it’s really important for females to look at the technology environment so they can see it’s more than just computer science which is offered at university - there are so many different paths they can take. It’ doesn't have to be as complex as software engineering because you can do everything from graphic design, to front end coding.
How do you build a sense of female comradery in the workforce without sacrificing what you want to achieve?
Unfortunately, the biggest disappointments I’ve had over the last 7 years, and where I’ve been let down the most has been from the females in higher positions than me, or the ones that are supposed to be supporting me.
And it’s a common theme - a lot of other females I work with have similar stories. Females in the workplace just seem to try and bring each other down. I hope my generation can see there has been years of us being pitted against each other – and be the ones that can make that change. Too often there are pre-automated responses to females who are doing better than what we are, and to bash them down until they fail – and then we take pleasure in their failure.
There is the idea that there is only a certain amount of room for woman in these positions, and we can be our own worst enemies. We try to protect our space with this in our minds, when we need to step out and realise that it’s not the case, and there is so much room, and enough room for us all.
Following on from what you’ve just said about collectively we have the power to change, what do you think women can do to find their voice or achieve more prominent roles in the organisation?
At home, we are the predominant decision makers - as a woman we have a massive say in what brands are brought and at what price points. But in the office we have a huge issue where we suffer imposter syndrome, so we always think we don’t deserve things.
So firstly – we really need to start understanding our value. A good example of this is a friend of mine who is extremely loyal to her work. Her boss, (the CEO), asked her to go on a skills swap conference overseas – and she turned it down because she didn’t feel she deserved it. She thought it was wrong for her to let the company pay for her to go because she didn’t feel she was qualified enough. Honestly, I was shocked that she didn’t have the confidence in herself that others clearly had.
We must get over that uncertainty and know we deserve to be in an organisation that values our skills and nurtures us. We must stop waiting in the shadows for someone to give us that opportunity because it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen unless you ask for it.
Looking back over the last 7 years, if you had to start from scratch…what would you do differently?
I like to say nothing, but everything. I wouldn’t want to change anything because I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. But one thing I would change is early on I would have surrounded myself with humble people, and cut others out of my life sooner. In the startup realm, too often you see people affected by the money, and the fame, and everything that goes along with it. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by good people in my team, and my customers and closest friends as they do bring me down to earth.
Finally, what advice would you give to next generation of females entrepreneurs and leaders?
I would tell them to keep going - even in the face of uncertainty. The number one thing that kills startups is the uncertainty - it’s not an easy gig because you don’t know what’s around the corner. You started this because you’re passionate. Find a way to remove as much risk as possible, and just go for it. On your journey, make sure you surround yourself with other females doing amazing things that you can call on - and remember: quiet mouths don’t get fed - ask for what what you want.