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Critical Future Tech

Issue #15

Welcome to a new year. I hope you'll take the time to appreciate all the available time there still is before the cycle repeats. Don't waste it.

On this edition we're joined by Inês Santos Silva, cofounder of the Portuguese Women In Tech, where she discusses her pursuit for positive change and the challenge of shifting mentalities and stereotypes in the Portuguese tech ecosystem.

She's definitely making the best use of her time.

- Lawrence

Conversation with
Conversation with Inês Santos Silva

Cofounder of Portuguese Women In Tech

This conversation was recorded on Dec. 22nd 2021 and has been edited for length and clarity.

Lawrence - Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of Critical Future Tech.

Today we have Inês Santos Silva. Inês is a managing partner at Aliados consulting, an innovation consulting firm that empowers people and organizations to move towards a sustainable future. On the side — but not least importantly — Inês is also the co-founder and chief activist at Portuguese Women In Tech, a community focused on attracting more women to tech and on supporting those that are already working in technology.

Inês, welcome to Critical Future Tech.

Inês - Thank you very much. It's really a great pleasure to be here and have this conversation with you.

"This doesn't make sense. Why am I the only one pushing this area of tech entrepreneurship? Why am I not seeing women building tech companies? Why am I not seeing women working for tech companies?"

L Thank you. As we were talking, just before we started recording, I've seen your name around a while now. I've also dabbled in the entrepreneur world, if you will. And I think it's sort of inevitable to see our name pop up, at least here or there at some point.

You've done a lot of things and I invite anyone interested to look at Inês's LinkedIn.

You're very much engaged in this sort of positive change and having a serious impact in society, by the looks of the projects you've worked on. Startup Pirates is one of the main ones that comes to my mind. And so my question is where does this drive comes from? This drive to have such an impact on society.

I That's a very good question and I honestly don't know exactly the right answer.

Of course, if you look at my journey up until here I've done a lot of things. I've worked with entrepreneurship and I'm very passionate about innovation. But I think everything started a long, long time ago, when I was still in college.

And I think by chance and luck, I was at the right place at the right time. In 2010 I was leaving a project that I have been involved in for three years up until that point and I had heard a few things about entrepreneurship. I didn't know much about it, but somehow this idea of you taking your skills, your ideas, and then runing with them and seeing where they could take you.

I just really fell in love with this idea of: use technology to have an impact, not only locally, but also globally. And this was 2010-2011. Portugal was in a very hard situation with the economic crisis and the unemployment rate was really, really high.

My question was: what can I do to really have a positive impact? And give tools to a number of people that are looking at entrepreneurship as a way for them to develop their own path, but lack those tools and lack that "what should I do next"?

Of course looking back seems like a path that I was taking but honestly it was just going from one thing to the next one. Trying to do as much as possible, trying to be as helpful as possible and also trying to develop skills for myself so I could help others through that journey.

I've had people telling me "oh, you seem like you always are very driven by impact" and it's true. I think we have a number of hours. I think it's 80,000 hours of work life and I want to make sure that I use those hours to work on things that I'm passionate about and work on things that can leave some kind of positive legacy for the people that are engaged with it.

L That's a lovely answer. I also subscribe to the idea of what you leave behind for others. And you also seem to have this thing of empowering others, helping others sort of realize that entrepreneurship or something along those lines can be a way to make the life that they want and also have some sort of impact. That's great.

But you were saying that there was this key moment during college, you started hearing about it, you got curious. So in a way you always chased that curiosity or never settled for what you knew. Always learning more, going after new knowledge and seeing what that would sort of unlock. That was a bit how you approached it?

I Yeah. There is a saying in Portugal that I really hate that says "curiosity killed the cat". I really don't understand how we can say this. And we keep on saying this to young kids, saying that "you should not be curious".

But honestly I think curiosity has been a main driver for my life. I'm very curious and I'm always eager to learn about a few things. And a lot of people say: "you should work on something that you are passionate about", which I think is true, but you need to find out what you are passionate about.

Try to do a lot of different things, try to understand like what I'm passionate about, try to understand what I'm good at, what I'm not good at, what I like and enjoy. And there are a lot of things that I don't like and don't enjoy.

And honestly be brave enough to follow a different path because it's interesting to look back at my life and say: "I have done all these things and it's cool and a lot of people find it cool".

But during that process I also heard a lot of people say: "what are you doing with your life? What are you doing? Why don't you find a job in a nice company? Why aren't you doing some other things?" Sometimes I even receive emails from people telling me they don't understand what I do. So. I think we need to be a little bit defiant and to try to not care too much about what other people think about us and lead a path. And I know that my path was not conventional but it was definitely driven by curiosity, trying to do things in a different way.

"We want to make sure that girls that are in school – like 5 years old to 18 years old – they really hear that technology might be for them. It doesn't need to be, but might be for them."

L Yeah. I also mentioned that we have a mutual friend. He's also very driven and also very curious. And sometimes I ask myself, how do you instill this curiosity?

And it probably has to do with your life experience: how you were brought up, your education, what your parents told you, whether or not they encouraged you to be curious or if they told you "don't be an outlier because people talk about it" or whatever.

And I do feel that Portuguese are a bit sort of shy in a way, and they are shy to be standing out. That's my interpretation and I think some people will agree that we don't really like to be the one standing out in a room. We'll first look for what's working and then we may even do that and innovate on top of that, but we won't take the leap of faith to be the ones risking it. I think we are somehow a bit risk averse as a people.

And luckily I think that's changing. You can see more and more stories of amazing Portuguese success cases here, out there. Too often out there, which can be a sign that we need to still evolve internally.

So I want to dive into the main thing. I guess you must be more than used to talking about it. The Portuguese Women In Tech. I'm curious as to how you reached this moment where you said: this makes sense.

First tell us a little bit what it is, what it does, but I'm very interested in the rationale on how you and your co-founder arrived there and said: "this makes sense to be done".

I Yeah. So I think the story of Portuguese Women In Tech actually started many years before. So when I went to school, I decided to study business and looking back now, I understand why I decided to study business. Because really, I didn't know anyone that was doing some kind of engineering course or studying to be a software developer.

I didn't know anyone. My father is an entrepreneur. My mother is a math teacher, so my mother was the closest that I have to engineering and software development. But then I realized early on, even though I really liked economics – I read a lot about it and management as well – I also always loved technology. I never had anyone giving me a computer and say: "just do it and you can code and so on".

I could see that something was there but was not aware that I could actually be part of that. But then when I joined a university and because of falling in love with entrepreneurship, I could see that entrepreneurship – especially tech entrepreneurship – was exactly what I wanted to work on.

And how we can use technology to build these products that can be used by millions of people around the world and solve problems and really make sure that we have a more productive and more fulfilling life.

And so when I was doing this discovery, I also realized that I was one of the only women actually in this area and I felt like "why? What's happening"? So I started looking around and I found very early on this initiative called Geek Girls Dinners.

It was this initiative that was created by Vânia Gonçalves and she was living in Brussels, coming to Portugal every now and then to organize this initiative and I was helping her out. I went to the fifth anniversary of London's Geek Girls Dinners. Then I lived in Zurich and I created the Zurich Geek Girl Dinners.

And because I really could see that very early on: we needed more women in this area.

Of course, now I can argue and can give you a lot of reasons why we need more women.

Back then it was just this feeling of: "This doesn't make sense. Why am I the only one pushing this area of tech entrepreneurship? Why am I not seeing women building tech companies? Why am I not seeing women working for tech companies?"

I kept being involved in a lot of different initiatives here in Portugal and also internationally. But then in 2016, Liliana and I, we decided to say well let's give visibility.

This was the idea: let's give visibility to women that are working in the Portuguese tech scene. The Web Summit was happening in Portugal for the first time that year so "let's make sure that if people search for Portuguese women in tech, they find something". They find women that are working in some of the best Portuguese tech companies and they know that they exist and they know their story.

We did that but, of course, we realized early on that we needed to do more. We needed to support women that were working with technology. Providing visibility but also training opportunities, job opportunities, community gatherings and opportunities. And that was part of it.

But we also needed to make sure that we could attract more women to technology. We want to make sure that girls that are in school – like 5 years old to 18 years old – they really hear that technology might be for them. It doesn't need to be, but might be for them. And they see role models, they see examples of other women who are working in this field. They understand what actually means to work in technology.

So that's how we decided to start Portuguese Women In Tech. Since then we have done a lot of things: our awards, our mentorship program. Now the Future Portuguese Women In Tech, more targeted at schools. So we decided to do a lot of different initiatives to focus on our mission of making sure that we have more women working in technology, making sure that we attract more women to this area.

"It's not only about telling that technology is also for women but it's also telling what it actually means to work with technology."

L Yeah, and you have started not too long ago, five years?

I 2016, so five years.

L Because of the impact that I think you have already accomplished, it feels like this has been a longer effort. I think that the impact is visible. I do a lot of recruiting now and in the past I have done it in the company that was previously, and I would say, as an anecdote, that you do see more women applying, more women coming out of STEM fields.

And, more interesting for me is the repurposing of some women that came from more traditional fields and they're like, "okay let me do Le Wagon or some code school and repurpose myself into these data area" or something that was maybe perceived as being more for men.

Right. So what are the things that over these four years, almost five, that you have noticed?

"I can see this perception has changed" or something along those lines?

I Yeah. So I think the first, I think just to give some numbers to people that are listening to us. Right now I think more or less 15% of the professionals in IT in Portugal are women. So more or less similar to the European average. We have, I think more or less 14% of students in IT are women. So a little bit lower. But what we know is that 20 years ago, we had more women working technology that we have right now. And I think that's where it's weird. Like, why? But it's true. 25 years ago we had more women.

Until 2011, more or less, we saw a decline of women working in technology. And since then we have seen a rise in the number of women working in technology. But this has been very, very slow. That rise has been slow, even though what we are seeing right now is more people talking about it.

So we see more awareness for the situation and I think that awareness will have an impact going forward. We also see more women (as you were mentioning) going through reskilling programs and now work in technology, that's where we are seeing the biggest rise of women in technology.

But looking back at the past five years, I think the main difference that I see is clearly the awareness. Companies are more aware and are more eager to be engaged. And schools are also more interested in being part of the solution and developing a program specifically to make sure that they attract more women to technology. But I still think that we have a long way to go before we actually have a more balanced ratio. And that's why we believe that it's important to really make a difference or develop initiatives that target 5th grade to the 9th grades.

In 10th grade or 12th grade decisions are already made more or less. If you go to any school and you talk with boys and girls, they more or less know what they want to be. And that's why we want to impact 5th to 9th graders because we really see that that's where they start deciding where they want to go and what they want to do and we want to give them more knowledge.

It's not only about telling that technology is also for women but it's also telling what it actually means to work with technology.

Usually boys at this age know that they want to work in technology because they like games and so what they think that they are going to do has to do with game development. But girls don't don't have that connection.

So even though we see more and more girls playing games, especially mobile games. They look at technology in a very passive way. It's like they are users of technology. They never see themselves as makers, creators of technology.

"Women in Portugal love math, love science, they just don't love technology. And I think that the reason is because they were told that technology was not for them."

L You are talking about a younger age, right?

I A younger age, exactly.

L Do you have any idea why they have this perception of themselves in regards to technology?

I Yeah. I think a lot of what we have been reading has to do first with role models, a lack of role models. You are what you see. The context that we live in pretty much decides more or less the path that we are going to take. Of course there are people that are outliers but I think in general people follow paths that fit their context. So we need to bring new information to that context and that new information needs to come as early as early as possible.

Because again, going back, it's context, lack of role models and also our society. Even if you don't see it, we are always telling boys and girls what they should do and think. And even though there's a lot of unconscious bias, no one does it because they want to.

But if you look at books, the stories that we usually tell young boys and girls are the girl that is saved by the charming prince. And even with games or toys. If you go to a supermarket, you clearly see which toys are for boys and which toys are for girls and they are so, so different, like the pink and the blue. Some of the toys even say for boys or for girls on the box.

So from a very young age we start telling boys and girls what they should do, then the context, the lack of role models. Everything is like a cocktail that, going forward, the decisions are made in this context, which means that then girls don't pursue careers in technology and boys love careers in technology. So that's a lot of what we see.

"Because women are usually educated to be more empathetic, more caring, more focused on the common good and less focused on themselves, I think they look at technology not only as a means to an end, but also at the impact that technology has."

L It is a very complex topic. I occasionally discuss it in a light way because I don't have enough understanding. But I'm very curious to know what is the right approach? Again, I do believe that: yes, what you give to kids at a young age will shape their taste for one thing or another.

There's a lot of things that are geared towards boys, others geared toward girls. Then there's the sort of traditional idea of what a boy should be and what a girl should be. And then the parents are going to reinforce or break the stereotype. And even if you do break or not, sometimes there's just no interest.

So I was wondering where Portugal stands in terms of being more or less traditional in how we educate boys and girls in terms of their career aspirations and so on?

I Yeah. I think if you look at the statistics in Portugal and compare, for example, with the U.S., it's quite similar. The number of women in technology are quite similar. For example Portugal is the number one country in the OECD countries in terms of women studying STEMS.

We have more women studying STEMs – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – than we have men. We have 55% of women, 45% of men. And that has to do with, I think, the fact that women in Portugal love math, love science, they just don't love technology. And I think that the reason is because they were told that technology was not for them.

A lot of times people come to me and say: "women don't pursue a career in technology because they don't like math". But that doesn't make sense at all because we have more women in Portugal studying math than we have men.

Going back to your question, I think Portugal is very much in line with what other countries are doing. I don't think that this is a Portuguese specific problem. I wish it were because if it was only Portugal, we could see solutions in other countries that we could replicate.

And I think it's very important to understand because a lot of people say women don't like software development, but again, that's not true. There was a time where software developers were only women because there was a time where hardware was for men and software was for women.

During the second world war in the U.S., and in the U.K., women were the ones doing the software development. They were actually called computers. But then after the second world war, when men came back from the war they took their jobs.

Basically what happened there was women were told "thank you for your service. Now go back to your home, take care of your husband and kids". Women were at the forefront of the technology and software development, but because of "convention" and how things were done, they were sent home.

There are actually pictures of 21 year old women software developers in their retirement party because they were going to be retired after their service during the second world war, so they could go home and again, take care of their kids and husbands. And that's okay!

That was the thing back then, but that really shows that when people say "women just don't like technology, women just don't like to be software developers, this is not a job for women", that really shows that that's not true.

And that's what gives you strength and also the belief that we can change that. And what I really want is to break the stereotypes and make sure that really people follow the careers that they want to pursue because they have all the information, the right context to make that decision.

L Thank you. Um, yeah, sorry again, for my connection. So in order to finalize our hour, I had exposed that I think that there are some differences in terms of how women and men reason or do problem solving. But just for you to understand what I mean.

I have observed, or at least it seems to me that, for instance, one of the things that you will notice is that women have more empathy and more sympathy towards specific issues and specific problems.

And by that, I mean, I've read and I've interviewed, and I've spoken with many people that are concerned about the impact of technology. They are concerned on how it affects human beings, how it affects society, the ethical and moral implications of technology. And many times they are women, right?

So I'm wondering. If there's something to it? If by any chance, women are more inclined to that sort of analysis, in contrast to men that don't seem to appreciate, or don't seem to be as interested in that perspective.

And all of that, just to say that, I think it's very important that we do look at it in that sense, on the impact and implications and the downside of things, not just being the biggest and fastest and most badass thing. Also how it will be used and applied, who is not benefiting from it. So when I'm looking at recruiting and when I'm looking at candidates, I'm always wondering what is the right mix in the mindsets between one engineer and another?

And I know that some people will say, "well an engineer's an engineer, there is no difference on how women and men learn or do problem solving". And I don't think that that's a hundred percent true. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your take on it. What is your perspective on whether or not there's a difference? And if so, what would those be? You know, the ups and downs, let's say.

I That's a very hard question to answer. This will be my take and then probably I will say a lot of mistakes but this is of course my opinion.

And I think the first thing – it's something that you mentioned – men and women are very, very different. And I don't think that actually science or our world understands how different we are. There is an amazing book called "Invisible Women" by Caroline Criado Perez and she really shows how different men and women are. And the fact that, for example, even in 2021, men and women's bodies are not taken into consideration when testing medicines and vaccines, for example, or when testing cars. This is just an example. So again, men and women are very different and I think we need to recognize that and we need to make sure that we address that in science and in public spaces and so on. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is something that I don't think that we recognize how differently we treat boys and girls since they are in their mother's belly. From a very, very young age, we treat and we educate boys and girls in very, very different ways.

And as an example, we usually treat boys to be very competitive, very confident. And we treat girls to be much less competitive. We never incentivize girls to be competitive. And somehow – and there are a lot of studies that show that – we take confidence from women. So women as they grow, they become less and less confident. And there are, again, a lot of studies that show that.

That being said – that we are biologically different, but also socially different because of our education – of course I think that men and women end up bringing different things to the workplace.

There are also studies that show that diversity – not only in terms of gender, but in terms of age, ethnicity and so on – brings value to a team, brings value to a company. There are studies that show that companies that are more diverse, usually perform better in terms of financial and economic topics.

Going back to the example you were sharing. Because women are usually educated to be more empathetic, more caring, more focused on the common good and less focused on themselves, I think they look at technology not only as a means to an end, but also at the impact that technology has.

I think they are aware of the challenges that technology can bring to the world. As you mentioned, there are a lot of very well known women that are voices in this area. But of course there are also men that are very engaged in this topic.

But my opinion is that men and women definitely bring different things to the workplace, diversity is good for companies, is good for teams, and the companies that are able to make the most of that diversity are the companies that are going to succeed.

L Inês thank you for sharing those lovely words for us to finish this program.

Diversity brings better solutions, more long-term sustainability – financially or in whatever endeavor. I also believe in that.

The big challenge is to find that diversity and change mindsets within our teams and our employers and society at large in order to truly be diverse and accept those different ideas and different perspectives when we're creating things.

So I thank you for bringing that forward and I'm very happy to know that we have people doing this within Portugal, helping the ecosystem to mature, more robust and more diverse as you were saying. So thank you for sharing.

As we finish, I always ask our guests to tell the audience where they can be reached. Should anyone complain about any of your opinions or if they just want to follow you and know what you're up to? Where can people reach you?

I Yeah. People can reach me at inessilva.me, that's my website. There you can find my Twitter, LinkedIn, and email. So feel free to email me or follow me on social media. I'm not very active on social media, honestly but I occasionally share what we are doing and what we want to do.

I also want to take this chance to ask whomever is listening to us to also do your part because, of course there's so many things that we need to do.

I think probably a lot of the people that are listening to us work in technology and if you could share what you actually do every day with your cousins, your younger sisters and brothers, because we really need to show people what it actually means to work in technology.

And this applies to boys and girls. Whenever I go to a school, I really see the lack of information that young people have of what is done in a tech company. And so I really ask you to just spend some time sharing the impact of your work, what you do and make sure that they feel happy in the end. Maybe they will feel inspired to pursue a career in technology.

When we asked (in our Pioneer report that we did two years ago) the reason that women followed a career in technology, a lot had to do with passion for technology. But there were also a lot of them that shared with us that there was this older cousin or older brother or a family friend that inspired them to pursue a career in technology.

So I think that we should not undervalue what we can individually do to change this area and provide information to the next generation that might want to pursue a career in technology.

"If you could share what you actually do every day with your cousins, your younger sisters and brothers, because we really need to show people what it actually means to work in technology."

L That's a lovely way to end it. That's right. Be the role model that the world needs you to be, for everyone.

Thank you for that message Inês. And I hope that we'll speak agains soon, here or offline.

I Definitely. Thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure.

You can connect with Inês on her website, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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