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“You can’t be what you can’t see” An Interview with Fadumo Aideed

Have you ever felt like you haven’t had enough support and advice at school when it comes to you career choices? We find it incredibly shocking that some schools are still so behind the times when it comes to girls wanting to get into tech! Here, Women Rock Ambassador Jacob speaks with Fadumo Aideed  about her journey into this male dominated space. As a woman who is black and Muslim, Fadumo came up against many challenges but if anything this made her even more determined to create a safe space for Women in Engineering, Science & Technology (WEST).

Prepared to be inspired…

Tell us a bit about your story so far (how you got into tech, your time at school, time at uni, transition into coding etc.

My journey into tech was more of a discovery than a final career goal. During my time at school, I was always interested in STEM subjects but felt like I didn’t get enough support or advice from the school for continuing it without advocating for myself. My earliest experience of this was when I wasn’t allowed to sit GCSE science exams but teachers felt it was better if I opted for more vocational BTEC courses. Disheartened by my teachers for not seeing my potential, I was driven to prove them wrong. With the help of my parents and home tutors, I was finally able to sit them.

To my dismay, this would not be the only experience. Another similar situation occurred during A levels when I received “advice” from teachers on picking more practical subjects as I was interested in physics, particularly a career in astronomy. Again, I didn’t listen and went with my gut and decided I wanted to pursue Applied Physics at university. This turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. With no career goal in mind, I really enjoyed studying physics at university, particularly research in photonics which led me to my internship within the university’s photonics institute and gave me insight into academia and what studying a Ph.D. might be like but I was still unsure about my career goals.

After I graduated in 2020, I took a few months to think about what I wanted to pursue and during the summer I started to learn web development for fun as a hobby while I looked for graduate physics jobs. I had some experience programming during university but I did not enjoy it at all then. I was very lucky to stumble across the School of Code boot camp which was a lightbulb moment that completely changed my perspective and my career. I never considered tech as a career option as I always thought I would need further master’s qualifications to apply. School of Code didn’t only teach me how to code, it was a personal transformation that gave me important life skills which I am forever grateful for.

What is WEST and why did you found WEST (Women in Engineering, Science and Technology)?

Studying a male-dominated subject had its challenges. As a woman who is black and Muslim, sometimes you are not taken seriously, you get many slight remarks, mansplaining, comments and microaggressions, especially when voicing your opinion and getting yourself heard. I met some amazing and inspirational women who had similar experiences and our stories brought us together. What we thought were isolated individual experiences were deep-rooted unconscious/intentional gender bias.

We decided we wanted to create a safe space for Women in Engineering, Science & Technology (WEST) to come together, feel empowered and provide them the tools and opportunities to overcome the same issues we faced. Our vision then became to “engineer an inclusive culture for all”. Our success only accelerated as we all shared the same passion for increasing representation in STEM and was met with heavy support from the university, student union, and company sponsors.

As we grew we came across an opportunity to make an impact internationally. We decided then to branch off from the society and become a community interest company (C.I.C.) which allowed us to work on projects funded by the government. A bioenergy start-up PyroGenesys approached us with a proposal to help bring clean cooking energy to rural parts of Nigeria. We partnered with them to create a gender equality and diversity strategy to ensure that the technology they were introducing to these communities was inclusive, commercially viable, and would not result in any unintended consequences. After the project, we had the opportunity to do a TEDx talk, present our findings to the royal academy of engineering, and present at the International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists about how our projects are aiming to solve global humanitarian challenges.

We realised how important our work is in thinking about inclusivity from the early stages of innovation. Sometimes this can be overlooked and can lead to solutions that exclude some groups in society leading to gendered innovations and our vision to work toward more inclusive innovations

What challenges did you face and do women face in technology and how did you overcome and deal with those barriers?

I am very fortunate to not have experienced any challenges in my tech career so far however many women face many challenges especially when climbing up the career ladder. Breaking the glass ceiling is very difficult as there is no diversity in senior tech roles. I feel like it is a multitude of factors that prevent women in tech from progressing. The two main factors that come to mind are gender bias/discrimination and career progression into senior roles. Many women find it difficult to get their voices heard on their contributions and achievements which ultimately can drive them out of the industry.

How do you think we bring about real change in the representation of females and diverse hires in tech? What do you think can be done on both personal and business levels to attract more underrepresented groups into tech?

Real change comes from the bottom up. Teachers should not be reinforcing stereotypes about what students can achieve. It is very disheartening when teachers who are there to teach, inspire and uplift the next generation do the complete opposite and deter them from STEM altogether. The main drop-off point I feel is when they finish GCSEs. My passion is to do outreach to students and make them aware of the career opportunities that are out there. I myself didn’t even know what engineering was exactly until I was in sixth form so if a young kid is aware of the wide range of career options and knows it is possible to achieve it they will do well.

As for business, most junior tech job descriptions have unrealistic expectations. They want you to already have years of experience after you have only just graduated. Job criteria like this deter women as there are loads of statistics that show that women only go for roles when they meet 100% of the criteria compared to men who just apply if they meet around 60%.

What advice would you give to women thinking about getting into technology and development?

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to people already in the industry for mentorship or advice
  • Look into free online resources like freeCodeCamp or online tutorials
  • Apply for boot camps! There are loads of free ones like the School of Code
  • Join women in tech communities and find others on your journey
  • Apply to jobs even if you feel like you don’t have enough knowledge, In most tech roles you learn a lot on the job
  • Practice by doing! Incorporate your current interests with programming and create something cool
  • Don’t be a gatekeeper! If you find useful opportunities or resources, SHARE THEM!

A favourite quote and why?

The quote that stuck with me is “You can’t be what you can’t see – Marian Wright Edelman”
As children, we rely on stories, images, role models, and leaders that help us form our worldview on who we are and who we could be. Without anyone who looks like us, anyone who has paved the way for us to follow, we are unaware of the opportunities that lie in front of us and it becomes almost impossible to get your foot in the door.

A movie or book that inspired you and why?

The movie that inspired me the most was Hidden Figures. It was a movie based on the three African-American women who were the mathematicians behind the NASA space launch. Despite the racial discrimination and gender bias, they accomplished incredible things. There are a lot of women in history who are hidden figures that contributed significantly to innovations that history has forgotten or ignored.

What barriers have you personally faced so far and how did you overcome them?

I have always faced some sort of barrier where I have gone against the norm and someone says I can’t do it e.g. teachers or peers. What stopped me from listening to the negative noise was my parents’ support. Having a good support system at home is so important when making career decisions at a young age and I am lucky to have parents that have supported me every step of the way.

Proudest professional achievement?

My proudest professional achievement was teaching Code First Girls only a year into my tech career. It was both nerve-racking but also exciting that I could inspire women into the tech industry having only just begun my own journey. I would definitely encourage people to give back to the community even if you don’t feel like you know enough or it’s too early in your career.

Thanks Fadumo! You absolutely rock!

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