28.05.2021. ·
8 min

Debugging Gender Stereotypes – FishingBooker’s Female Coders

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Debugging Gender Stereotypes – FishingBooker’s Female Coders

Walk the corridors of FishingBooker’s offices, and one thing you’ll notice is the mixture of people around you. We base our operations in Serbia, and our employees come from as far afield as Russia, Peru, Australia, just to name a few.

When it comes to the distribution of men and women, it can look like some departments are even intentionally counteracting the “typical” gender balance for that field. Nowhere more so than in the Engineering Team.

Let’s start with the basics. In the crossover of two notoriously male-dominated sectors – tech and fishing – the ratio of female to male employees is very close to 50:50. That’s pretty surprising in itself.

It gets even more unusual when you get to the really “tech-y” part of the business. Only about a fifth of the technical (i.e. coding) jobs at large Silicon Valley companies are done by women. At FishingBooker, it’s 42%!

At the crossroads of two stereotypically male-oriented worlds, women are making a serious impact.

I spoke to some of FishingBooker’s female engineers to find out what it is about the company – and the country it’s based in – that has created such a balanced workplace where you would least expect it.

Small Country, Big Reach

Serbia’s unusual. In many ways, it’s a relatively traditional society, with quite traditional gender roles. According to UN Women, “women are under-represented in decision-making in all spheres of Serbia’s social, economic and political life.” But when it comes to technical education, it seems to be forging ahead.

In the US, less than 20% of recent computer science degrees have gone to women. In Serbia, classes are more equally balanced, with women making up 33% of the students entering Belgrade University’s Electrical Engineering Faculty this year.

Katarina Milosavljević, a software engineer at FishingBooker who graduated this year, said there was a roughly equal number of women and men in her classes.

And her colleague Kristina (Tina) Vasić says that there’s no place for stereotypes in the classroom. “I didn’t notice any barrier in my school time and on my job. I’ve had all the chances the same as my friends who are boys. My projects were graded according to my work, not my gender.”

Serbia’s also unusual because of the impact it’s having on the tech world at the moment. Just 20 years ago, the country was reeling from the painful breakup of Yugoslavia. Now, its homegrown companies are becoming market leaders in mobile gaming, biomedical research, and booking experiences for traveling anglers.

Olga Babić at work making it easier for people to book fishing trips with FishingBooker

Serbian engineers hit the headlines recently when Jelena Kovačević became the first female dean of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering in the United States. She recently spoke about how her early schooling and support from her parents gave her a resilience to gender bias as she progressed in her career. This background resonates with what some of FishingBooker’s female engineers described.

“Programming in Serbia is very popular since there are very intelligent people who are open to learning new things and sharing knowledge through the internet,” says Tina. “With all the resources available online and great faculties, the sky’s the limit. Nowadays, you can live in a small country in the central Balkans and, through the internet, provide a service that the whole world can use.”

That’s key to getting people into the field. Engineering offers a level playing field to people of all backgrounds. It provides the opportunity to break out of the limitations of your own country and compete on a global level.

For a small country with a big brain drain like Serbia, this means a lot. Engineering is one of the few career paths young Serbs can take that will reliably let them earn an international salary without having to relocate to another country. And Serbia’s growing number of startups and successful tech firms makes the appeal to stay even stronger.

Tina explained that learning programming in primary and secondary education makes this career path accessible to everyone. Add to that the multiple faculties with programming departments here, and the choice to learn coding at university becomes even more attractive, whatever your gender.

This early education makes a difference. I only recently found out that while I was sitting in my dark IT classroom in the UK, listening to someone talking about Excel, Nataša Ćirković, a software QA specialist at FishingBooker, was spending her general IT classes learning Pascal and HTML. This was in the early 2000s, and her main field of study was languages and social studies.

Teaching computer languages is standard in high schools and there’s significant funding in the field from the Serbian state. So perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that young Serbs are informed and attracted to a career in engineering, no matter their gender.

An Engineering Team with Women at Its Core

But what makes FishingBooker different, even in the Serbian context? Firstly, the fact that it’s developed with women in key positions in the team. Secondly, its strong emphasis on communicating ideas and suggestions openly, in a supportive environment.

Tina started working at FishingBooker nearly four years ago. When she arrived, she was one of two interns who worked alongside Vukan Simić, the CEO, on the entirety of FishingBooker’s product. She’s now one of the most senior team members and is one of the go-to people for questions about FishingBooker’s backend services and infrastructure planning.

With the team being mixed for, well, about as long as it’s been a “team,” there simply wasn’t the opportunity for it to develop the type of “bro-culture” that’s been discussed recently in international tech firms. Instead, it grew with a tradition of female mentors and role models, starting with Tina and expanding as the team grew. This has created an environment where, as corny as it may seem, people who know their stuff are respected because of the work they do, regardless of their gender.

Katarina, who joined the team two years ago, is now in charge of mentoring incoming interns. While she doesn’t notice any divide between men and women at work, she did point out how much FishingBooker values being open to communication, especially in the Engineering Team.

As she puts it, “Whatever your gender, you’re expected to give and receive criticism and praise openly, helping other people just as they’re there to help you.” This emphasis on helping and challenging others may explain why the team is so appealing to and respectful of people of all genders.

Tina agrees with Katarina, and adds that the girls in the team are often the most forthcoming. With their voices being heard on a daily basis, our female engineers are not only strongly represented, they’re also highly regarded as pioneers in adding new technology to our stack.

Weekly product demos contribute to this. These Friday afternoon gatherings allow anyone in the Product and Engineering teams to showcase the projects they’ve been working on that week. Both women and men are pushed to speak up and demonstrate the work they’ve been doing. As they get used to doing this on a weekly basis, they learn to speak with confidence about the work they’re producing, so no one on the team (male or female) gets to shrink back to the sidelines.

As Tina puts it: “Your opinion really matters here, however long you’ve been in the team. You’re expected to have ideas and share them!”

The Outcome

Everyone in the team works on a variety of different projects. But as people get involved in developing products, they tend to become the go-to person for that part of the website. This is what happened with Tina with Instant Messaging, and Katarina with internal dashboards.

Tina explained that when she started at FishingBooker, she worked on full-stack projects and learned about the whole process of implementing a feature. Nowhere was this more challenging – and more rewarding – than her work on creating an Instant Messaging platform for our users.

Leading the project all the way from making a Minimum Viable Product to a platform that sends tens of thousands of messages per week in high season, she coordinated its development from scratch.

While she’s now gravitating towards infrastructure and software architecture, she’s still involved in the ever-evolving messaging tool and is currently working on archiving conversations as well as making constant improvements based on feedback from its users.

Meanwhile, one of Katarina’s first projects as a software intern was building upon our internal CRMs and dashboards. When she started, these were fairly basic, newly implemented features that were just about letting our various teams communicate with each other properly. As the company grew, these dashboards needed to grow too, and Katarina’s been instrumental in making this happen. This is one of the projects she’s most proud of, as she can see how her work building good tools has made other teams happier and more efficient.

Strong female role models working on influential projects, combined with a heavy focus on open communication and mentorship, added to a background of increasing numbers of Serbian girls taking up programming at university… when you look closely, maybe the gender balance in FishingBooker’s Engineering Team isn’t so surprising after all.

Know how to code? If you’re able to think on your feet, give and receive criticism, and ready to get even better than you are right now, take a look at our open positions. We’d love to meet you!

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