It can be tough being a woman in an industry where almost four in five people are men. But that's just another challenge that Pia Waugh enjoys, alongside juggling her own consultancy, a research position at Macquarie University, running Linux Australia and Software Freedom International, and being otherwise heavily involved in the industry.
Liz Tay speaks with Waugh about her experiences, passion for technology and open source, and advice on how to take on the skills shortage in Australia.
What, and when, was your first job in IT?
I believe that I was 18 [or] 19, working as a technician and sales person for a small IT company in Revesby in Sydney. It was part-time, while I was at Uni, and it was quite enjoyable getting to pull things apart and play with things. That was my first paid IT job. It was mainly hardware, but also a bit of software; people coming in with screwed up computers and we had to fix them. It was fun.
What first sparked your interest in IT?
My mum was a techie so I've been using computers since I was four. Going through school I changed my mind many times, as we all did - you know, wanting to be a vet, or a Chinese medicine person, or in IT, or whatever. But I ended up falling back into IT because it's just a natural fit for me and I love technical work, and then I got into Linux and that propelled me more into IT.
Did school influence your decision to go into IT at all?
No, not at all. In fact, every IT teacher I've had has been completely useless. I went to a small country school up until Year 10, and there were only two of us interested in computers: one girl and one boy. And we used to fight like mad, because I was a PC girl and he was a Mac boy. And in Year 11 and 12, when I went to an all-girls' school which was a bit bigger, there were only probably half a dozen of us who were into computers. So I've never really had that many of my peers into it.
Did you ever find it difficult as a woman in IT?
It was never hard being a woman in IT. It's interesting, actually, because I think there are cultural expectations in countries like Australia and the US that you need to be masculine to be in a male-dominated industry. Whereas you go to countries like Malaysia, or Finland, or even Iran, and there's a lot more women in IT because there's not a gender association with IT, and thus they don't expect you to be masculine to go into IT. It's been interesting to look around the world and to understand that that is a cultural expectation and thus it is something that we can actually overcome.
I mean, I've had people assume that I've had to be a big, butch lesbian to be working with computers. But that's such a rarity. It's not even a butch thing for males to get into! [Laughs] So it's quite bizarre.