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“I don’t want to hide who I am”: Jess Dodson on storytelling, sexism and the power of a supportive culture

When Jess Dodson was a little kid, she was fascinated by technology.

“Dad was a system engineer, and we always had computers at home,” Jess remembers. “I was so excited by the internet, because it was this way of connecting with people no matter where they were.”

In primary school, she had an email penpal who lived in America. By high school, she’d discovered chatrooms, where she would ultimately meet her now husband. “We met online before it was cool,” she quips.

With a natural passion for technology and a supportive parent in the industry, it made sense for Jess to pursue a career in IT when she joined the workforce in the early 2000s. What didn’t make sense was the culture she found when she got there.

In the male-dominated tech sector, Jess stuck out like a sore thumb.

“I had to be willing to stand up for myself”

A young female child on a computer
Since childhood, Jess was always surrounded by computers.

When Jess got her first job at the University of Queensland as a helpdesk technician, troubleshooting, installing hardware and helping to buy equipment, she quickly proved her worth. Jess was a fast learner and soon graduated from IT assistant to IT officer, before moving into a more senior role. Then, she got a job in government, managing thousands of servers at a time.

“That much bigger environment was really exciting for me,” she says.

Jess’s career was going from strength to strength, and eventually saw her specialising in cybersecurity. Yet gender stereotypes often obscured the way her colleagues and clients perceived her.

“I would often join a meeting or walk into a room for it to be assumed I wasn’t the technical person,” she says.

And when I was introduced as the technical person, you could see that look of shock on people’s faces.

Jess knew that her experience wasn’t unique. Female friends in the industry would routinely share stories of clients giving them coffee orders, assuming they were there to take notes … the list went on. But at the beginning of her career, Jess had found a secret weapon.

“My very first manager was absolutely no-nonsense. She was the only other woman in my team, and she helped me become more assertive, instilling in me that I could be polite while still standing up for myself. Her example has rung true with me the whole way through.”

“It’s about more than interfacing with a machine”

By 2019, when Jess came to Microsoft where she now works as a Senior Customer Engineer in Security and Identity, the industry had begun to shift.

“I noticed more women getting into tech, and realising that the industry is about more than just interfacing with a machine,” says Jess.

“In truth, I spend 90 per cent of my time talking to customers. And for that, you need interpersonal skills. So, I saw more women join the industry who weren’t only technically talented, but who were also really good at communicating those technical details.”

Change was happening, in other words. But it wasn’t happening fast enough for Jess, who decided to use her new platform at Microsoft to push for progress.

“There are a lot of women who can’t tell their stories”

One of Jess’s first initiatives at Microsoft was to co-lead the local chapter of the Women IT Pros across Asia Pacific. It’s a monthly meeting where women come together to share insights on technical topics like database and server management, as well as topics like career progression and gender issues.

A woman laying down on a hammock with a laptop
Now, Jess uses her platform at Microsoft to empower other women such as co-leading the Women IT Pros group.

Jess also took it upon herself to find out more about the obstacles facing other women in the industry, and use her voice to shine a light on them.

As well as sharing these stories at local tech conferences, Jess has taken them over to Florida for Microsoft Ignite, an annual gathering of technology leaders where she has become a regular speaker. “Microsoft is committed to getting better and doing more,” she says.

Closer to home, Jess has been working with her managers to find ways of attracting more women to their teams. One way they’re doing that is by rethinking the way they advertise roles.

“Often, we say we want candidates to have these 50 skills,” Jess explains. “And what happens is that men take a look and go, ‘Yeah, I can do some of that, so I’ll give it a try’.

But if women look at that list and don’t tick every single box, they just won’t apply. So, we’re rewording those advertisements, and it’s working – we’re seeing more women apply for the roles, which means we’re seeing more women shortlisted for the roles.

“I don’t want to hide who I am”

Jess says that the industry is becoming more inclusive every day, and she feels optimistic about the emergence of a culture where every employee can bring their whole self to work.

“I don’t want to hide who I am and I don’t want anyone else to hide who they are,” she says. “I want women be able to showcase that they are wives and mothers and aunts and daughters, and to be supported in those roles wherever they work.”

When asked about the advice she would give other women starting out in the industry, Jess says it’s all about who you know. “Find your people,” she says. “It’s a cliché because it’s true – everyone needs a group of people who are there for them no matter what, because finding that group is what empowers you to be your best self.”

Aspiring to do what you love every day? See available positions at Microsoft.