Meet the IT expert championing diversity in the workplace

20 Feb, 2018

Northern Voices participant Tanja Lichtensteiger was empowered by coding at a young age. When her computing class sat down to play a game that taught BASIC, she picked it up quickly.

“When you’re eight years old and a little girl, having the power to control a machine and tell it what to do is quite thrilling,” Tanja recalls. “From then on, you’re building something that you have under control – and I really enjoyed that.”

Tanja is now the Business Systems Development Manager at Leeds Beckett University and helps her staff deliver IT projects using an Oracle, web and Microsoft tech stack.

“When you’re eight years old and a little girl, having the power to control a machine and tell it what to do is quite thrilling,”

She almost took a different route to the one that led to her working in tech for the past 17 years. Aged 11, she found herself in a robotics class studying the C programming language because art was full.

“At that point I knew that I wanted to go into technology,” she says. “I just had to get into the industry.”

Experiencing prejudice

Tanja, who is mixed race with Swiss-Filipino heritage, successfully applied for a three-year apprenticeship with retail giant Migros after moving to Switzerland. Shortly after starting it, she experienced sexism and racism – prejudice that would pervade her entire apprenticeship and early career in tech.

“Nobody expected a brown girl to be part of the great institution of Migros, the ‘gatekeeper of Swiss history and traditions’,” she says. “It wasn’t the most welcoming of environments – in the first week I was trying to open one of the secure doors into our department and was mistaken for a cleaner.”

Tanja was the only female and non-white person in the retailer’s 120-people-strong IT department, and one of only three girls participating on its apprenticeship schemes.

“It did give me some self-doubt over whether it was where I wanted to be,” she says. “At the same time, I felt more determined to succeed and knew that I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t have what it took.”

Building confidence

Due to her back-office role at the university, Tanja admits that she doesn’t have as much face-to-face interaction with students as she would like. However, she regularly introduces them to academics and is an active champion of diversity in tech outside of the university’s walls, attending events, mentoring, appearing on panels and giving presentations.

An “extremely shy kid who hid in tech”, Tanja recognised the need to become more of a people person and increase her ability to influence others as her career progressed. Until Northern Voices, however, she had never received formal media training.

“I signed up because I thought it’d help me develop a strategy of how to get out there and help improve the diversity issue that tech really has,” she says. “It’s had a big impact on my outreach and has been really good.”

Tanja has also been involved in several engagement programmes related to diversity in tech and in leadership, including Code First Girls, and the Aurora programme that aims to get more female leaders into the higher education space.

“There are some brilliant initiatives out there and I’m happy to be seen,” she says. “As they say, you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Driving change

Tanja is hopeful that the industry will continue to see positive change, encouraging more women to pursue technology-related roles.

“I’m glad to say that the sexism and racism I experienced in my early career is non-existent in my department, and I’m not just saying that because I’m the boss – it feels like there’s been a mental shift there,” she says. “The biggest challenge we have now is recruiting – especially from the areas where there’s not a lot of representation. Maybe in five years’ time things will change, but for now I’m struggling in this area.”

“There are some brilliant initiatives out there and I’m happy to be seen – as they say, you can’t be what you can’t see.”

For Tanja, increasing awareness of roles within networks and communities is key to driving change, and she stresses the importance of making people aware of the breadth of roles out there.

“If you want to work in tech, it doesn’t mean you have to work in a software house – there are other alternatives,” she says. “I think that’s quite important.”

Book Tanja to speak at your event

As well as being an expert on diversity in tech, Tanja knows about data and business decision-making, programming and the software development lifecycle, Brexit as a European tech worker, and gender and ethnic diversity in tech jobs. You can view her profile, or book her to speak.

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