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Pretty Face and Thick Skin: Flourishing in a Male World

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It is a well-known fact that there are fewer female CEOs than men. I became one of the minority when I founded Little Riot, an interaction design company, upon graduation from university in 2010. I started my business to develop Pillow Talk, a digital product which enables couples in long distance relationships to communicate with each other via their heartbeats. As an excited, enthusiastic graduate not yet jaded by the harsh reality of the real business world, I had no reason to doubt myself as I shamelessly lay my foundations in the technology world; an industry that remains very much male dominated.

Two years on, my experience has broadened and my knowledge has increased, but every day I fight two battles; I have to prove myself as both a businesswoman and a technology pioneer.

I don't feel like I struggle as a female in a very male-dominated industry, more that I just constantly have to work around - and indeed defy - the assumptions people make about me based on my gender. Many women I've met feel disadvantaged by the attitudes they encounter, but I like to think that there is something positive to be found in every setback. Over time, I have become familiar with the preconceptions I face and have learned how to ensure I make them work for me.

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"So you just came up with the idea, right?"
This is the most common and by far the most frustrating assumption people make: that I came up with the concept but had to get someone else to make it for me. Like I wrote down my idea with a pink gel pen, dotting my i's with love hearts, and then fluttered my eyelashes as the nearest male until my product popped into fruition.

It verges on insulting when men stare at me, either wide-eyed with amazement or with questioning disbelief, when I tell them that no, actually, I did the lot. I had an idea, I built the circuit and I wrote the code to program it. I manage my team of engineers and programmers with watertight specification documents and I quite literally know my product inside out.

Secretly, I quite enjoy surprising them. It's like slapping a Royal Flush down on the table when they realise just how badly they have underestimated you. Once you've moved past this point, their preconception rapidly transforms into a very pleasant attitude of awe and admiration. I've found this can actually establish a really good starting point for a business relationship, too.

"So when are you going to get a CEO to run your business?"
It is usually other technologists or designers - but always men - who enquire as to whether I intend to replace myself as the top dog in my company. I generally find this retort somewhat ironic given the longstanding joke that it is our male counterparts who cannot multitask!

A lot of people seem to think that I wish I could spend all my time locked in a dark room with an endless supply of coffee, manicly scribbling down endless product ideas. The reality is that I love running a business. I have been very fortunate in that I've ended up creating a company doing what I'm passionate about, but if you took technology out of the equation, I'd still be running a business of some kind. I don't even fully believe it comes down to being female; I suspect there are men who have started a company as a platform to distribute their technology, who face the same problem.

There aren't many good things that can come out of a conversation after this; the individual in question thinks you're incapable of doing your job and you just resent them for it. Personally I'm not really interested in acquainting myself with those who doubt me, so it's best to just be grateful you're not that ignorant and move on.

"You don't look like I thought you would..."
This can go one of two ways and I have discovered I can delight or disappoint in equal measures. As Pillow Talk is arguably a very romantic and heart-melting concept, a lot of people seem to instinctively assume that I'll be as girly as they come. "I was expecting you to be dressed head to toe in pink!" a man once joked as he shook my hand, having already heard about the product before meeting me. Depressingly, this preconception usually comes as part of a package deal, lavishly wrapped up in pink ribbon with an "I doubt she knows anything about running a business" attitude.

At the other end of the scale are the stereotypers who ignorantly believe that any female in the technology world is a geek and that any girl geek is, by default, well... really ugly. Sometimes men can't hide their surprise when I walk into a room or introduce myself. I can see them observing me with an air of suspicion, like I'm a mythical creature who has been sent along to their nerdy event to try and somehow catch them out. Sorry boys, I know in your head I am watching Star Trek, pushing my thick-framed glasses up my nose and contemplating my next fix of World of Warcraft, but today I'm just a regular girl who happens to like technology.

Although amusing, neither of these are deal breakers. If there is business to be done, it can be a tiring and repetitive exchange to get out of the way, but most of the time it triggers light-hearted small talk and starts conversations.

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Too often nowadays when we talk about women in technology - or indeed business - we reflect upon the inequality and struggle endured in this apparently bitter, unjust world. It can, at times, be overwhelming and indeed quite depressing when considered in that light. I have recently been shortlisted in the Science and Technology section of the Woman of the Future Awards, in association with Shell. My nomination ranks me among a collective of women who are all facing, or have faced, the issues I mention above. All of these extraordinary individuals have tackled similar obstacles throughout the course of their careers and you can be damn sure they never let it hold them back.

Fortunately, attitudes towards women in technology are beginning to change and female participation continues to increase in this sector. Lazy, sexist and archaic stereotypes are slowly falling away to be replaced with a quiet appreciation of the valuable and significant roles women play in driving innovation forward. Whilst the statistics still show that there are more men than women in this field, perhaps we need to consider changing the conversation rather than the ratios. By understanding the part women play and highlighting what they bring to the technology sector, we can pave our way towards a world which revels in the success stories rather than the gender imbalance.

Although the small shift we have already seen is arguably victorious in laying the foundations, it won't be easy breaking through decades of male-orientated attitudes and expectations. Women in the technology business are just as capable and vivacious as men - but we still need the respect, appreciation and support from them that we deserve.

So to all the men reading, I'll give you this one for free; in future, talk to my face - because my tits ain't listening.

Joanna Montgomery is a shortlister of the 2012 Women of The Future Awards.

For further information click here.

The awards ceremony will take place on Tuesday 20 November and is hosted by Real Business in association with Shell.