Women in Tech: “Women are turned away from STEM before they even get started.”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Polina Khabarova, Deputy Director General, Chief Transformation Officer and HRD at CROC.
A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?
Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Polina Khabarova, Deputy Director General, Chief Transformation Officer and HRD at CROC.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Polina Khabarova, Deputy Director General, Chief Transformation Officer and HRD at CROC
Polina is CROC’s Deputy Director General, Chief Transformation Officer and HRD, contributing to the company’s strategic development and being responsible for supporting and supervising all HR department practices, including staff training and education, recruitment, human relations, corporate culture, and internal communications. During her time with CROC, Polina has developed several unprecedented HR projects and initiated the creation of unique staff loyalty programs.
Today, she also supervises the company’s Knowledge Management team, which has been working on projects for the largest companies in Russia for over 10 years. This includes 100+ online and offline training courses in IT, 3D technology, current HR and marketing trends, project management and other practices, as well as custom courses that are unparalleled in Russia (e.g. use of ROI and Big Data in HR and marketing). Polina also supervised the establishment of the CROC MBA and business informatics master’s degree programs, which were developed jointly with the Higher School of Business Informatics (HSE).
Polina led the creation of the HR Tech practice at CROC, with 20+ internal business processes being automated, including business travel formalities, onboarding, arrangement of internal training and corporate events, etc. Since 2017, she has also been Chief Transformation Officer at CROC and an internal transformation thought leader. Together with the Transformation Office team, Polina often advises top managers of leading Russian and international companies on business transformation. She is also an HR consulting expert and keynote speaker at major industry-specific events. In 2018, Polina was ranked number one among IT company HR directors by Kommersant.ru and invited as an expert to join the HR and Education team of the ‘Digital Economy. Russia 2024’ state program.
What first got you interested in tech?
It was already obvious 10 years ago that technology would revolutionize our existing social contracts, and change the very fabric of society. While pursuing a degree in philosophy, I was interested in the nature of this change and always found myself comparing the speed of technological developments with that of our social adjustment to them.
My area of interest was mainly management. When I was looking for an industry to apply to as an HR specialist I realized that the tech industry would suit me best, as I wanted to join a business of highly qualified professionals with forward-looking thinking. The more I have worked in tech, the more I have realized that IT could be considered a pilot industry to test new HR and management approaches: the administration of innovative corporate cultures, motivation of R&D teams etc. Moreover, for me personally all this makes a bridge between the teams foreseeing and creating the future and myself, who always thinks how to speed up this future’s arrival.
How did you end up in your career path and what obstacles did you have to overcome?
I have been proudly ranked number one among HR directors in the Russian information technology sector according to the Russian Managers Association and Kommersant Publishing House.
I graduated from Lomonosov Moscow State University, getting my first degree in the Philosophy Department and my master’s degree at the State Management Department. I started my career in the HR department of Merloni Elettrodomestici, a network of large international companies, and then worked at Artcom Worldwide Partners, an advertising agency.
In 2007, I joined the IT company CROC as an intern. At that time I was looking for a mature IT company with a focus on the financial industry and I also closely studied the people who interviewed me. The people from CROC inspired me when they spoke of their projects with such excitement. So it was a lucky find: some things created here aren’t seen anywhere else, not even in large international companies.
Meanwhile, after three and a half years I became a corporate culture team leader. Some years later, I got promoted to the position of Chief Human Resources Officer. Since 2014, I have been working as Deputy CEO for Human Resources. Now, I am the Chief Transformation Officer as well, being in charge of business transformation, which includes changing our corporate culture and adopting new approaches to business development.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
I’ve always had support from my family. My mother was a perfect role model – at 35 she already had her own business. And, by the way, it was one of the first recruiting companies in Russia. My father always boosted this model by helping and encouraging my mom. Moreover, during my studying at university I met many women who built careers in different industries. All in all, since childhood being a successful woman in business has been the norm, not a deviation.
A day in Polina’s life
CROC is one of the Russian IT market leaders, contributing to the development of national digital ecosystems and delivering IT projects in 40 other countries. Our company provides a wide range of IT solutions, including systems integration and managed B2B and consulting services. In addition, CROC also offers off-the-shelf products and promising end-to-end technologies, such as Big Data, blockchain, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, the Internet of Things, robotics, and machine learning.
Mixed teams provide productive and interesting environments, as a diversity of views leads to better decision making, as well as improving communication, and encouraging more innovative ideas.
I am working on the company’s strategic development and am responsible for supporting and supervising all HR practices, including staff training and education, recruitment, human relations, corporate culture, and internal communications. I have developed several unprecedented HR projects and initiated unique staff loyalty programs. I also supervise the company’s Knowledge Management team, which has been working on projects for the largest companies in Russia for over 10 years. Being a member of the HR and Education team of the ‘Digital Economy. Russia 2024’ state program I often advise top managers from leading Russian and international companies on business transformation practices.
My typical workday is a mix of operational, strategic and ‘bridging’ tasks. I spend about 20% of my time on operational tasks as HRD and CTO and 20% on strategic planning, having many meetings during the day with various teams and employees. I try to balance all the tasks and save a couple of hours per day on, I would say, thinking.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Almost half of our board of director members are women.
Over the last two years I have been proudly ranked number one among HR directors in the Russian information technology sector according to the Russian Managers Association and Kommersant Publishing House.
I am, in particular, proud to be able to address the issue of under-representation of women in business and am happy to initiate a discussion on gender imbalance, as the tech industry both in Russia and globally needs to fix this in order to become more creative and just. Mixed teams provide productive and interesting environments, as a diversity of views leads to better decision making, as well as improving communication, and encouraging more innovative ideas.
We here at CROC are making the environment more comfortable for women, while also establishing smart and creative platforms within the company where men and women can work together. Our mixed project teams work in a friendly atmosphere, with everyone having equal opportunities to develop skills and secure promotion. Furthermore, almost half of our board of director members are women.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
Technology is slowed less by inertia than the cultural perceptions of most people are. This is why society is seldom ready for any particular change, when in reality the entire technical environment has already changed. People are still trapped in a breadwinner and homemaker framework, and most likely few will have doubts as to how these titles are spread between the genders. Despite the fact that the era of widespread hard labor has long passed in most areas of human activity. So there is no reason why physical advantages should serve as a key distinction when we choose who will be assigned for these jobs, we still find new reasons to be gender-biased.
The source of this kind of attitude is the supposed lesser aptitude for science, technology engineering, or math (STEM) among women. Less women choose to pursue tech degrees, discouraged from an early age by the gender stereotype that boys are better at math and science, despite all the scientific experiments, telling us that even if there are defined sex differences at any level, they are always very tiny and can’t explain the current gender imbalance in tech.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
Qualified women, deterred by the unwelcoming environment of preliminary recruiting sessions and a hostile climate within organizations, are turned away from the field before they even get started.
Out of men with STEM degrees, 40 percent are said to work in technical careers, whereas only 26 percent of women with STEM degrees do. That means that qualified women, deterred by the unwelcoming environment of preliminary recruiting sessions and a hostile climate within organizations, are turned away from the field before they even get started. This significantly reduces the gender diversity of the talent pool for recruiters.
Women who are brave enough to apply often face problematic hiring practices. It’s quite common for a tech company to start an interview without even saying hello, just: “Show me how to do that thing in C++”. This represents a very adversarial and boastful approach. “Brogrammer” culture (notice semantics) is trying to show how much smarter they are. This way of conducting interviews often over predicts success for men and under predicts success for women. And those who have managed to get in usually face a very hostile sexist atmosphere within. Which leads to a high level of attrition (women are 45% more likely to leave within a year than men, according to a survey by the Center for Talent Innovation).
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
I believe the more diverse a team is in terms of gender, age and skills, the better. I don’t think I need to mention the strengths and weaknesses of female and male skillsets. Due to numerous historical, cultural, economic, biological and social reasons these skillsets are different (or we only perceive them differently in many aspects) – until we embrace a radical change of the social mind set this difference will endure.
Thus, a diverse team could propose a more complex view of a subject and, as a result, suggest a more client-oriented product. In tech such a mixed-team approach is crucial because you get diverse insights from different social groups, therefore creating more appropriate products, which meet the vital needs of society and make comfortable environments for everybody.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
As I mentioned in a previous answer, a company and society would only benefit from an unbiased approach. Therefore, we need it now. However, the reality imposes its restrictions and I would bet that we need two more generations to see the desired change – 20 years at least. This change should lead to the creation of a new cultural code.
Today, we have to fix the issue a bit artificially: global companies have KPIs to recruit more female employees both to ordinary and top-management positions. At first glance this approach may look weird and even ‘male-discriminating’ but it might be appropriate in the long run in order to change a cultural code.
What advice would you give to women who want a career in tech?
Simply be a good professional. Today particularly in IT there are less gender barriers if a person is a good professional. Compared with companies from other industries tech and consulting companies are pioneers in innovation in general and the promotion of women’s careers in particular and they are eager to embrace women in positions, which are male dominated so far. Use the current and upcoming opportunities in pursuing the top ranks of tech enterprises.
I would also add that any business is about people. It is people, who ignite cold electronic machines or infuse soulless software with reason to constantly create and change the world. Realizing this makes all the difference for employers and employees as well. A person should not distance him or herself from the company they are working at or narrow an area of responsibility. They should stop seeing themselves as merely a functional staff member or assistant to the business. Instead, they should try thinking as a stakeholder and clearly understand what the business does and why it is efficient or not. In turn, businesses should create comfortable environments and unbiasedly consider their employees family members or partners.
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: Martina Kraus – “Diversity isn’t just Gender – it’s culture and language too!”
- Women in Tech: Rachel Taylor – “Gender bias is creating massive challenges across social, ethnic, and economic groups.”
- Women in Tech: Katrin Rabow – “A higher proportion of women in our industry will change the way we think”
- Women in Tech: Milecia McGregor – “It is a difficult industry, but it’s nothing that you can’t handle”
- Women in Tech: Emily Jiang – “Your track record of successful delivery is enough to show the truth.”