Sarah George

STEMM PROFILE: Sarah George | Founder | Heartfelt Tech | Melbourne | VIC

“If the people around you won’t let you shine, don’t hide your light. Find better people”

In my family learning to code at age 5 is nothing unusual. Dad didn’t have much time for us if we didn’t. So I had a huge career advantage early in life, but also learnt co-dependence patterns like people-pleasing and conflict avoidance.

I studied Computer Science at Monash University, which added depth and formality to my skill set and introduced me to wonderful people who became friends for life. Here I started to make sense of myself, being Queer in pretty much every sense of the word.

My first “real” job was building financial database software for $13.50 an hour. I accepted it the moment it was offered, and quickly learnt that I was worth more than that and moved on to assistant roles at Monash Uni in teaching and AI research. Since I loved the environment I stayed for 10 years, but eventually wanted to move beyond “assistant” and took a job as the third person in a startup called CVSDude.

I was earning more but had still never pushed back in a salary negotiation, and was still trying to avoid conflict while holding differences of opinion that weren’t listened to.  My brother was working at the same place doing the same job for a LOT more than I was – so I still had a lot to learn about the wage gap.

CVSDude thrived (how could it not with my brother and I working there?) and the size of the business grew. At first this was wonderful – more help meant there was room to implement some of the system changes I’d wanted. But as they grew I remained the only female developer as meetings turned into “decision by shouting match, may the best man win.”

This became too much and I left to start my own business, “Heartfelt Tech“. Running my own business has been difficult, especially finding a regular flow of clients. When things are going well I have several clients at once, and find myself too busy to do marketing to find the next clients. So as I finish projects I run out of clients for a while. I’m still stuck in that cycle, but the projects are so rewarding I feel it’s worth it.

What has been the biggest barrier you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it? 

The biggest barrier I’ve faced was co-dependence: a feeling my self-worth was tied to what others thought of me and trying to control that by people-pleasing, suppressing my own needs and putting up with abuse.  This led to problems building up at home and at work, where I was desperately needing change but too afraid to walk out of situations that weren’t right for me. Counselling and Co-dependents Anonymous helped me overcome this, value my needs more and take the risk to find independence and wins on my own terms not someone else’s.

What is the biggest challenge to all women pursuing a career in science?

It’s tempting to say male culture. There are deep cultural problems not just in hiring practices but in how women are treated once they get to the jobs they want. Problems like blindness to forcing everyone into the existing culture’s approaches to problem-solving, collaboration and discussion. 

What is the one piece of advice you would give to women just starting their careers in science? 

You don’t have to settle. Your value is much higher than most men will admit to you. If the people around you won’t let you shine, don’t hide your light. Find better people. There are good businesses out there (or you could start one!) and they’ll thrive with your help.

Do you set boundaries? If yes, which is the most important one? 

I used to be really bad at setting boundaries but improving on that has improved my life. First and foremost I won’t accept bullying. I “fire” clients who push beyond my ability to push back. And I’ve learnt to push back a little. To say “ok I’ve got your request, I’ll look through it next week when I have time” instead of interrupting what I’m doing to leap in and save the day. To say “no I can’t redo it for free because you changed your mind”.

How can we change the scientific work culture to improve work/life balance? 

I’m stunned that this one is seen as a “women’s problem”. I see it as a problem with men that they don’t value their families enough to spend time with them and require time away from work! How dare they say “I value work over my family and expect you to do the same”? I imagine this can be changed by looking at how we raise our young men to value balance, and also how we operate once we’re in positions of power ourselves. Whether we started our own business or have a high position in an existing one, think hard about “am I playing by the (toxically masculine) rules I was given or am I redefining what it is to have work be a balanced part of my life and the lives of my workers?”

LinkedIn: Sarah George