With WLT, our ambition is to highlight, support, champion and advocate for the incredible women within Australia’s tech industry. Azadeh Khojandi, engineering manager at The Trade Desk and a director at Girl Geek Sydney (GEEQ), is one of the most remarkable and inspiring.
Khojandi hails from Iran and left the Gulf nation 13 years ago to find a better life for herself after facing an incredibly challenging environment.
“I grew up in a country where there is systematic discrimination against women, it’s the law, there are salary differences. I then came to a country where you could see the gap is smaller and it’s not systematic, it’s just a matter of bias,” she told WLT.
“When I migrated to Australia, I was so grateful that there was not much discrimination and I can do the work that I love to do. I get opportunities. My salary was exactly half of my husband’s but we were in the same field. When we both migrated to Australia, my salary was only $5,000 less and I was over the moon.”
However, it was not just through salary disparities that Khojandi felt the vice-like grip of the country’s Islamic Republic government. She explained that it infiltrated every aspect of her and her family’s life and, at times, turned violent.
“In Iran, you don’t have much say. You cannot raise your voice, you cannot speak up. Whenever you get the opportunity, and I’ve been in the situation when I was in the protests [after the 2009 Iranian presidential election] you put your life on the line,” she explained.
There were snipers everywhere from the government and they were shooting people. I have been in those demonstrations because I care about freedom, I care about freedom of speech, I do care about everyone.
It was during those protests that student Neda Agha-Soltan was killed by a gunman allegedly belonging to the Basij government militia while travelling to the protests. Following her death, a small crowd of mourners at the Niloufar mosque where the Agha-Soltan family attended services were dispersed by paramilitary forces. Government supporters even desecrated her grave.
Khojandi and her husband left Iran following the protests and the killing.
“Women do not have any rights on their children, they cannot get divorced, they cannot work unless their husbands say so, they cannot travel unless their husbands say that they can. There are limitations in terms of what you can wear, what you can think, you cannot dance, you cannot sing. You have to cover your hair and to cover your body.
“When you grow up in this society, you kind of accept those because you grow up with it because your aunt, your mum, everyone around you follows the rules. So you don’t want to be a rebel.”
In a twist of irony, it’s because of these backward and draconian laws that women over-index in coding jobs in Iran.
“The number of females in engineering in Australia is very low when compared with Iran,” she explained.
“In Iran, software engineers are considered — I don’t know about nowadays but when I was there — it was considered a safe work environment. You sit in an office, it’s air-conditioned, you’re your own boss and you just do the programming, you don’t need to go outside, you don’t need to deal with different groups of people and you don’t need to travel. Most parents think that a software engineer would be a good job for their daughters.”
From her experience in Sydney, Khojandi explained that while there are fewer differences in salaries and less systematic discrimination, women are still held back by more latent forces.
“In Australia, you can see that the responsibilities, sometimes you don’t get them because you’re a woman and because they don’t think that you can do it. I’m not saying that it’s everywhere and that it’s happened across all of my career but I could see that sometimes there was a perception that maybe a person is not senior enough and we should hire them at a lower level, see how they do and then gradually give them the opportunities,” she said.
Within her work at the adtech firm, she spearheaded the creation of the “Women in TTD” internal network that helps its female employees develop the soft skills necessary to progress in their careers. Some 120 women regularly attend the sessions from across the Asia Pacific region which attract inspirational speakers from outside the organisation. Since the program’s inception, no female engineers from The Trade Desk’s APAC offices have left the firm and female engineers have earned promotions at a higher rate than their male counterparts.
“It’s a good feeling to get rewarded for the work that you have been doing and to be recognised. It also adds to your credibility and because of that, you could drive more initiatives at work,” she enthused.
“But honestly, I didn’t expect it because I have been nominated for a few awards in the past and I know how great everyone is and it’s a tough battle. I was joking with my colleagues that I was like Leonardo Di Caprio at the Oscars!”
It isn’t just within the walls of The Trade Desk that Khojandi is making an impact. For the last six years, she has worked with Girl GEEK Sydney and, in 2021, turned the organisation into a not-for-profit charity called GEEQ. It has helped almost 6,000 women develop their technical and soft skills.
“It’s all free and it’s for everyone so it’s not like if you’re from a different gender or different groups cannot attend. But the focus is women,” she explained.
“We try and create an inclusive environment for everyone to grow but the main focus is to help women get to the level where they can ask for promotions, negotiate their salaries, they can ask for more responsibilities or when they see someone unintentionally speak over them. It’s getting them a seat at the table, making sure they know their rights and that they ask for them.”
Knowing Khojandi’s story, that last line should serve as a pertinent reminder that rights for anyone, but for women, in particular, are never given by authority. They are fought for and earned and they can easily be taken away if we rest on our collective laurels. With Khojandi’s drive, vision and enthusiasm, the women in Australia’s tech industry have a very powerful advocate indeed.
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