Xebians Unveiled; Olena

"Overcoming Gender Stereotypes in Tech" - Learn more about Olena's journey from facing gender-based discrimination and societal stereotypes in Ukraine to becoming a respected tech consultant, speaker, and advocate for gender inclusivity in the tech industry.

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Defying Stereotypes: From Kitchen Expectations to a Coding Sensei

An Interview with Olena Borzenko
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“Where a woman should be”

Olena Borzenko is a very talented coding consultant at Xebia. In the past, she had to listen to people telling her that her place was in the kitchen, “where a woman should be.” She was not being taken seriously at her job since she was a woman, and at one point, while speaking on stage at a conference, someone inferred Olena was only there because she slept with someone who had the power to put her there. Despite this adversity, she rose above it all and proved that her gender doesn’t limit her competency in any field. Outside of being a badass developer, Olena participates in almost every sport and is always ready to help others.

Standing out from the crowd

Olena was an incredible child from a very early age. As a young girl growing up in Ukraine, she could not contain her curiosity towards the world around her and became a skilled bi-lingual child without much effort, thanks to her family. She stood out among others, but not always in the way that she wanted. “The kids around me saw that I was different because my sister and I speak two languages. When kids see that you’re different, they don’t necessarily want to befriend you.” Because of this, little Olena spent much time by herself, exploring everything she could get her hands on, ranging from art to various competitive sports. She was so good at everything she tried that she did Judo for a whopping 15 years, practicing up to 6 hours a day to participate in competitions. At the same time, she was starting her university schooling in Applied Physics, resulting in a prestigious final score that only 1-3 students out of the whole group are awarded each year. This achievement increased her grant, helping her become financially independent early on.

However, having so many hobbies and talents meant that it took more work for Olena to choose one path to focus on. That was the case until she stepped into software development.

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“Why are you not cooking?”

“My boyfriend at the time was an aspiring artist, making a living by selling his paintings and sculptures. My passion for art and sport continued, and I would work as a pole dancing and aerial silk instructor during the day and help him paint for commissions at night. All while still trying to finish my studies.” Having moved out from home at a young age, Olena tried to hustle wherever she could, only to make ends meet. The couple got married during the last year of Olena’s studies. They soon found out that their sources of income did not suffice, and that would likely be the case for the foreseeable future. On top of their financial woes, Olena’s husband gradually grew out of patience with her demanding work schedule. It was a challenging period in their relationship, but somehow, they managed to overcome their struggles. But soon, he began to insist that her place was supposed to be in the kitchen, like his mother, like other traditional Ukrainian women. He’d tell her, “You’re not cooking for me! You’re supposed to act like a woman. You’re not being the woman that I want.”  However, she disagreed and expressed her disagreement by taking on the career help her sister offered her. Shortly after the marriage ended, at the age of 21, Olena joined her first engineering camp, and the rest is history.  

In the following years, Olena put effort into building her career, from doing small projects to joining bigger teams that offered quick growth in her pay. Her first major project was at a large enterprise in Ukraine, where she worked for two years. The challenges she faced as an individual and a team member helped her build tenacity for the field. Before she knew it, Olena acquired herself a senior position. That’s when she realized she wasn’t afraid anymore and took the giant leap of moving to Berlin to work for a company’s big aviation/aerospace project. “I was relocated with nothing to lose at 25. And when I got to Berlin, the Pandemic started.”  

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Finding a place in her career

Though diving into the career with great passion and talent, Olena still found herself struggling to be recognized in the room. There were places Olena worked where she sensed she wasn’t being taken seriously. “I had many moments where I would come into the room, and people would glare at me, smirking. Like: what is this young girl doing here? She doesn’t know anything. Once again, there was someone telling me that I didn’t belong.”  

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Olena received a pointer from a colleague explaining how challenging it was for the team to take her seriously as a woman because her male colleagues had been in the industry for many years.  

Olena felt drained, mentally and physically, having to face this type of misogynistic treatment. But Olena knew that being angry was not an option for her. She did not want to give them the satisfaction of being able to stereotype her further, to say that she’s “reacting out of emotions” or “being loud,” deeming her unprofessional and, well, “a typical woman.”    

However, giving up was not an option either. Olena faced the issue in her own “girly” way – with elegance and wit. “The tables turned when I started to think: ‘What can I get out of this?’ They’re in a position where they don’t want to learn; they don’t want to change. They’re not going to change.” She used their prejudices to her advantage. Every time someone signals that she is incompetent because of her gender, implicitly and explicitly, she’d respond with, “Oh yes, definitely, it’s because I’m a girl. Can you get to the point now? Or would you like another 5 minutes to explain to me how much of a girl I am?” Olena took control of the narrative with her cleverness and humor while letting her competencies speak for themselves.  

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New opportunities, same story

The pandemic was a complicated time for everyone, Olena included. However, it also allowed her to thrive in the public speaking field. “In that time, I found a lot of great friends through a virtual community. Just randomly, after one of the online conferences, we had a virtual after-party, and we got to know each other. And that was the beginning of how I became a speaker. The community showed me I should start sharing experiences and challenges I overcame. So, I started learning how to write and submit to conferences.” Olena joined one, then three, then 30 events including conferences, meetups, and virtual events within a year. She is now very happy that she found this love for teaching and mentoring in communities, telling people all the lessons she learned through her experiences.   

Although Olena found great joy speaking at conferences, the same stories still follow her. “At conferences, it’s even more common. You can have an amazing hour-long presentation full of technical details, and people will come to you after the session to say: “Oh, you did so well; you look amazing. Can I take you out to lunch?” She even became the main topic of an absurd rumor, once again having people doubting her place at the conference. “I was told by a peer that ‘Because you were talking to this speaker, people think that you got into this conference because you slept with someone.’ It never seems to end. 

A Respecting Culture to the Rescue

When Olena was asked her perspectives on her time at Xebia, and the International Women’s Day project, she told us the following: “I remember on my second Innovation Day here at Xebia, a group of all-male colleagues came to me and said: ‘We want to make sure that we have a welcoming environment for women to join the team. Please tell us your story.’ Here, we had a group of people trying to create a better environment to make people feel welcome, regardless of their gender, age, or culture. They were willing to learn, and that was nice. My colleagues and I are very close, and while we often crack jokes, I always feel respected and treated very well. I believe that’s because the environment is multicultural, and culture is so important here.” 

“What I love about this project is that it allows people to share their stories.”

“What I love about this project is that it allows people to share their stories. I think the facilitation of creating a support system is very important. I’m not saying we need someone to hold our hand through this. We’re all strong and independent, but because of the overwhelming number of things we face, especially when coming from a different culture, it takes a lot of courage to speak up. But giving the safe space to facilitate sharing stories really helps.”

Stay tuned for more profiles on the amazing women behind Xebia.  

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