8th March marks International Women’s Day.
The reality now, as we celebrate the achievements of women all around the world, is that just 17% of the UK’s tech workforce – and 15% of recent computer science graduates – are female.
And despite the namesake of today, the vast majority of students can’t name a single famous woman working in tech, and 97% of women in their late teens and early 20s say a technology career wouldn’t be their first choice.
So, on the day we recognise one of the most important figures in technology history, we’ve brought together a handful of modern Female Tech Trailblazers to share their thoughts on diversity in technology.
We Presented Tech Wrong
“We have millions of young people from wonderfully varied backgrounds who could and should be in tech.”
For many, finding the source of a problem at scale calls for a look at education. For Debbie Forster, CEO of the Tech Talent Charter, education is everything.
“I was an English teacher with a funny accent. But I used a computer. And in the early ’90s that meant you were in IT.”
Debbie, an early adopter of computers in the classroom, is now driving change with the Tech Talent Charter, speaking to technology policymakers like IBM and the BBC.
“Tech for me was an enabler. It opened doors and energised young people.”
Flashforward to 2019 and that same energy can still be felt resonating around classrooms around the world. According to Code.org, students rate computer science as their third favourite subject behind the art and performing arts – placing a strong emphasis on tech applications. But as the desire for tech in young people grows, the supply from schools appears to fall short with the same Code.org study finding only 35% of schools teach computer science.
Rosemary Hitchcock, Head of Technology at YOOX-NET-A-PORTER Group places blame on the diminished supply on the speed at which the industry is moving.
“I have children myself. How can you teach them something that is always changing?”
In the past 10 years, the average time UK students spend in secondary and higher education, 25 new, widely supported programming languages have emerged, each with its own ruleset and applications. And it’s not just languages, with platforms like AWS and Cloud Computing building up momentum, the skills needed in candidates are wide-ranging and complex.
The solution, for Debbie, lies in changing how we present technology to children in formal education.
“We’ve been focusing on the how of technology, and not the why…"
AppsForGood, a project Debbie co-manages, specialise in providing tech experiences for young people that focus on using tech to solve a problem. AppsForGood, alongside other institutions like Maggie Philbin’s Teen Tech, encourages self-mastery and rewards it.
Show a child how tech solves a problem and they’ll fall in love with it.”
But UK statistics suggest any enthusiasm drummed up among those from a diverse background is yet to be replicated in the professional world. In 2017, just 17% of roles in the UK tech industry were occupied by women. Last year a report by Inclusive Boards found that 40% of tech companies have no representation of women in senior roles at all. Meanwhile, research from the Female Founders Forum revealed that startups with at least one female founder attracted just 9% of the cash invested in UK startups in 2017.
For many, a quick fix lies in the way technology, a profession that has a long and difficult history with stereotypes and representation, is delivered to the masses.
Resetting The Norm For Technology
“Tech isn’t sitting with the boys in the basement anymore”
Debbie Forster, CEO, Tech Talent Charter
Research from Linkedin, which scanned hundreds of thousands of job postings to find the most in-demand skills, revealed that 11 of the 25 most sought after skills listed were technology-based skills like Cloud Computing, AI and Data Science. The other 14, like digital marketing and UX design, require a high level of technical knowledge.
It’s clear that the demand for technical skills is at an all-time high.
But supply from diverse backgrounds is nowhere near meeting that demand. According to Technation, young women were more likely than men to perceive that they ‘do not have the skills to work in Technology’ (45%), ‘lack knowledge about Technology’ (38%), or that it is ‘not for people like them’ (24%).
Ahsana Choudhury, a UK based Software Engineer who started her journey creating custom themes for the blogging site Tumblr, believes a lack of representation has wounded diversity in the workplace.
“Without representation, we cannot have diversity or inclusion and vice versa.”
The media, both revered and despised for its ability to shepherd the perceptions of the masses, has a starring role.
Popular sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, which came in for criticism for its lack of female representation in the first few seasons, have since introduced and developed two female STEM characters: neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler and microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz. Each has its own triumphs, flaws and more.
A more recent example comes in the form of Cameron Howe (portrayed by Mackenzie Davis), Halt And Catch Fire’s prodigy computer programmer who rightly holds the title of ‘the most skilled programmer ever’.
These shows are shining a light on the fact that tech isn’t just for the boys in the basement. In fact, it’s everywhere. Technology is sexy, sleek and synonymous with success. Something that Emma Chittenden, founder of Angels Playing Skittles, knows all too well.
“Technology isn’t always about the technology, it’s used in every possible industry and you’ll learn a lot about that industry as well as technology.”
Emma teaches female founders about web & tech to arm them with the skills needed to build their businesses in an age where technical knowledge is synonymous with success.
For Emma, technology served as a pathway toward many roles traditionally seen as the domain of university graduates. With 22 years of experience in web and technology, Emma started her career in tech support, instead of attending university. She now drives projects in user experience and information architecture and truly proves that there are no education barriers you can’t climb in tech. As Tor Gisvold, CTO at Adarga, puts it:
"Certain industries do have specific ways of working. But technology in many respects is a great leveller. When I worked in broadcasting, or newspapers, or gaming, or crisis management, or I was down at Burberry sorting out some of the accounting systems. The industry didn’t matter too much. The problems you faced were usually the same just with a different ‘industry packaging’. The amount of red tape and testing you had to do was the big difference between them. So, I found that going into gaming at 50 years old wasn’t a big shift in my career at all."
In The Workplace
If changes in education and the way we represent technology are the fuses, the workplace has the be the match.
According to the McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2018 study, the underrepresentation of women in senior management cannot be explained by attrition as for every 100 Men promoted to a management position, only 79 women are promoted to managers. This has been a trend for the lifetime of the study – that’s a total of 12 years without any noticeable change.
Melanie Yencken is UX Design Lead at Google and founder of LondonTechLadies, a community of tech specialists who focuses on empowering people to develop the skills needed to change their own work situations.
Melanie believes that although there is no silver bullet for diversification, something needs to be done to kickstart change.
“What is clear is that there are not enough role models in these leadership teams for diversification to be happening naturally.”
Through a mix of roundtables, seminars and guest speakers, Melanie and LondonTechLadies is helping to ease the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ that can so often be a nasty bi-product of being a minority in a large team.
But institutions like LondonTechLadies are tipping the scales toward equality through education, collaboration and communication.
“What matters most is that I continue capturing the stories of women who are changing their own fortunes in the workplace”
And at the highest level, policymakers are starting to not just listen to Debbie and the Tech Talent Charter, but invite them in to drive true, meaningful change that will set the pace for companies large and small to follow.
It’s in this perfect storm of grass-roots, community-based empowerment and high-level policy disruption we find the answers.
As Debbie puts it herself:
“Nothing is utterly broken. And nothing is completely fixed. We have all the pieces of the puzzle. We just need to start putting the pieces together… And If we fix it, we fix it for all of us.”
Debbie, Tor, Rosemary and Melanie were speaking to Venturi on the Venturi’s Voice podcast.