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Advancing More Women in Tech is Everyone’s Challenge

Written by Kate Baucherel, Digital Strategist, Writer, Speaker

Women in Tech… it’s a topic that is everywhere at the moment. I have attended half a dozen events in the last few months alone. It’s clear that there is a problem when, as the director of Digital City reminded us, the proportion of women in tech falls from 17% to 10%. However, it is time to move from recognising the problem to proposing solutions and taking action. This is where Digital Leaders can rise to the challenge.

Of the 19 attendees at the North East’s recent Salon, only three were male. This immediately struck the delegates as a simple point that can be fixed.  After all, the majority of senior decision makers in tech are still men, and it is they who need to demonstrate a diverse approach to promotion and staffing to make a difference. If an event is listed as ‘Women in…’ then there is an assumption that the event is FOR women. Not at all.

Our first challenge to you, Digital Leader, is to ensure that representation is balanced, because there will be no progress without the participation of the whole community.

Skills, not talent

Our first discussant called on the group to stop referring to ‘talent shortages’. Talent is innate – skills can be learned, and should be taught to a diverse workforce in the immediate area where skills are needed. However, not enough women think that the tech workplace is for them, and of those who have an aspiration to succeed, many have found themselves cast out by culture (one attendee was an engineer who was not allowed to follow the route she wanted in the forces).

There is a perception that girls don’t do tech – perhaps the women of Bletchley Park would take exception to this. This is a recent UK cultural issue. An example was cited of an Iranian academic in the region who was astonished that there were no other women in her department, coming as she did from a country where women were in the majority in the tech sector.

The assembled company took stock of their own experiences. Many were ‘accidental techies’, and we represented so many diverse areas of ‘digital’ that it was immediately evident that the career path to ‘tech’ is not clear. Digital embraces so many environments: it is vital to communicate this variety to girls, and to show that it’s not just ‘computer science’!

Our second challenge to you: Build awareness of the availability of opportunity, and in doing so change the culture.

Breaking the glass ceiling

Oh the cliché we thought we’d left behind! Our second discussant related how, despite an engineering background and simultaneous study of CIMA and Fortran, it ultimately took a Masters degree for her to push back successfully against the obfuscation and smoke and mirrors that protected the black art of IT from an invasion of the fairer sex.

The link between finance and IT has historically been a strong one, with the company’s accountant expected also to display a working knowledge of server management, multiple operating systems, and fixing printer jams. This is one route that attendees reported following on their journey into the world of tech. However, routes into STEM are not always clear, and many women have set up their own businesses because they cannot find an access point in established organisations. This is depriving industry of the unique contribution of women in tech, who bring soft skills and good communication to the table alongside solid technical capability. There is an even greater challenge for women who have taken a career break in such a fast-moving industry: by the time they are ready to return, they have fallen behind, and the majority do not have the confidence to step up and reskill.

Digital has to be demystified to deliver cultural change. It is, bluntly, a tool, and one which pervades all sectors: it is not a sector in itself. An accountant is still an accountant despite using cloud software, digital signing, online filing. A lawyer is still a lawyer. How then did marketing suddenly spawn ‘digital marketing’, for instance? Putting the emphasis on ‘digital’ is often inappropriate, and can be scary. A ‘digital business’ is just a business using today’s tools. The perception of ‘digital’ as a man’s world has sadly been reinforced by an element of lad culture. We need more gender-neutral workplaces with a pool table and a crèche!

So how can we move towards a solution? You have two challenges above, and we offer a third:

What have you done today to inspire cultural change?
  • I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend this event and hear the different perspectives of the people at the table. There is clearly a lot of work to be done that will benefit the UK economy and citizens alike. It’s good to see that my statement at the end of the event “What have I (and we) done to inspire change today” was referenced in your article.

    • Your challenge was an excellent one Krishna, and would have been attributed but for the Chatham house convention of these events. I hope it’s taken up by our Digital Leaders!

  • Rosie Brent

    I also found this salon to be particularly enlightening and was very pleased to have been invited to attend. Hearing the stories of the fellow technologists around the room (both male and female) enlarged the scope of the issue for me and as Kate has done above helped “boil it down” into some fairly simple seeming action points. Now is the time to answer Krishna’s call to action – and do something every day to inspire and to affect change.

    • Thanks for the feedback Rosie. It’s good to have a clear way forward from such an engaging Salon.

  • Laila

    Great post Kate. Sad to have missed this event! I really believe that one key approach to solving this one is inspiring young girls to consider STEM *before* they settle on career choices. So much so that the team at Methods Digital (where I work) have decided to support Stemettes, a fantastic social enterprise that shows girls that they CAN do Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. You can read more here: http://mdigit.al/2ltXTGL

    • That sounds fantastic, Laila. I’m going in to speak to my daughter’s Year 6 group soon, so hope that will help in a small way.

  • Anna

    As someone who did a computing degree then went into programming I think that for me the roles and environment are the most important aspect to look at. I moved away from programming to the client services team as the ‘traditional’ development roles were too restrictive and lacked the communication side that I longed for. For several of my female colleagues over the years they have found the same – we all longed to speak to people and were too tied to our desk.
    I think it’s important to look at the roles themselves and see if they fit with what a each gender wants from it, with so many women leaving the roles once they are there, how can we make them more desirable? Surely the ‘one size fits all’ job descriptions don’t account for the different strengths of each gender – why is it that traditionally women choose caring professions? or client services? And also, for example, if a woman chooses a client services team in an agency rather than programming, making sure the ‘traditional’ female-centric teams are paid equally to the male-centric teams.
    I’m lucky to be in an environment where there have been no barriers to entering a technology role, yet I’ve still turned away from it to some degree. I’m not sure what needs to be done, some of us want to be a part of it but it just doesn’t fit with us, how can we improve job roles to keep women there once they get there?

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