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.
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’!
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: