Is ‘woman in tech’ still a useful label?

Written by Eleanor Bradley, MD Registry & Public Benefit, Nominet

I don’t tend to think of myself as a ‘woman in tech’ despite having a leadership role at a large ccTLD registry that’s part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure – I don’t really feel like a technical individual. In my mind and I suspect many others, a woman in tech is someone who codes or programmes, who understands the Domain Name System on a highly complex level or works elbow-deep in data and algorithms.

Consider my colleague Cath Goulding, Nominet’s CISO. She’s an expert in cyber security and has worked at GCHQ, operating at the highest level of network security for the past decade. She has a maths degree and a Masters in Computer Human Interaction. Can we both be women in tech? Is there some sort of spectrum for this label? And if the term is so broad, is it still useful?

Defining the purpose of ‘woman in tech’

Finding an accurate – or even the original – definition of the term ‘woman in tech’ is hard. Some who conduct research are classing these as women considered ‘IT specialists’ while others are counting the number of women working in technology industries; the latter would include me while the former would include Cath. There are many ‘non technical’ women working in this industry without the stereotypical advanced technical skills that we often assume are required… Do we still count? Or does the label simply leave us feeling slightly inadequate among our peers?

One way to answer these questions is to step back and assess the purpose of the label. We group and differentiate this specific demographic for a number of reasons: it’s a useful shorthand for the media, it’s a means of creating support networks for those working in a male-dominated sector, and it helps to draw attention to a rare species as a means of changing the status quo.

Labels can be restrictive, but this one intends to inspire and empower, separating a group as a means of celebrating what they (we?) do to hopefully turn the tide when it comes to gender disparity in the tech industry. The research has shown us that youngsters need visible role models and access to information about the opportunities that are available to them from an early age. Plus Nominet’s research showed evidence of parental influence, with too many parents believing incorrectly that technical roles are ‘for boys’. Teachers can also sometimes lack understanding of the rapidly changing industry and the interesting new roles becoming available. In fairness to hard-working teachers, how can they suggest career options when they are removed from the current jobs market and may have never worked in technology?

There is also evidence that girls’ confidence drops off pre-puberty, before increasingly associating the ‘harder’ subjects – often including STEM topics – as better suited to boys. I can agree if only anecdotally; so many of the technical women we have at Nominet came from all-girls secondary schools and were unaware of the stereotyping of certain subjects and careers. Our Analyst Developer Jo Griffiths is one such example, not realising computing would be a male-dominated realm until she arrived at university. When she joined Nominet in 2006, it was in a team that had just three women and 30 men. Today, she is one of four women in a team of seven – a much more satisfying ratio, although unfortunately not repeated in some of our other tech teams.

Making the label work for those who need it

What matters, then, is changing society’s expectations and the community pressures that are seeing our young generation making life-limiting decisions at an early age. This can only be achieved by drawing attention to women in tech, sharing their stories, and creating accessible role models to persuade a girl, and those who influence her, that technology has a place for someone like her. A PwC report found that 78% of young woman couldn’t name a famous female working in tech. In that case, perhaps the exact definition of ‘woman in tech’ is irrelevant – what matters is raising awareness and giving girls the role models they need.

It could also be argued that almost all businesses can be classed as tech companies today. With digital devices, communication and networks underpinning everything we do, almost all jobs require a level of digital proficiency, after all. Drawing attention to this helps normalise technology and therefore persuade young people that gaining digital skills is as crucial as learning to read and write.

Pulling together to scale the mountain

The scale of this particular challenge can’t be overstated. A Government report from 2018 found that over 11 million people across the UK lack the full basic digital skills seen now as essential to living and working today. Over 4 million have no digital skills at all – and over 5 million of adults in work are without the digital skills they need. If children are growing up in a household where no adult has proficiency with digital technology and devices, how will they understand the value of learning these skills for themselves? Or perhaps they lack devices and connectivity in the first place due to social circumstances or poverty. How then can they become comfortable with the digital means of accessing the world?

We ‘women in tech’ have a role to play in preventing a girl dismissing digital proficiency as a ‘boy’s thing’ and flying the flag for the diversity of rewarding roles available within our industry. It’s also a way to reassure the future generation that the technology industry is broad and varied, that not all key roles are technical and that everyone’s skills and interests can be catered for to allow them to thrive within this crucial industry.

On international Girls in IT Day 2020, it’s a good time for us all to focus our efforts on inspiring our girls to see the technology industry as accessible and open to them, offering a diverse and inspiring range of roles and, in doing so, tackling the stubborn lack of gender diversity in the industry in whatever small way we can.

Originally published here.

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