Why there are so few women in tech and reasons to be positive

Written by Angela Jeffery, Director of Innovation, Aston University and Local Midlands Champion in this year’s Digital Leaders 100

Just 17% of those working in the UK technology sector are female (Women in Tech website), which is significantly lower than most other UK sectors. The world economic forum 2019 report on the gender pay gap, states that there remains a perception among 52% of women that technology is a male industry, while almost a third (32%) believe gender bias is still a major hurdle in the recruitment process. There is an essential need for increased female leadership to help achieve a truly balanced workforce across the technology industry. The input of female leaders and women on boards helps lead to greater creativity, less groupthink and a broader viewpoint when making key decisions. Most importantly, more female leaders means more role models for young women and girls, which is essential if we want to achieve parity.

As the fourth industrial revolution is upon us and there is already a skills shortage in the digital sector, the UK needs both men and women to upskill. Ignoring half of the potential workforce would be a missed opportunity.

My first entry to thinking about this in depth was on a Women in Leadership course. I took a lot away from it in terms of thinking about what women need to succeed, such as positive role models and support from leaders to encourage belief that they are good enough. Mixed teams provide productive and interesting environments, as a diversity of views leads to better decision making as well as improving communication, more innovative ideas and boosted morale (Nominet report).

Working in the University sector that has equality and diversity policies, unconscious bias training and funders that insist on gender balance in their teams, I am used to being treated as an equal. I was quite shocked when I attended a tech awards event where one of the speakers pandered to his mainly male audience by referencing quicker downloads of porn as a benefit of 5G, which was then followed by a series of male dominated awards. When the women in tech award came up, ‘here come the girls’ started to play, giving the impression that this was a novelty item rather than a group that should be core to the sector.

We need to encourage girls to take engineering, maths & computer science subjects. There are anecdotal comments that girls just do not like these subjects because their brains are wired differently. In her insightful book ‘The Gendered Brain’, Prof Gina Rippon argues this is incorrect, using neuroscience evidence to show that the brains of males and females are very similar, and our aptitudes and behaviour are affected by all of our experiences rather than the sex of the body the brain is housed in.

How do we inspire girls to see that they can be great tech leaders? Obviously, schools and teachers have a key role to play, but it is also about society as a whole needing to celebrate female leaders and enable men and women to be equal partners at home and at work.

Events such as Women’s Voice give an opportunity for the current situation to be considered and discussed, shine a spotlight on great female role models and to act as an instigator of change. The Women in Tech festival in Birmingham has also been a great start to celebrating Women’s role in tech, along with other celebratory events such as Woman of the Year that provide an opportunity to hear some inspirational stories about how women have become successful. We need more of these types of events until we reach equality in the sector.

The Apprenticeship levy is giving more opportunity for men and women in work to change career direction to meet future skills needs. Boot camps such as School of Code can also help people out of work upskill and move into tech to address the skills gap.

The influence of enlightened policies is also important. I have been working with the West Midlands Combined Authority, who won the DCMS Urban Connected Communities competition to test 5G at scale setting up WM5G. In contrast to other tech companies,WM5G has very clear policies ensuring equality and diversity and has recruited a diverse group of men and women to work together on this ground-breaking project. I am not a fan of positive discrimination, but if more organisations could insist on getting diversity onto their recruitment shortlists, then women would get the chance to shine and win positions on their own merits.

Angela Jeffery was the Local Midlands Champion 2019 in this year’s Digital Leaders 100. 

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