Women in tech: It's time to drop the old stereotypes

A career in technology can be as varied, exciting and glamorous as you want it to be – and that’s not just for men

You’ll never find a queue for the ladies' at a technology conference, says Cary Marsh, who runs a software company. "As a technology entrepreneur, I often find myself at conferences where I’m one of only a handful of women among hundreds of men."

It’s concerning not only because women are missing out on a dynamic industry, but because the UK economy will suffer if the underrepresentation of women in technology continues, she says. “In India, China and Japan, there is a far stronger focus on science and technology in education across both sexes. Something needs to change in the UK if we want to remain competitive globally.”

Philip Whiteman, the chief executive of the sector skills council Semta, agrees. “Things are changing, but far too slowly. At this rate, we estimate it could take at least 50 years for women to catch up with male counterparts.”

So what’s going wrong? It’s not as if the opportunities aren’t varied and plentiful. Technology is such a fundamental part of nearly every sector’s development that many people argue it shouldn’t even be seen as a different industry. “There is a need for computing or electronics in countless fields – energy, defence, entertainment, robotics, aerospace and education, just to name a few,” says Teresa Schofield, chair of Women in Engineering group at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

One of the biggest problems is the preconception that scientific career choices are for those who want to go into medicine, believes Marsh. Another myth is that science and technology related degrees are dull, she adds. “One girl at a school I did a talk in recently asked what sort of things you learn on [science courses] and when I told her I learned how to make the printed circuit boards in her BlackBerry, she looked amazed.”

In fact, it’s a myth that you even have to come from a scientific background at all, with growing numbers coming from an arts background. “I graduated with a degree in European law and languages,” says Kate Duggan, who is now business development manager at the lighting technology company Select Innovations.

The stereotypical image of the technology sector is solely inhabited by men in lab coats doesn’t help, says Gillian Arnold, of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology. “We really struggle to change the belief, especially among young girls, that we are not a bunch of men who work late into the night with a plate of cold pizza beside us. My 22-year-old career with IBM has been incredibly glamorous.”

She blames the media. “Research by Cardiff University found that nearly every film represents IT people as geeky weirdos. Even in children’s televison, the scientific girls are ‘different’, with the glibbest example being the woman with glasses out of Scooby Doo. If you couple this with the fact that some – although by no means all – schools are still not doing enough to counter this view and get girls interested in science and technology, then you can see why there’s still a major problem. It doesn’t help that the school IT curriculum is often criticised as being boring – although this is currently being addressed and is at last being jazzed up.”

Another problem, says Maggie Berry, managing director of Women in Technology, is that many young people, and indeed adults, aren’t familiar with technology roles.

“These aren’t high street jobs – doctor, dentist, teacher etc – and people, including parents and teachers who have so much influence over young people’s career choices, are often left unaware of what these careers actually entail. I think it’s also relevant that there are a lot of headlines about people losing jobs in technology, with IT being increasingly offshored. People often conclude there’s no future in it in the UK, but that’s not true. The reality is that technology is everywhere, influencing every area of life, and so it’s a huge growth area. I can’t think of any industry that survives without it.”

There’s no doubt the industry itself is also to blame, says Berry.

“The pay gap [between men and women] in IT is 22 per cent, which is hardly going to entice women in.

Some research from Harvard University, aptly entitled Nice Girls Don’t Ask, found that women are far less likely to request pay rises, but there’s lots more reasons too. It’s still the case, for example, that if you take a career break, it’s difficult to get back in. This industry moves quickly and in the UK, we are seeing hundreds of experienced professional women either failing to get back into their technology careers or going back in at a lower level.”

Getting in is easy – the real issue here is getting on, agrees Teresa Schofield. “There’s little evidence of equality in advancement. Frankly, men don’t have all the best ideas and yet I don’t think this industry has changed in the way that many other professions have.”

At least the business case is proven and recognised. “Here’s an example,” says Claire Davenport, COO of video game company Bigpoint. “Our game Farmerama has over 38 million players, 65 per cent of whom are women. Therefore it’s a huge advantage for companies in this space to have a good mix of men and women. It ensures products and services don’t just appeal to one segment of the market.”

Among the companies at the forefront of trying to bring about change is Cisco, which runs popular womens networks and mentoring schemes. Nikki Walker, senior director of inclusion and diversity for the company’s European operations, adds: “We are looking to hire more female apprentices and we have academies in schools, colleges, prisons and community centres, where we help educate people and give them skills so that nobody misses out.” Dell is also busy with innovative programmes, including an “IT is not just for Geeks” scheme, in which its employees go into schools and talk about the industry.

The growing number of techno camps and computer clubs aimed at girls appear to be working well too. Computer Club for Girls (CC4G), for example, is a scheme encouraging girls between the ages of 10 to 14 (the age when girls have been found to disengage from technology in favour of supposedly less boy-ish subjects) to attend extra-curricular computing classes. Then there’s the ambassadors programme run by the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, as well as the workshops, individual career development planning and coaching sessions run by Semta.

Colette Wade, vice-president for marketing and business development at the software company Cornerstone OnDemand, loves the fact that technology makes such a difference to businesses and people. “The industry is so fast-paced and dynamic, constantly changing and innovating, that you can’t possibly get bored. There’s always something new to engage you,” she adds. “My daughter has seen for herself just how much it has engaged and excited me and now she’s keen to do the same. She hasn’t even considered another industry. Technology rules our world today, whether it’s interacting with friends on social media or turning on a light switch. It’s all technology.”

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