With the recent headlines on feminists receiving death threats after a campaign to have Jane Austin on the new £10 note and the news that the EU may soon force UK companies to report their strategies and targets for recruiting more women in to senior roles, it got me thinking about women in technology. I recently read an article by Catherine de Lange about ways to encourage women in to Technology, not just working with it but building and designing it.
Lady Geek, a campaigning agency making technology more accessible to women, calculates that the number of UK technology jobs held by women has dropped from 22% in 2001 to 17% by 2011 and the number of women applying for computing A-level in the UK dropped from 12% in 2004 to 8% by 2011.
There is a clear need for computer programming skills in UK schools, we have observed a national gender divide across science, technology, engineering and maths with girls accounting for as few as 7% of computing A-level students in 2011/2012. Gender aside, the poor take-up of computing in English schools is a broader trend, with student numbers dropping from 12,529 in 1998 to 3,420 in 2012. What impact will that have on the UK's tech industry?
London mayor Boris Johnson pledged to learn to code last year, and a few months ago President Obama spoke about the need to teach code in schools. But when will the words turn into action and investment? It is irresponsible of the government to rely on small businesses and struggling not-for-profits to resolve an issue of national importance without robust support.
"An understanding of computer science is becoming increasingly essential in today's world," Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has said. "Our national competitiveness depends upon our ability to educate our children – and that includes our girls - in this critical field."
With this in mind I decided to find out what inspires women choose a career IT and in turn what puts them off…. Is this something that we are accustomed to as a child? In 2010, women accounted for 47% of the UK labour force, but they made up just 25% of technology professionals, down from 27% in 2001. In 2011, boys outnumbered girls 11 to one in the average A-level computing class and 85% of those getting degrees in technology and engineering were men. What is more, research shows that many of those women currently in the tech workforce feel disillusioned and alienated in a male-dominated industry. Understandably, most children are more likely to listen to what they are told they should do, or to follow the crowd. Research shows these attitudes follow women in technology into the workplace too; one study by Intellect showed that 47% of women in tech believe they have to act like a man to get ahead. In the UK, two-thirds of women who study science and technology don't go on to work in Stem jobs. What's turning them off?
One issue is the image problem. Girls think people who work in technology are pizza-guzzling nerds who can't get girlfriends. Many women also assume that you need a computer science or maths degree when in reality there are many companies such as Makers Academy that offer intensive programs that promise to teach how to code in just 12 weeks, despite a lack of computer science background. There is a lack of visibility of women in the workplace and the classroom – the lack of role models, champions and mentors – is perhaps one of the most cited barriers to getting more women in tech. According to research conducted in 2008 by Catalyst that surveyed women working in the hi-tech sector, women most often pointed to a lack of role models similar to themselves, not having a mentor or champion and being excluded from important networks of decision-makers as the biggest barriers to career advancement.
Perhaps one of the simplest arguments for getting more women into technology is one of hard cash. Despite the lack of women creating technology, women are avid tech consumers. Four out of 10 tech products are bought by women, yet only 1% of women think tech companies have them in mind when they make them. And diversity pays: companies with more women on their staff make more money.
Maybe we need to give technology a makeover? The perception that a coder is a geek who has learned to code on his own is a poor stereotype that needs a serious rethink. Right from the get-go, computers are widely labelled as "boys' toys". If adults discourage girls from tinkering with technology when they are young, what chance do they have of retaining interest as they grow up? In a culture where being into technology is "cool" for boys and "weird" for girls, it's vital to make tech appealing, and available, at primary school. Unless girls are taught programming at junior school, by the time they reach senior school they are not going to self-select a subject that is seen as something a bit odd, or for the weird kids. Not only do we need to encourage children at a young age, we need to inform them when they reach senior school about the perks. Technology is a sector that is pretty accommodating of individuality, creativity and flexibility and is not the sort of job where you get bored after six months. Tech also pays well; a study by Forbes showed that three of the best-paid jobs for women were in the tech sector.
With women playing such a crucial role in the purchasing decisions around technology, it's no surprise that companies with more women on their management teams make more money – as much as a 34% higher return on investment. Without women on the team, men are not going to have the insights to design products that truly work for women. And that's a big mistake. According to the Harvard Business Review, there's more money to be made by successfully marketing to women than to India and China combined.
Having said all this, the fact that there aren't more women working in the tech industry, and placing this all down to culture, might simply be, in part at least, down to women pursuing careers in what they are distinctively more interested in doing. Maybe we should let people of both genders get on with doing what they want to do? I am not saying, by any means that we should discourage girls or women from getting involved in technology, nor am I convinced that it is all down to culture. Either way, the lack of women in technology as the statistics show, whichever way you look at it, is clearly a waste of talent and with the future set to be vastly surrounded by technology, I think that introducing children, both male and female, to technology codes and computer programming at junior schools, is unquestionably something that the government needs to address.