Why is it that, while women make up 49% of the UK labour force, they account for just 17% of IT and telecom professionals? What’s more, the promotion and visibility of Marissa Mayer, the recently promoted Yahoo chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the number two at Facebook, comes as the number of women in the industry in the UK at least has been falling over the past 10 years. Why?
There are dozens of groups promoting women in tech, from pub meetups to formal networking and corporate efforts, yet few seem to be taking Karren Brady’s advice in her autobiography that pioneers in any field need to hold the door open “as wide as possible, for as long as possible, to allow other women to march through it”.
One woman who believes the problems start much earlier is Belinda Parmar, who founded the Lady Geek marketing agency in 2010, advising corporate clients, including Sony, Ubisoft and Vodafone, how to recruit and sell to women. She’s often shocked, she says, by the “shrink it and pink it mentality” of tech marketers, but that’s hardly surprising when there are so few women employed in the industry. “I have a four-year-old daughter and I want her to think that anything is possible, that no career in out of bounds,” she says. “If any other comparable industry had a female workforce of only 17% there would be an outcry.”
Today, Parmar launches Little Miss Geek, a book which aims to trace the obstacles women face starting out in the tech industry. It is aimed at industry leaders, government and parents, and is at its most persuasive when it states the financial case for inclusion: tech companies with women on management teams have a 34% higher return on investment, according to a Catalyst report, while a 2009 report for the Harvard Business Review claims that the female demographic is worth around $20tn in consumer spending every year.
But there is something alarmist in the tone of Parmar’s statistics and capitalised infographics: “GIRLS SEE COMPUTING AS UNFEMININE… ‘I’D RATHER BE A DUSTMAN THAN WORK IN I.T.” and it’s hard not to feel a little downbeat at the use of “little misses” for women. Are the messages and pretty illustrations in danger of reinforcing the stereotypes, rather than dispelling them?
What seems missing from the campaign is the celebration of women’s achievements in technology. And while we can all think of the executives – Meg Whitman and Joanna Shields as well as others – it’s those quietly successful women actually building great stuff that we need to hear from. The most inspiring role models, as Little Miss Geek’s manifesto concludes, are those working on projects that young creative technologists can relate to.
Rewired State founder Emma Mulqueeny has been organising hack events since 2009, bringing talented developers together with mentors. She says she has given up “single sex” campaigns. “I spent two months doing everything I could to promote the Young Rewired State hack to girls – and the sign-up rate dropped from 5% to 3%,” she said. “It was because I shed light on it being a more male thing, and that’s like social suicide. They think you’ll only get nerdy girls if it’s boy dominated.” In the end, Mulqueeny recruited model Lily Cole to the judging panel – and female signups rose to 23%.
Is it too simplistic to try and motivate women based on them being women? Kim Plowright has spent 12 years in tech as a producer and project manager, including work for the BBC and UK startups including Moo, Somethin’ Else and Storything. She describes herself as “the world’s worst feminist” for just wanting to get on with work, rather than compartmentalising “female and male professions”. “I do feel quite conflicted about it. My parents made no distinctions, so I just got on with what felt normal to me. Perhaps it’s more about addressing parents and their attitudes.”
Little Miss Geek suggests that the “ultimate goal is to make tech more glamorous and desirable to women”. But the act of programming itself is not glamorous, and the low-key nature of developing, perhaps even the male environment, is cited as a selling point for many women, including Plowright.
“It’s a great field to work in, because of the people,” she says. “Developers tend to be good, straightforward sorts with a refreshing lack of ego, who genuinely enjoy collaborating. The industry wants to change – it knows the gender balance is off, and will probably do things to address that.” For example cult craft site Etsy has announced grants to support female hackers this year while Google developed an algorithm in August to help identify when and why women dropped out of its recruitment process.
Leila Johnston, writer and technologist-in-residence for the Happenstance project at Sheffield’s Site Gallery, says: “Women in tech are perhaps getting a little bored of talking about their women-ness now. Which is a shame, as who else will stand up and say it’s OK for girls to hang out in the computer room every lunchtime, like we used to?” Johnston was recently asked how much she really knows about technology. “I’ll always wonder if these attitudes are about me personally, or about the fact that I’m female,” she says.
Is it time to forget the tired stereotypes of engineers and technologists as nerds and geeks and boffins? “My role models were people who seemed to do whatever they wanted, without caring what anyone thought of them,” says Johnston. “It might just be this attitude that gives girls the push to not care about going against the grain.”