On April 21st 2017 I presented the following workshop at UX in the City: Oxford. The workshop summarizes the current situation for women in technology; reflecting on the past to understand how we got to these horrendous figures, and debunking some of the assumptions that are thrown around when trying to justify the situation.
The latest figures show that the technology workforce in the US and the UK is pretty similar at around 17%, however a common misconception is that it’s just the technology sector itself that is bad…
…where as actually the proportion of women working in the UK digital and creative industries as a whole isn’t much better, at around 26%. This figure is terrifying for two reasons – firstly this includes creative, marketing, HR and admin roles that are more likely to be filled with women, and secondly this figure has actually fallen from 33% in 2002. Something is going very, very wrong.
The figures coming out of Silicon Valley are dreadful. Only 10% of the technology workforce at Twitter is female, and the likes of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Apple really aren’t much better. Lets remember that these are not old, institutionalised employers – the majority of them are less than 15 years old, and they’re coming out of the very liberal Silicon Valley. And when you consider that the majority of the products that these companies are making have a user base of around 50% when, there is absolutely no excusing these figures.
Another fact that is relatively amusing travesty is this…
But the thing is I don’t think anyone’s at all proud of these statistics – I *hope* that most employers realise that their company can never truly reach its full potential whilst it is still recruiting from a severely restricted pool of talent. More women in tech means more job applications to chose from, which means more talent. It’s as simple as that.
But there’s plenty more reasons why tech needs more women. TechCity UK – a think-tank for the UK government recently announced that by 2020 the UK will need a further 1 million tech workers. Even if every person entering the UK over the next few years went straight into tech we’d still fall short, and in the dawn of Brexit relying on an incoming workforce is a pretty risky manoeuvre. It makes far more sense to start to utilise the workforce that we already have to its full potential.
Another reason is this – according to the Harvard Business Review women represent a growth market of double India and China combined. There is so much money at stake here…
…but we really are just throwing it away. Because the thing is, if you’re going to make products for this market it makes far more sense to involve women throughout the whole process, and the reason for this is simple. Women ask different questions to men, and it’s this constant ratification of a product through its ideation, development and execution that is always going to be far easier with a diverse team creating it.
And as Jane Austen highlighted in her keynote speech at UX in the City Oxford, the value of a workforce with a big variety of viewpoints is vital for a good moral compass, and for avoiding groupthink. As the power of tech companies continues to evolve the industry has a moral duty to the rest of the world’s population to ratify its decisions with a broad group. When ideas escalate and the end result is a very morally questionable one, we need someone there saying ‘WTF is this?! You can’t seriously think hacking in to users webcams is a good idea?’.
But we also need to consider this – the companies that do start to utilise the pool of female talent to its full potential are going to be the first ones to start reaping the benefits of it, and the ones that don’t, are going to be the ones left in the dark wondering where it all went wrong.
Quite simply, tech needs to stop restricting itself to the ideas coming out of a very homogeneous group of people.
And history is riddled with examples of when utilising the female workforce can have massive returns. As highlighted by the 2017 film Hidden Figures, 1960’s segregated NASA with failing badly in the space race against the USSR, but things took a turn for the better when they started to utilise the African American female workforce, and eventually, they made it to the moon.
Another example closer to home is Bletchley Park. Modern history has popularised the story of Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers in the cracking of the Enigma code, but a lesser known fact is this…
…on average the workforce at Bletchley Park was 80% women. But history loves to focus on the stories of the individuals – the one’s that make great Hollywood movies.
But the thing about the women at Bletchley Park is that their success was not a result of individual achievements – their success was in the prowess of a sheer class of them – tens of thousands of them all working towards one goal – cracking the code and winning the war. But we’ll come back to Bletchley Park in a bit.
On the surface this does appear to be true. Out of my group of friends I’m the only one that works in technology, and when I speak to my friends about it they say that ‘they’re just not that technical’ and so aren’t interested in a career in technology. But when we look internationally, things are different…
Iceland for example have managed to achieve a 50:50 split in their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workforce. And there are similar figures starting to come out of the Eastern European states.
And when you look closer to home there’s also evidence that this is not the case. Code First : Girls is a fantastic scheme that provides free coding and programming training courses to girls and women across the UK. Last year they taught over 2,000 girls, and 100% of their courses were 100% over subscribed. There really is massive interest in these courses. So when considering things on a bigger scale, it is clear that this is not a fair assumption.
On to assumption number two. This is where it all starts to get a bit tricky, with many top scientists, academics and journalists going on record professing this to be true (including then Harvard President Larry Summers).
One of the experiments often raised in support of this the monkeys with toys experiment. This is where a group of male and female monkeys are given a selection of toys to play with. The results are that the male monkeys almost always chose the wheeled toys – the trucks and the toy cars – to play with. With the female monkeys it’s not quite as definitive – they don’t really have a preference, but they are far more likely to play with the dolls and the cuddly toys than the male monkeys are. And this, the scientists say, is because there are innate differences between the male and the female brain. So lets look at these differences.
The common traits for the female brain is to be better at social skills – they are more empathetic, caring, loving and emotional. This makes them more attracted to things like teaching, medicine and care work. The male brain however is more focused, confident, and stronger, and better at spacial awareness, which makes them more suited to leadership roles. Except when you go through the traits of the male and female brain, how many of you exclusively relate to either of the columns? Probably not very many of you, and the latest research supports this.
A 2015 study coming out of the University of Tel Aviv shows that actually only 0-8% of us exclusively relate to the characteristics of the male of female brain – the over whelming majority of us are a complete mix-match of the two brains, a bit like a mosaic. Put simply, “there are no two types of brain”.
And the thing is, whatever arrangement you do have is completely flexible. for example the London taxi driver is not born with the ability to store all of the street names in London in their head – its something they can train their brain how to do. The gender imbalance in tech is often justified by the tendency for the male brain to be better at spacial awareness, which makes tasks in technology and engineering far easier for them. Except that much like the London taxi driver’s ability to memorise all the street names, spacial awareness is a skill that can be taught. And it can be taught by playing with things like lego.
When you compare the girls and the boys isle at the toy shop, its very easy to see why our young boys and men have better spacial awareness skills than our young girls. But the thing is the difference between boys and girls toys has existed for centuries – it’s always been dolls for girls and train sets for boys. But the gender imbalance in tech however, is actually a relatively new phenomenon.
Back to Bletchley Park – the dawn of the computing industry in Britain, and women really were right there in the mix – as I said earlier 80% of the workforce at Bletchley Park was women. But the problem is history seems to focus on the ability of the machines themselves, making them seem far more automatic than what they actually were. So lets be clear – these women were not just machine operators running, or tending to the machines.
These women were soldering the machines together, maintaining, fixing and programming them around the clock – often working 24 hour shifts in extremely high pressure circumstances.
But the images of the era are far more like this – very passive and sedentary when actually all of the reports of the machines from the era describe it to be something more like this…
The machines were incredibly temperamental, and the women were teaching themselves how to fix and maintain them on the go.
But the war came to an end, and this enormous pool of technology expertise was marched back in to the home. All of the top jobs in technology became completely reserved for me – women were not even able to apply for these jobs. The only jobs in computing that were really open to women were the machine operator, and card puncher. These were extremely unpopular jobs – the work itself was boring and monotonous, and in noisy, clammy, uncomfortable environments. These were not long term career prospects for women – no one wanted to do it for more than a few years. But the problem was, after a few years in the job, there was no where else for the women to go if they wanted to stay in computing. There were active policies in place to prevent them from getting promoted within the industry, or even getting transferred to other departments. Even just getting promoted to a supervisor level was seen to be taking a job away from a man, so had to be avoided at all costs.
An example that typifies this era is in 1959 a female machine operator was tasked with getting too new computers installed and programmed, whilst at the same time training two new male executives. At the end of the year once the machines were fully operational the two male executives were promoted to managerial roles, whilst the woman, who was described as ‘having a good brain and a special flair’ was actually demoted to an assistant role below the two men. This must have been an incredibly frustrating time to be a women in tech.
Because of the industry’s active refusal to promote the women to more senior roles, by the time the card puncher and machine operator became redundant as the technology evolved, the amount of women in computing plummeted. But the irony is, one of the biggest issues plaguing the British computing industry at the time was a labor shortage – and its continued ignorance of its female talent (its biggest reserve of computing experience) meant it was its own worst enemy. Even a government report from the time accepted that…
Had the British computing industry at the time utilised the talent of the female workforce, we could be sitting in a very different world today, where the tech giants and game changers in the technology industry are not all white, middle class men sat in Silicon Valley. Just imagine how different things could have been.
So what we do know is this…
But hey, that was 50 years ago, and we now live in a society in the West were class, gender and race discrimination are meant to be non-existent. However now the force we are fighting against is much harder to see – it’s the unconscious bias that’s almost impossible to prove, especially in the workplace. But it is possible to prove it under scientific experiments…
For example in 2012 a research study sent out two identical CVs to a group of laboratory scientists. The CVs were identical, except at the top of one of them it said ‘John’ and at the top of the other one it said ‘Jennifer’. The scientists were then asked to rate the candidates for competence, and recommend them a starting salary. The results were as follows…
Another example of the unconscious gender bias is Mr Kim O’Grady. Kim had a fantastic CV – lots of great experience and fantastic achievements on it. But after job-hunting for several months he did not receive a single call back, or even an invite for interview. So he looked again at his CV and realised that because of his gender neutral name there was nothing on it that indicated he was a man. So he changed this and added ‘Mr’ to the beginning of his name at the top, and sent it out again. Within days he was flooded with call backs, and within 2 weeks he had a job.
But the issue isn’t just getting women into the industry, its actually keeping them here. The average career length for a women in tech is only 7 years, with many citing the unwelcoming culture either as the reason for leaving, or the reason for not coming back to the industry after leaving to start a family. So what is this unwelcoming culture?
Well in Silicon Valley the rise of the brogrammer culture has created an incredibly unwelcoming environment to image. The conscious effort to change the image of someone working in tech from ‘geek’ to ‘frat-boy’ may seem innocent enough on the surface, but there is a very dark side to this culture.
In 2012 Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter project to explore gender stereotypes in the gaming industry. The backlash she received from the gaming community was absolutely incredulous. When researching this I Googled ‘Anita Sarkeesian’ and the recommended result was ‘Anita Sarkeesian meme’ so I clicked on this, and the results were pages and pages of the following…
Some of these got even darker, with many including threats of sexual assault, violence and even rape.
Another example of this is in February this year Susan J. Fowler released her blog post highlighting the brogrammer culture at Uber. This is where continual sexual harassment was tolerated, and Susan’s raising of the issue to the HR department was actually used against Susan when she was put in line for promotion.
In 2015 this culture was researched further with the Elephant in the Valley Survey. This went out to over 200 women across Silicon Valley, and the results were as follows.
For women in STEM, and many other industries there’s definitely a mould that needs to be fitted into, and that includes not being too aggressive, and being friendly and sociable the whole time. If you don’t fit into that mould, things tend to be a lot harder for you.
But that’s America and things are slightly different in Britain. Certainly I don’t think the brogrammer culture has made it across the pond – all the people that I’ve worked with over the last few years are far more comfortably aligned with the term ‘techie’ ‘dev’ or ‘geek’; none of them I would say could be considered brogrammers.
But that’s not to say that the ‘geek’ is any less innocent at putting off women from getting into tech than the ‘brogrammer’. The geek that burns with an intense passion for computers and technology is incredibly intimidating – it’s easy for young girls and women to see this and then disregard their own lack of passion as not good enough for the industry.
But the thing is you don’t need this intense passion for code and programming – code is all right, I’ve learnt enough of it to get to where I am today, but it’s a long way from being my passion. My passion is the things you can do with the code – the end result, the code itself is just a means towards an end.
But all of this comes down to one enormous underlying issue, and that’s this: Technology’s absolutely diabolical image problem. For example when most of us think of coding and programming, how many of you think of something like this. When actually, if tech was any good at marketing itself, it would make you think of something like this…
Monument Valley – beautiful games made of stunning illustrations and incredible animations.
Tech should make you think of things like DuoLingo – a fantastic initiative that provides a platform so that anyone in the world can learn a language for absolutely free – all they need is a mobile phone (which are becoming ever cheaper) and an Internet connection (which is becoming ever more widespread).
Tech should make you think of projects like this – Be My Eyes. This is an incredible project that connects independently living blind people to a wide community of sited people through video calling. This means that if a blind person is in their home for example, they go to the fridge and take out a packet of food, but they can’t read the sell-by-date to read if it’s safe to eat. So they video call someone through the app – show them the packet through the video call, and the person on the other end can read the packet for them and tell them whether its safe to eat.
Or even this: the fact that technology has brought vital healthcare to some of the world’s remotest communities. Technology is doing wonderful things but we’re just not shouting about it enough.
And the result of this bad image is statistics like this – these results were from a 2012 PWC study.
These are tech’s biggest selling points, and the industry is severely under-advertising them to its next generation of recruits.
Besides advertising the industry better, another place to inspire young people with technology is at school. At the beginning of the 1980s, Britain was running one the world’s most innovative IT education projects in its schools, with thanks to the BBC Micro. The BBC Micro was fantastic and was enormously successful and inspiring the next generation of coders and programmers.
However by the mid-90s IT rooms in schools across Britain had become stuffed with virus ridden, temperamental computers that are focused on teaching office skills and not a lot else in some rather dull IT lessons.
The IT GCSE and A Level qualification holds so little academic respect that in 2018 the UK government plans to scrap the qualification, in favour of the far more practical Computer Science qualification.
However there is a risk that this could be detrimental in terms of getting more girls in to technology – as you can see the latest figures show that Computer Science has a far worse gender imbalance that IT. But this is easily fixable, because the thing about 14 year old girls when they go to chose which GCSE’s to take, is that it’s very easy to change their minds. I know, I was one. Originally, I chose to do GCSE Dance simply because all my friends were doing it. But my incredible Art teacher took me to one side and said ‘Yeah you could do Dance, but you’ve got lots of potential with Art, and I think you’ll could get a lot out of it’. That was it, less than a 15 second conversation and I was sold, I took Art for GCSE and A Level, and it got me my best grades. All these young girls need is a little nudge in the right direction.
But as it stands the gender imbalance at school continues on to higher education – with University of Oxford’s current under-grad CS programme having only 15% girls. However this is not the case everywhere…
Harved Mudd and Carnegie Mellon in America have achieved outstanding results, but the thing is, both College’s had terrible ratios until recently. To turn things around, they did the following….
The key here is supporting and encouraging the girls that don’t have much experience (the pre-requisite for most CS courses is only an A Level or equivalent in Mathematics), but do show all the right potential of good maths and problem solving skills. If coached correctly these young women will pick up the programming knowledge they need to in no time, and catch up (if not overtake) the boys who have been tinkering and hacking with code for years. And when you go through all of this advice, its clear that it’s just as relevant to employers as it is educators.