May 10th 2017

Where have all the tech girls gone?

On Tuesday morning, I had the pleasure of attending Westminster eForum’s ‘Women in the tech sector’ keynote seminar. Hosted at Glaziers Hall in London Bridge, a very packed room listened to a number of high-profile speakers discuss the lack of women in the technology sector.

The first thing that struck me about the event was that every single speaker that took to the stage bombarded the audience with statistics. And rightly so; just 17% of Tech/ICT workers in the UK are female and only 4% of the world’s software engineers are female. These are just two of many facts highlighting a stark misrepresentation of women working in technology today. While it appears we have made some slow and steady progress towards promoting the importance of gender balance, the percentages are not moving in the right direction quickly enough. This sentiment was the platform upon which the rest of the speakers of the event built their case for why and how we need to get more women into the technology industry.

There were two speakers in particular who, in my opinion, packed a punch with their talks. The first was Hema Marshall, Head of Country Digitisation and Skills from Cisco. Hema made a strong case for the importance of role models in helping young girls to enter the tech industry because ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. She posited that hope is not a strategy for encouraging young girls to work within the tech industry – we can’t just cross our fingers and wait to see what happens. Instead, we need to bring the role models and the initiatives straight into schools to change the culture of the industry and underline the business imperatives for women working in tech roles.

The second speaker who made an impression on me was Susan Bowen, Vice President and General Manager EMEA at Cogeco Peer 1 and Chair of the Women in Tech Council, techUK. As a woman who started her career through coding, Susan clearly had a head for numbers. As her role model and former colleague Meg Whitman once told her, ‘facts and data set you free’. This is exactly what Susan tried to do, using numbers and hard evidence to help raise the commercial case for gender equality.

The event was certainly interesting and provided me with some food for thought, but I would have liked to have seen more men speaking and even in attendance. There was one male speaker throughout the whole session – Steve Brown, Director of Empiric and Programme Manager of Next Tech Girls – who did a great job talking about how his firm recruits young women into tech roles. However I feel that, if we are going to change the culture and mindset towards women in tech, and women in senior roles more generally, men need to be more involved and engaged in the discussion.

Some of the language used to describe women in relation to technology also put me at unease. On a few occasions, some of the speakers described themselves as ‘sassy’ or ‘not wanting to be emotional among male colleagues.’ While much of the day’s discussion focused on recruiting young women into technology and the importance of role models in doing so, there won’t be any role models for women to follow if we can’t retain the talent currently in the industry. This means providing a nurturing and accepting environment based on equality. Using adjectives such as ‘sassy’ to qualify the roles women are doing dilutes the values, skills and characteristics women are bringing to the table. It also gives permission to male colleagues to use similar words, which can come across as offensive in some cases. I’d like to see a move away from this type of language. Then we might see more equality and stronger acceptance in sectors where women are severely lacking.