Women In Tech

Is this a blog by another guy crusading on behalf of women because it’s cool without really understanding the problem..?  Well, I don’t think of myself that way but its up to you what you think.  I’ll start though by presenting a statistic and discussing two independent studies:

Only 17% of the workforce in the IT industry is made up of women when 46.5% of the total UK labour workforce are women.

According to this Catalyst Report  from 2007 (yes a full 11 years ago) examining the Fortune 500, those companies with women on the board of directors significantly out performed those companies with all male boards.  In addition, those companies with three of more women on the board of directors have a stronger than average performance.

“Stronger-than-average results prevail at companies where at least three women serve”

This report from the Harvard Business Review in 2009 highlights that women drive the world economy with a $20tn spend each year, projected to rise to $28tn by 2014 (4 years ago).

“Globally, they control about $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, and that figure could climb as high as $28 trillion in the next five years”

When I was planning this article I was trying to figure out how to eloquently explain why women are equal in the male dominated industry.  These two articles do just that for me.  The point I’m trying to illustrate though is that women are incredibly important influencers.

My Career Experience

I was lucky when I started out in IT as an apprentice 20 years ago.  My first two managers were women, and they were both fantastic mentors.  In my second job she was also the IT Manager.  I was fortunate in two ways.  First, my first experience was in a team made up of men and women so for me a stereo type buster.  The second is that we had a great team who enjoyed their work, and were very sociable both inside and outside work.  Whether one is linked to the other I can’t scientifically quantify, however I believe that the diversity in the IT team helped us serve our customer base, and serve them well.  My grounding in how to conduct myself, how to approach my work, and resolve issues came from multiple mentors in those teams, both male and female.

My fortune in working in a team made up of men and women continued for the next 15 years across 4 companies, ranging from IT manager, to support manager, to two financial managers.  That experience dropped off when I became a contractor for a couple of years to working in all male teams.

Today I work closely with 6 wonderful women who are incredible at their jobs – is this because they are genetically female?  Who knows how much biology plays.  I know they are daughters, sisters, parents, girlfriends, and wives, just as I am a son, brother, father and husband.  There is much more to them than genetics.  They are all leaders in their respective fields and I know I wouldn’t be able to work as well as I do or be as effective as I am if it wasn’t for them.

What Do I Think

Why do I think women aren’t coming into tech?

Social paradigms are a big barrier during formative, particularly school years.  When I was at school both tech and IT were incredibly geeky, and as a direct result I didn’t take an interest in the subject while I was at school (yes, very ironic).  A few years ago I rented a room from a friend.  She had a 15 year old daughter I’d know for a few years alongside her mother.  Her view, shared by her friends, was that IT was for geeks and wouldn’t ever consider a career involved in it.  I asked why and didn’t get much of an answer, but was left with a distinct impression it was to do with social circles.  I also asked her if she considered me to be a geek, to which she replied “no”.  Paradox much!  The reality is that I am a geek, but that isn’t a bad thing.  I am also a martial artist, socially accomplished, and sometimes a little rough round the edges.  I know plenty of people in IT that are definitely geeks, but are also social accomplished, and are regularly involved in sports.  The geek stereo type is less and less a sum of who you are these days, but more a facet of your personality.

The pace of change in tech is phenomenal.  I work predominantly in Microsoft Azure and it is now impossible to remain abreast of new releases each week at a deep level across all of todays 300 Azure services – thankfully Microsoft don’t expect me to.  The rate of “churn” will only ever increase.   I feel accomplished in my career and have considered a sabbatical a number of times.  What’s the one thing that holds me back… this rate of change.  It would take time to bring myself up to the level I left at (due to memory atrophy) but it would take an incredible amount of time to bring myself up to speed with current releases.  Women considering starting or extending families are faced with this as a factor when choosing a career.

Thinking back to my childhood and looking at my son, his friends and the children of my friends, boys are given and play with construction toys (Lego, Mechano, MegaBloks, models, etc) and girls typically aren’t (though I’m pleased to see a gender stereotype breakdown in Lego in recent years).  When they are in situations where they are presented with toys they don’t own, they gravitate to what they know and enjoy.  Perhaps as we grow older this becomes ingrained and we pursue careers based on building.  Certainly IT has a huge amount of building in it, from installing Operating Systems, to building servers, to writing code for an app build.  We consider everything up to the point of support as a building process/activity.  Maybe this is one of the reasons we share an inequality in gender with the construction and and mechanical industries.  A crying shame considering our economy / industry was powered by women during and after World War II.

Why Am I Concerned

After 20 years why am I so bothered by it now?  In 20 years the number of women working in IT hasn’t increased much – that bothers me by itself.  I don’t like the idea that the industry I work in and love is discriminate.  Importantly though, the tech industry is an influencer and decision maker in so many aspects of our lives, from the disruptors of Amazon (books without shops) and Uber (taxi firm that doesn’t own assets), to the giants of tech services (Microsoft and Google) that touch so many aspects of our lives.  People from all parts of society need to be in on this industry to so we get a rounded view when tech is conceived, developed, built, and sold.

This is going to be critically important on the cusp of the biggest revolution since the invention of fire (or maybe the wheel).  What am I talking about? Artificial Intelligence.  We are careering headlong down the path of building AIs and integrating them into devices or services we will consume.  We are relying on the tech companies that are developing AI to be ethical and morally responsible.  AI is already out there and in use in a limited fashion!  Do we have enough influencers from across the spectrum, absolutely not!

What Can We Do

Can I forge a one man crusade to address this problem? Yes.  Would it be effective? No, it requires all of us, peers, parents, educators, mentors, and business leaders to help us bust the stereo types and social paradigms that are preventing us from making our industry better.

If you’re school goer and making your GCSE / further education decisions, or maybe influencing someone who is.  Allow yourself/them to find out about IT, what’s involved, where you can work, who you can work with, what your possibilities are.  There are plenty of tech firms that are approachable for a summer internship or operate open days.

If you’re an employer you can ensure your equal opportunities policy is effective and provide extra support for women (or anyone for that matter) in tech who need to take time out for children by providing an investment in training (time as well as materiels) upon returning to work.

If you’re a parent, try not to think of jobs as gender or persona defined.  Your little ones are miniature versions of you.  Nurture and support their interests (IT or otherwise), it’s so simple to get involved in tech these days with books and programs to aid very young children in learning to code in fun ways (a skill that is likely to be on the curriculum in primary schools in the near future).  This doesn’t automatically mean they will turn into someone who hides in their room all day tapping on a keyboard while drinking coca-cola and growing their hair.  It’s your responsibility to stimulate them in other subjects too.  I’m a parent.  Will I expose my children to computers and IT tech – of course, will this be the only hobby I expose them too – no, absolutely not.  My job is to arm them with information so they can make an informed decision about a career – regardless of industry sector.

If you’re an educator provide open days for enrolment, and work with your local companies to forge relationships.  Being able to provide short or long internships, contacts, or place students is more likely to a make a career choice successful.

I will continue to work in this space to mentor and influence the young and old to think differently, and empower people to choose a career in IT.  Please join me.

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