As a child, I fondly remember my Dad telling me how we lived in the same village as the world’s first computer programmer, a British woman called Ada Lovelace. From those promising beginnings, in Britain today, women now account for only 11% of IT professionals working within the IT sector, and that is harming our industry.
Men and women have complementary strengths and weaknesses; we have evolved this way to avoid over-design and make best use of our resources. We are designed to work well in the smallest family units, and in the work place.
Numerous studies have shown that corporations with gender-balanced teams at all levels of the organisation perform significantly better. Today’s technology industry is in dire need of the ‘softer’ skills often associated with women.
An example is the multi-talented Sophie Johnston. Top of her year in Computer Information Systems at Liverpool University, she is now working as a junior ScrumMaster using the agile programming methodology. A ScrumMaster is an agile project manager who emphasises facilitation, leadership and communication over traditional command-and-control activities, skills that women tend to bring to a team.
Earlier this year Sophie also helped dent the ‘IT Crowd’ image of IT professionals, stereotypically seen as sandal-wearing blokes lacking social skills. She won the most votes in the Miss Universe GB competition, showing that brains and beauty can indeed come in one package, but that is still a surprise to many people in the industry. This achievement alone is not going to change the public perception but it’s a start.
The perception that ‘girls are not good with tech’ is perhaps the toughest battle of all. As someone who has had the extremely unusual experience of seeing life from both sides of the gender divide I can assure readers that sexism is alive and well in our industry today, and the perpetrators are not always men.
Where this attitude is doing the most harm is in our schools, with girls even today being discouraged from taking computing and ICT. It’s an alarming fact that the number of young women taking A-Level computing has fallen from 13% to 9% in the last 5 years. Ironically this is despite girls performing better than boys in GCSE and A-Level Computing and ICT.
When growing up my sister and I (as a boy, remember) were encouraged towards different topics—humanities and arts versus science and maths. Speaking with teenagers today I fear that the same stereotyping which encouraged my sister and me to take different paths two decades ago is still prevalent.
I am confident that if my female brain had been born into a normal female body, rather than a male one, I would not be the successful technology entrepreneur that I am today since I would not have been encouraged in that direction.
My favourite geek-girl, Sophie, is the exception, not the rule to the rule; only 5% of her course was female. We desperately need to encourage more young teenage girls towards maths, science and technology, and that is something that each and every one of us can and should do something about. Leaving the gender issue aside, we need the girls simply to bolster the ICT professional workforce.
In my capacity as an employer I am disturbed by how hard it is to find good ICT graduates of any gender and I can’t afford for it to be a constraint on the growth of my business. Above all persuading more Sophies to enter the industry is fundamental to the success of the UK technology sector and indeed UKplc. The wider industry needs to take up the cudgels.