When I first started looking at the topical, but relatively simple, subject of Girls in IT (or rather the lack of them), I never realised just what a can of worms I was opening.
I was invited by Dan Gardner, a computer science teacher at the Perins School next door to attend a lunchtime session with a group of Year 8 girls, over a couple of mountains of chips by way of a bribe, and wasn’t sure what the outcome would be (if any). Young teenagers do not usually respond well to being kept inside at breaktime so I was fascinated to see that, apart from a few lasses who were clearly there for the chips, there was a genuine interest in what was going on. And, apart from demonstrating the lighter side of computing with a programmed robotic car, that was to try and sway the opinions of these young girls towards choosing GCSE Computer Science as one of their options – by dispelling a few myths, asking a few questions about their perception of the industry and IT, and to try to understand just why the computer industry cannot attract the fairer sex in any number compared with their male counterparts.
In further researching the subject, the journey since that day has taken me to all sorts of places and introduced me to some genuinely interesting people and facts. There are some truly enthusiastic ambassadors out there determined to swim against the tide that seems to sweep women out of the IT industry and they are actively campaigning to redress the balance. Organisations like Lady Geek, headed by Belinda Parmar are booked up for weeks to come to speak at conferences across the globe. Watching a nine minute video of her speaking at a recent TEDx conference in Greece I was bowled over by the straightforward way she puts across the facts: that the number of women joining, and working in, the world of IT is very low (incredibly only17% of the IT industry in the UK is female) but even more worrying is that the trend is downwards, so much so that by 2043 the percentage of women in IT will be less than 1%.
So why do the statistics tell such a bleak story? Is it that the IT industry, as Belinda Parmar’s research into girls’ attitudes would suggest, is full of ‘pizza-guzzling male nerds’? Is careers advice in this sector poor or are girls’ brains just wired differently from those of boys? Rachel Jackson, coordinator of IBM’s ‘Women in technology’ initiative thinks that the latter is a real factor, but it’s not the whole story by any means. Careers advice is another, for sure, and education is where this has to start.
Women consume technology – on Twitter, Facebook and in mobile phone purchases, women outplay men. So why are they not creating it?
Computer Weekly and Mortimer Spinks have teamed up two years running to conduct a survey into this subject and have come up with some very surprising facts. Of the 1,318 participants, of whom 45% were women and 55% men – all from varying age groups and salaries – 59% of them believe that starting a career in tech is far less attractive for women than men. No surprises there, then. But an identical number of men and women, an overwhelming 95% respectively, said that they are happy in their careers in technology. So in this respect, men and women are really no different. They share the same skills, aspirations, promotions and views as each other. The big difference is that women simply don’t find techy careers attractive in the first place.
So, Mortimer Spinks’ survey results would lead you to believe that the message is not getting out there, but again the results are surprising: 46% of men and an intriguingly large 30% of women don’t actively think that there should be more women in IT, that it’s a non-issue. And whilst media attention is growing around the problem and there are plenty of people who wish there was more, it seems that only about half the participants felt that there should be more attention given to it in mainstream media.
So the inference is that “perhaps it’s become important that we no longer write about how there are aren’t enough women in tech, but instead write and talk about how brilliant it is to be working in tech.” After all, those already in the industry love it – so there’s no problem with a disgruntled female workforce; it seems that the problem is getting them there in the first place.
Which brings us rather neatly back to careers advice. It is painfully obvious that, although technology is a remarkably buoyant industry, schools and careers advisers are not proactively encouraging enough people into it and this at a time when employment is very high on schools’ agendas – whether male or female, but especially female. I have tried in vain to get hold of someone from the National Careers Service to give me their view on it but despite their very active Twitter feed about how successful they’ve been, and an invitation from them for me to tell them all about my project to date I have only had automated responses to my emails.
One of the reasons I want to get hold of them is to take part in a breakfast event we are planning to hold here, at our offices, in early October as part of our series of #FirstThing breakfast seminars. We see this as an opportunity to bring together some important players in the field – educationalists from primary, secondary, further and higher education, representatives from some big players in the industry (like IBM), smaller tech employers (like First Option), women who inspire other women in careers and self-motivation, and the media. The format is likely to be as a symposium – a round table discussion – and from the output we hope to use to produce a white paper on the subject, supported by video and media coverage. Despite the findings of Mortimer Spinks’ survey, I believe that more ‘getting the message out there’ can do nothing but good for the cause. Indeed, they obviously think so too because they intend to send the results of their survey to one hundred schools advisers, along with an invitation to go and talk to students about the findings.
I hope they have more luck getting through than I have.
For more information on our #GirlsinIT project, or our #FirstThing events, please contact David Cradduck at firstname.lastname@example.org or 01962 738265.