Last week I found myself in attendance at a panel discussion, organised by the excellent Sound Women, on “women in digital, interactive, media and developer roles”. (When I say “I found myself” I am using rhetorical flourish, you understand – I didn’t end up there by accident; I bought a ticket and went along.) The evening took place at Absolute Radio’s Golden Square HQ and was introduced by their COO, Clive Dickens, and chaired by Maggie Philbin of Tomorrow’s World fame. The panellists were Claire Sutcliffe, who founded Code Club which does exactly what I was recently complaining we needed someone to do; Belinda Parmar, founder of Lady Geek; and Andrew Caspari, head of a lot of music- and radio-related things at the BBC.
There was a lot of debate over why there aren’t more women in tech, and what might be done about it, and there were some interesting stories from audience members. The one which really made me stop and think was from a woman who grew up in Malaysia where, she said, IT was “the thing to get into” in the eighties, and as many girls studied it as boys because it was covered in the school curriculum at a time where in the UK, the only children getting into programming were the ones who did it at home as a solitary hobby (who were almost all boys, because, and I apologise for the sweeping generalisation, boys are more likely than girls to engage in solitary hobbies. Quiet at the back).
So we have a problem that is at least in part specific to the UK, and specific to the way that technology is perceived here. We don’t think of technology as a creative discipline. Claire said that if you show a kid an iPhone and explain that they can sit down and make a new iPhone app then and there, they are thrilled. Nobody had told them it was possible. All kids like technology, but nobody is helping them to make the link between writing code and making cool new things.
College brochures don’t show the potential outputs of a career in engineering, but a picture of someone sitting in front of a screen showing a load of unfamiliar gobbledegook. No wonder girls don’t want to do it – it’s as if you advertised a theatre studies course by showing someone sitting in their bedroom learning their lines, rather than up on a stage, dazzled by spotlights. We need to make technology aspirational in a way that appeals to to young women, and right now we’re really bad at it.
We also need more woman role models in technology. Women – watch out, here comes another sweeping generalisation – can be a bit crap at blowing their own trumpets, and it is easy to hide your light under a bushel and be satisfied in quietly doing your job well. But we owe it – not just to ourselves, not even just to the girls who we might inspire by showing them that careers they never even thought of can be creative and satisfying, but actually to all the potential consumers of all the cool things that girls might build if they are encouraged to work in technology – to stick our heads up above the parapet and say “yes, there aren’t many women doing this job yet, but I love it and here’s why I think you should give it a go.”
But individuals can only do so much, of course, and young woman may have already had their prejudices about technology ingrained before we persuade them otherwise (though it’s never too late! My degree is in art history). Where it really has to change, though, is in schools. In the long run, only government has the wherewithal to make changes at the level needed to support a thriving digital industry in the UK that will appeal to bright, curious, creative children of both sexes. But right now, there’s no reason for them to do it. Industry created the problem, industry will reap the biggest benefits from solving it, and industry has the means here and now to start making a difference – to go into schools, to talk to children, to bridge that gap between what they know they can do and what they can really do, and encourage them down the path we so urgently need them to take.