Heard of Ada Lovelace? No? Then shame on you! She may not have a particularly well known name but she sure does have a huge influence over everything that you do. Ada Lovelace is responsible for the first ever computer program and, considering she died in 1852, she did it long before the computer even existed.
Last Tuesday (15 October) was Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in digital. The day aims to shine a spotlight on her achievements and hopes to inspire other women into careers in the technology sector. The first Ada Lovelace day in 2009 saw more than 1,200 people write about women they admire who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths); four years on, it is still going strong and gaining momentum.
I was at a conference last week – the day before Ada Lovelace Day – and it really got me thinking about women in digital. This was not actually a subject that was mentioned during the day but one that really popped out at me. There were 11 speakers who were fantastic – they made great points and I came away with a ridiculous amount of notes and ideas and the feeling that I had made a really worthwhile trip. I had learnt a lot, but I couldn’t stop thinking about one big point – only one of these 11 speakers was a woman. She was the keynote speaker at the end of the day and was not, in fact, there to deliberately inform the conference of anything new. Rather, she was there to tell the story of her company and in my opinion hers was the best talk of the day.
This is not the first time this has happened. Earlier this year I attended another conference where all the speakers (and later on experts in a debate) were men. The only woman was the Chair – she was there just to oversee and direct proceedings.
At both of these events, the audience noticed and made noise on social about the lack of female presenters. Are there simply NO women working in digital whose experience and opinions are as good as the men asked to speak at these events? I think not!
So why aren’t there more women in tech?
We have a massive skills gap in the UK – only 17% of tech jobs are held by women and over the last 10 years this has been dropping by 0.5% each year. Despite technology being one of the most creative careers available and the top paying [career choice] for women, females are underrepresented, especially in decision making roles. Where does it all go wrong?
Maybe it starts at the start, in high school? Chelsey our Software and Web Developer sent me this story about a computing-enthused 16 year old who was stripped of her passion for technology during one semester of a programming class. Dull lessons, a lack of encouragement, harassment from her peers and a classroom that was neither inclusive nor a safe learning environment all contributed to this girl’s choice to move away from the tech field.
Moving on to university education, of 10,000 women with a Bachelor degree in Europe, only 29 of them hold a degree in ICT’s (Information and Communication Technology) and only 4 in 1000 women will eventually work in this sector. In comparison, of 1000 men with a bachelor degree in Europe, 95 of them hold an ICT degree and 20 go on to work in the sector.
I once told a lecturer at university I wanted to work in marketing. He said to me (as he knew I worked in my students union) “Well you can obviously make cups of tea so I’m sure you’ll get something – it’s a very male dominated industry” – nice…
Tech has a bit of an image problem. Lets be honest, I mean, it’s geeky. It’s for boys in dark rooms with no girlfriends. It’s boring and it’s definitely not creative and involves talking to no one, right? Wrong.
A study by Cisco in 2009 found that 80% of girls want to be creative and independent in their work environment and only 30% believe a job in ICT would let them do this. Looks like the industry has a huge image problem to overcome.
Sure, there is a place for the mega-geek computing genius, but tech companies require a variety of skill sets. They need all-rounders, they require creatives, and they couldn’t get by without people who can write really good copy – plus, many technical skills can be learnt on the job. Many companies just need hard working and passionate employees – men and women can fill this role equally well.
The sad fact is that women are still hugely under-represented in the technology and digital sectors in many parts of the world despite a role model like Ada Lovelace being such a trailblazer so many years ago. Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has called the decline in the number of women entering computer science in the western world an ‘emergency’. Despite the fact that 245 girls took an A level in computing this year (only 6.5% of computing exams sat were by females), by 2043 it is estimated that less than 1% of the technology sector will be made up of women.
It seems it comes from ‘the top’ – Silicon Valley. When Twitter filed for its Wall Street debut earlier this month it was revealed that despite over half of Twitter users being female, there is only woman on the board, and she only started 5 weeks previously. The rest? All men.
But Google are on a quest to try and change things and get more women in tech. During his keynote speech at the Google I/O developers conference in May of this year, co-founder Larry Page said that Google was focussed on the recruitment of more women:
“The only answer is, we have to start early and make sure we get more women and girls excited in technology…There’s no question we will double the rate of progress.”
This is much more than a ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ issue. This is, as Sheryl Sandberg said, an emergency. A press release from the European Union this month said that if the trends between men and women were reversed and women held digital jobs as frequently as men, the European GDP could be boosted annually by around 9 billion Euros. The European Commission wants more action across Europe to inspire young women to get involved and interested in technology, but in order for this to happen the industry needs to put it at the top of their agenda in all aspects – female talent cannot be overlooked.
Women in digital face a chicken and egg problem. The industry needs to offer a better image and a culture that is more friendly to women, but in order to achieve this it requires a stronger female presence and so on.
I am proud to say that I work for a company that is bucking this trend. Attacat has 60% women – we recruited 5 women in January and overcame this chicken and egg problem at one fell swoop. This was a 250% increase in women in one day! We created a culture that was fair and friendly to women and at the same time made it more attractive for women to apply in the future.
Women make for a better company
There are many studies documenting how the quality of the workplace is markedly better in companies with mixed genders and gender balanced leadership teams. Fortune 500 companies with a higher representation of women on the board of directors had a significantly higher financial performance than those with a lower representation said a study into Corporate Performance and Women Representation on Boards by Catalyst.
The European Commission Vice President for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes has said:
“We now know, beyond doubt, that more women in a business mean a healthier business. It is high time the IT sector realised this and allowed women a chance to help the sector and Europe’s economy benefit from their enormous potential”.
It is certainly a complex issue with no easy answer, but it is plain to see a shake up in the industry is needed and in the end boils down to employing women into tech and encouraging our daughters. As Google have so wonderfully put it: Technology is changing the world. Women and girls are changing technology.
Ada Lovelace’s impact was, rightly, lasting. She somehow predicted this too, saying famously:
“That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show”.
I would love to hear your thoughts, why not drop a comment below?