Six ideas to get more women involved in the tech sector

Anne-Marie Imafidon describes herself as “one of those people who asks ‘why?’ a lot” – and it has served her well. At the age of 10 for instance, Imafidon was asking why one web page looked different from another. The answer was the HTML code behind it, which she learned to use and then built her own pages. She did her maths and IT GCSEs that year. By 15, she was at Oxford. Yet one question she didn’t ask was why there were so few girls. “I was one of three girls in a class of 70 reading maths and computer science at Oxford. There’s not that many of us around. It never really bothered me.”

That changed last year when Imafidon was at a conference in the US and there was something in the keynote that threw her. The number of women in technology was on the decline. Not the proportion, the absolute number. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. Returning to the UK, she discovered the same trend. Girls studying science, technology engineering and maths (Stem) at school were haemorrhaging out the pipeline.

In 2010, women accounted for 47% of the UK labour force, but they made up just 25% of technology professionals, down from 27% in 2001. In 2011, boys outnumbered girls 11 to one in the average A-level computing class and 85% of those getting degrees in technology and engineering were men. What is more, research shows that many of those women currently in the tech workforce feel disillusioned and alienated in a male-dominated industry.

Imafidon, now 24, is tackling that problem with the same stubborn nature with which she tackled maths problems as a child. Her talent is clearly exceptional, but she doesn’t think her passion for maths and technology is unusual. “I think girls do have the passion but a lot of them are conditioned out of it,” she says, pointing to pervasive assumptions among parents, teachers and wider society about the kinds of behaviours that are appropriate for girls –and for boys. “How many girls do we know who have been discouraged from coding or from physics? And they are probably some of the best brains on the planet, but we don’t know because someone said ‘why don’t you wear this pink T-shirt instead of this blue one with an atom on it’ and that’s their talent wasted for life.”

Such attitudes mean girls have to want to be different, and alone, if they are going to pursue an interest in technology. “You have to take a stand and say, ‘I’m the only girl I know who’s going to study maths and computer science at university and I’m OK with that’,” Imafidon says. Understandably, most children are more likely to listen to what they are told they should do, or to follow the crowd.

Research shows these attitudes follow women in technology into the workplace too; one study by Intellect showed that 47% of women in tech believe they have to act like a man to get ahead. As Belinda Parmar, founder and CEO of Lady Geek, an organisation that aims to make technology more accessible to women, notes in her book, Little Miss Geek, any industry in which women are made to feel they cannot be themselves is going to struggle to retain them. Emma Mulqueeny, founder of Rewired State and a campaigner to get coding into mainstream education, agrees: “You end up with some battle-weary women who are fighting to do the thing they love. They are jaded.”

Most women don’t make it that far. A global study conducted last year by Women in Global Science and Technology and the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World found that even in countries where the numbers of girls and women in science and technology education were on the rise, this wasn’t translating into women in the workforce. In the UK, two-thirds of women who study science and technology don’t go on to work in Stem jobs. What’s turning them off?

“The biggest issue is the image problem. Girls think people who work in technology are pizza-guzzling nerds who can’t get girlfriends,” says Parmar. Michelle Brideau experienced that first hand. Bored by working in the travel industry, she started thinking about a change to tech, but was intimidated by the apparent “frat-house mentality” of the industry, as depicted in the film The Social Network. She also wrongly assumed that you needed a computer science or maths degree.

Then last year, she came across Makers Academy, an intensive programme that promised to teach her how to code in just 12 weeks, despite her lack of computer science background. She now works as a junior developer for Enternships and says the reality of working in the field lives up to the stereotype. “I have been shocked by the lack of women around. I have been in a room in which it was forgotten a woman was present and it started to feel like a locker room.”

This lack of visibility of women in the workplace and the classroom – the lack of role models, champions and mentors – is perhaps one of the most cited barriers to getting more women in tech. According to research conducted in 2008 by Catalyst that surveyed women working in the hi-tech sector, women most often pointed to a lack of role models similar to themselves, not having a mentor or champion and being excluded from important networks of decision-makers as the biggest barriers to career advancement.

Yet artificial attempts to get more visibility for women aren’t always the answer. At a Campus Party event being held in London next month, the second day is dedicated to women in technology and boasts top speakers. But the lineup for the dedicated entrepreneurship day is, so far, a male-only affair. Tech entrepreneur Poornima Vijayashanker, who founded education startup Femgineer and is also one of the speakers on the women-in-tech panel, generously suggests that it might be an “off year” – there have been women keynote speakers in the past. But, she says, tech entrepreneurship “is also plagued by the [gender] imbalance”. Part of the solution is to “educate women on running a business, how to take risks, teaching them how to commercialise technology and encouraging them to pursue their ideas”.

Addressing the imbalance in tech entrepreneurship is also about getting women to think bigger, says Alice Bentinck, co-founder of Entrepreneur First, an organisation that helps graduates build startups through a year-long programme. “I hate saying this because it’s such a cliche, but the typical application from women [in the first year they ran the scheme] was around either cooking startups or craft startups, whereas the guys were applying with these ambitious ideas that were going to change the world.” She now runs Code First, a nine-week summer programme to teach women leaving university how to code.To get more women on board, her colleagues had to “do a much bigger conversion effort” than when recruiting men – explaining why working in a startup is such a fantastic thing to do and why coding is such an essential ingredient in that career path, she says.

Mulqueeny agrees that forcing the women-in-tech issue can backfire. She campaigned to get more girls involved in Young Rewired State, a network of software developers and designers who are all under 18, through PR and public speaking, only to find the few girls who had signed up dropped out, “because I made such a fuss about it”. So she asked her 15-year-old daughter what she should do.

The answer, she says, was to make these events more mainstream, “not massive geek fests”. They invited model Lily Cole to present and “turned it into a proper festival, with music and festival wristbands”.

Perhaps one of the simplest arguments for getting more women into technology is one of hard cash. Despite the lack of women creating technology, women are avid tech consumers. Four out of 10 tech products are bought by women, yet only 1% of women think tech companies have them in mind when they make them. And diversity pays: companies with more women on their staff make more money.

Imafidon points to one example – an online shopping company that recently launched a fashion app where users can search the clothes in their database by colour. “Now I don’t know about you but I don’t shop by colour,” Imafidon says.

“They’ve invested billions of dollars, launched this massive app and it was like, ‘Yay, you can find purple dresses’. It doesn’t meet anybody’s requirements. It’s nuts.” That diversity of thought is missing from a lot of products, she adds. “When you’ve got 85% of the IT population being male and 50% of the generation being female, it doesn’t align.”

Yet beyond the economic arguments, Imafidon says, we’re also missing out on sheer talent. At a time when computing, coding and technology have the potential to open more doors to young people than ever before, how can we make sure women make up a bigger part of the picture?

1. Women step forward

“If you ask boys today what they want to be when they grow up they say they want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg,” says Imafidon. “The girls don’t associate with that. They don’t see that Zuckerberg’s right-hand woman is Sheryl Sandberg.” To address the issue, Imafidon has created Stemettes, an organisation that helps put girls in contact with women working in tech. “The idea was to try to make them visible, seem realistic and accessible.”

The lack of role models for working women needs to be addressed too, including inviting more women to take to the podium at tech events. Early this year, writer Rebecca J Rosen suggested that men take a pledge not to speak on male-only panels. Conference organisers responded that it’s often hard to persuade women to take part. The responsibility therefore rests on women, too, to accept speaking invitations and not even wait to be asked. “I’ve always believed it more constructive to try to focus on changing what we can affect rather than waiting around for others,” says Eileen Burbidge, who studied computer science and worked at Skype and Yahoo before setting up Passion Capital, which invests in startups. “It’s well documented that women typically ask for less – whether when negotiating compensation packages, performance bonuses responsibility, or investment funding.”

Women must mentor others and seek mentors out. Research shows that employees who fail to get mentoring start looking for other jobs. “Too often, people are filled with doubts that hold them back. Spending so much time internally doubting instead of reaching out and asking how to achieve is the culprit,” says Vijayashanker.

2. Give tech a makeover

“The perception is that a coder is a geek who has learned to code on his own,” says Ruben Kostucki at Makers Academy. “Not everyone is like that.” This stereotype needs a serious rethink. One myth that needs to be debunked is that the only way into programming is to teach yourself from a young age. Intensive courses like those held at Makers Academy can turn even a novice into a programmer in as little as 12 weeks if they are prepared to put in the hard work.

Research shows that women want to work in jobs that are creative (80%) and help people (90%), yet only 30% of women believe tech jobs fit those criteria. Girls need to be able to see the diversity of roles within the industry, says Mulqueeny: “Stop it being a magical thing that nobody understands – it’s not magic, it’s very simple. People in the industry need to talk more about the sorts of opportunities that are there and the different kinds of things you can do. There are so many jobs in technology, that girls don’t associate with it.”

3. Start them young

Right from the get-go, computers are widely labelled as “boys’ toys”. If adults discourage girls from tinkering with technology when they are young, what chance do they have of retaining interest as they grow up? In a culture where being into technology is “cool” for boys and “weird” for girls, it’s vital to make tech engaging, and available, at primary school. That’s the thinking behind Mulqueeny’s Year 8 is Too Late campaign. Unless girls are taught programming at junior school, by the time they reach senior school “they are not going to self-select a subject that is seen as something a bit odd, for the weird kids”.

If there’s any doubt that it’s a cultural, rather than biological, force pushing girls away from computing in the UK, a glance at the “geek nations” shows a different picture. “In the Baltic states, women make up over half of the tech workforce. In Estonia, women account for an incredible 70%,” says Parmar. “The secret to this success is that technology is seen as a highly respectable career opportunity for women that offers creativity.”

Imafidon cannot stress enough the importance of giving girls permission to like technology at a young age. “As young as possible let girls make that choice between pink and blue, as it were. If you are a parent, make everyone aware you won’t be annoyed with people buying your daughters toy cars. Those choices that parents, society, school puts on you will stick with you your whole life,” she says. “If my dad had said, ‘No, it’s weird, go and do something else’, I wouldn’t have the job, the social mobility or the opportunity that I have now.”

4. Get the girls alone

Boys are good at getting on with geeking-out over code on their own, but girls might need a bit of a nudge. Running girls-only events can provide the environment they need to get over their perception of coding as something difficult. “When you’re beginning, you need to not feel like the silly girl asking questions,” Imafidon says. This Saturday and Sunday, Stemettes is running the first ever hackathon for girls. The concept is “let’s all sit in a room and with beanbags and sweets for the weekend make some mobile apps,” she says. The thinking is backed up by a number of studies showing that girls at single-sex schools are more likely to pursue science – they are almost two-and-a-half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics than girls from co-ed schools – and are more likely to avoid stereotypically female career choices.

Women, too, benefit from some alone-time. “Both my experience as a trainer and research that I’m aware of indicate that women learn best and gain confidence more easily in women-only environments and this is especially true in the case of skills, which are widely perceived as ‘masculine’,” says Paula Graham, founder of Fossbox.

5. Shout about the perks

Behind the stereotype of tech being a career perfectly suited to the “logical” brains of men, there is a well-kept secret – tech jobs give women the creativity and flexibility they seek in their careers. The work is also hugely empowering and challenging, says Graham. “It’s a sector that is pretty accommodating of individuality” and it’s not the sort of job where you get bored after six months. Tech also pays well; a study by Forbes showed that three of the best-paid jobs for women were in the tech sector.

Some tech companies are also proactively boosting the perks – music startup Songkick, for instance, has introduced a paternity leave policy that treats men the same as women, which means new fathers can also take up to nine months off, helping to level the playing field. Add to this the fact that there are plenty of jobs for women to fill in the industry (Maker Academy, for instance, finds it easier to get placements for women graduates than for the men) and programming skills can earn you cash on the side if you ever need it, for instance during a career break. Yet nobody seems to talk about how much of a female-friendly career technology is, Mulqueeny says. “When people stumble on it it’s a complete revelation.” It’s time to let the cat out the bag.

6. Tech CEOs: hire more women (and make more money)

If pulling on the heartstrings doesn’t help get more women into tech, how about the purse strings? With women playing such a crucial role in the purchasing decisions around technology, it’s no surprise that companies with more women on their management teams make more money – as much as a 34% higher return on investment. “Once you have a gender imbalance and only males in a group you don’t have the same quality of innovation, creativity and it’s less harmonious,” says Kostucki. Simply put, without women on the team, men are not going to have the insights to design products that truly work for women. And that’s a big mistake. According to the Harvard Business Review, there’s more money to be made by successfully marketing to women than to India and China combined. – By Catherine de Lange © Guardian News and Media 2013

Anne-Marie Imafidon is speaking at Campus Party at the O2 arena, London 2-7 September

Image – AFP