Recently I met a group of friends for dinner. We all work in tech, and we’re all women. Throughout the evening we all seemed to come back to the topic of gender balance – or imbalance – in the tech industry.
I find it really frustrating that the tech sector is relatively new, but new instances of sexism against women are coming to light all the time (and they’re just the ones being reported).
A survey of Guardian readers into sexism in the tech sector found that 73% of men and women who responded think the tech industry is sexist. One 39-year-old male worker at an information security firm said: “I find women in my industry to be leaders of new ideas and equals in every way to men. I’m ashamed of being male sometimes for the way women are treated.”
Why is a new sector being built to exclude women and girls?
We seem to be building a new sector on the fault lines of the old ones
Sexism is an issue common to many other industries, but as you know my bread and butter is in digital. So, if we have a new way of living our lives (and a new industry creating it), and it’s mostly being built by men, where does that leave society?
I like men, I’m a mother to two boys, and I know several men who have stood on a chair and shouted “I’m a feminist”. I don’t want a world where the dial swings the other way and we exclude the men. But I’d really like us to try and get a better gender balance. Without it sounding like a complete compromise, I think the answer has to include men, as well as acknowledge that the current status quo is a problem and we need to actively encourage and support women explicitly into the sector.
Take a look at Emma Mulqueeny’s great blog, ‘How to put girls off programming and tech – the easy way’, as an example of trying to include more girls in tech with the best of intentions, but in reality doing the opposite.
When I was little, my mum modified the TV so that me and my siblings couldn’t watch ITV (to avoid the adverts). My brother would even say he was going to his friend’s house to watch TV so that he could work out what he wanted for Christmas. Now I understand what my mum was up to. Instead of letting the toy companies or cosmetic companies tell me what a girl was and what I should be, she was trying to let me decide that for myself. You only have to Google ‘Girls Toys’ to see the pinkification of our world. And I’m afraid it’s only got worse since I was a child.
I like pink, but just as one colour in the paintbox.
And what about me? I’m not exempt from sexism. Of course I experience sexism. Sometimes I know if I was a man I’d immediately have status. But I’ve spent my life trying to ignore gender and just getting on with it so I can do what I think needs doing. You might have noticed this is my motto for most things.
Dame Shirley is an amazing role-model, a pioneer and one of the most successful tech entrepreneurs ever. She says she “just got on with it” but in order to become successful she had to go by the name ‘Steve’ and her husband had to help her open her first bank account. She did so much for women to work flexibly in technology, as well as other important issues such as equal pay. Watch her brilliant TED Talk – ‘Why do ambitious women have flat heads?‘ to find out more. Please do take the time to watch – you’ll even have a laugh!
Unfortunately after all of the groundbreaking by Dame Shirley and others, we don’t really seem to have gone much further. In fact has it got worse?
The answer has to lie in both men and women creating the right working environments that are fair and equal.
I won’t pretend to have the answers to these questions because it’s clearly not that simple. Does banging on about it even help?
Martha Lane Fox has set up Dot Everyone, with one of her early priorities a focus on Women in Digital; their website says: “Our objective is that 50% of the people that design and make Britain’s networked world will be women. Our initial focus will be on: mapping and assessing activity of women in digital; building an evidence base of the challenges faced by girls and women; and creating a funding vehicle that invests in sustainable social enterprises helping girls and women in digital.” Don’t just watch this space, but go over to her website and see if you can help.
I’ll be meeting up with my dinner friends in the not too distant future to talk about how we get the balance back, how we can help the women and girls following behind us, and what we can actually do that will make a difference.
The optimist in me likes to think things are getting better, slowly; more men are talking about this as an issue. But I’d rather make progress more quickly; let’s tackle this with a sledge hammer not a toothpick. We deserve to have a digital world where men and women are respected and have equal opportunities; where women also build the digital society. After all, we live and work in it too.
Tweet me at @helenmilner and let’s discuss.
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Please help me understand this problem. Or is there even a problem? So we have more men than women in tech. OK. Maybe it’s because men like tech more, in general? Why do we want to force someone to do something they wouldn’t enjoy? And yes, there are exceptions to the rule.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have the balance too, but I just don’t see that happening. I have two daughters (9 and 11) and even though I think I give them enough incentives to get into coding for instance, they always end up playing with dolls, sometimes literally.
Thanks for your reply.
Sadly, this is a very real problem. I have spoken to so many women who work in tech about this issue, and even after publishing this blog a woman got in touch to say she was so pleased to have read it because she was having a horrible week as a result of men who were patronising and ridiculing her in her tech job, because she is a woman.
I don’t think forcing girls (or boys) into coding is the answer. In my experience, and I’m sure you can relate to this as a parent yourself, forcing a child to do something is rarely the answer.
But, I do think we (parents, teachers, friends) can create positive environments that encourage girls in particular to think about coding and tech, and hopefully that will mean they’re more open to pursuing them as careers, if they want to. It’s also up to employers to create positive, balanced working environments where both women and men can succeed and are equally supported.
You obviously also care enough about this issue to have made a comment – thank you. I’m sure you’ll be supporting your daughters to make career choices they’ll enjoy and you’ll expect their employers to treat them with fairness and respect.
Thank you for your reply too.
I work for a large more-or-less software company here in U.S. for almost 4 years now (I have close to 20 years of experience in the field altogether) and even though the company received some pretty bad publicity regarding the workplace quality, I have yet to see any form of a ridicule towards women from men. This is of course a very subjective observation but you can see where perhaps I perceive the disconnect between my experience and what I keep reading in the media.
And I totally agree that forcing a child to do anything is rarely the answer (unless you want to assume the role of a “tiger mom”) and very often has exactly the opposite effect. That’s why I mentioned that I try to “give incentives” rather then “force”.
Anyway, thank you for the great article!
Thrilled to read this article, I´d love to join in this Women in Tech dinner to continue this discussion. In Spain we have launched Girls in Tech this year. This should help to encourage STEM disciplines amongst Spanish women and girls.
It´s great to know that there are many others working towards creating a more equal future in the workplace and society.