Women in tech: Sledgehammers not pinkification

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.

Pinkification

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.

Toy shop

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.