Sunday’s International Women’s Day goes under the laudable slogan of ‘Make it Happen’ which I think most of us can get behind. However for women in technology, it seems like it is happening less and less.
Part of the problem about any discussion on female representation in technology businesses is that it can quickly get fragmented into single-issue simplification. Those who think we need more female engineers and developers reckon we should get more women coding. Others think we need more women in the boardroom and possibly most alarming are those who want to keep women in the workforce by giving them options to freeze eggs and defer childbearing!
These are all interesting topics but they focus on the symptoms, not the cause, and definitely not the opportunity. It has been proven that mixed teams produce better results. This is the killer point. The value is not in greater empathy or more caring environments, but in overall creativity, productivity and innovation. That is the only reason we should need to do something about it.
As a director in a digital agency, I’ve noticed that the number of female candidates coming across my desk is currently about two in 10, and it’s getting worse. There are also fewer women signing up to Computer Science, Maths and Engineering Subjects in higher education, meaning that the decline I can see will continue for the next few years. Now those are not the only subjects that give birth to user experience people (we actually take a lot from social sciences and art), but currently that's the primary place where the tech industry is used to feeding from, and it’s this educational (and vocational) point that I believe is the heart of the matter.
During my first degree in Electronic Engineering, there were about 150 students, and only five females. That was back in 2000. During my masters five years later, in a class of 40, half were women, but the majority came from social science and psychology backgrounds and had ‘stumbled’ into this field. Now if girls are not subscribing to the technical subjects, and those who do come into tech later get here by accident, it’s clear that something is happening, or not happening, further back at school level.
The feeder subjects that lead into the tech industry need review, if only to ensure that we can provide as much visibility of the diversity, creativity and career potential they open up. I have to confess that at my girls’ secondary school, the design and technology class was considered a 'doss' lesson, because it was never given the same cachet or value by the administration as English or even art. But then would my art teacher have suggested that I could become an interaction designer working on apps and software? Unfortunately he didn’t and even that subject became all about an easy A in GCSE. It is obvious that the air gap between industry and education (secondary school) has got even bigger, one could say it has become too big, and we are all losing out.
We, the tech industry, have not communicated to teachers, educators and even the general public that you don’t have to be a geek to work in technology, any more than you have to be an extrovert to be an actor. A user experience designer need never write a line of code. Yes, they need to understand what code is and how digital products are brought to life, but they can be as expressive and artistic as the technology allows.
So what can we do to make it happen? As agencies like Head look to develop more of our own talent, there is perhaps a glimmer of hope that we can help more women that way, but the answer is not a quota or tokenistic solution by employers. The answer is in eroding the stereotypes and misconceptions that are easy to make when there are fewer women coming through the field. This means giving educators and teachers more visibility of career diversity. To do that we need to address curriculum, vocational support (eg work experience opportunities) and also teacher training.
The reality, however, is that we may be looking at a five to 10 year horizon to see the impact of this approach. But we certainly won’t get there if we don’t start now.
Lola Oyelayo is director of user experience, Head