Kate Russell, journalist, reporter, author and guest editor of this month's ITNOW magazine looks at IT gender roles, issues caused by stereotyping and the work that can be done at school age to encourage young women into an IT career.

I was a teenager in the 1980s. Yes, feel sorry for me. The fashion of the day dictated a poodle perm and day-glow leg warmers. But I was never very good at following rules, so after a brief flirtation with the Olivia Newton-John look I swapped the bright colours and hairspray for a charity shop greatcoat and a fringe I could hide behind.

For the first half of that awkward decade I scowled out at the world and refused to cooperate; with anything. I went to an old-fashioned girl’s school whose main aim seemed to be to release their students into the world equipped with an arsenal of finely-honed domestic skills. In our excellently appointed home economics labs I learned to roll a Swiss Roll and embroider my name on an apron (presumably in case I ever forgot who the apron belonged to), neither of which are skills I have ever had cause to call upon in the three decades that have passed since.

But in 1984 something happened that changed my life. My brother, who went to a mixed comprehensive, became fascinated by computers and as a result we got a BBC Micro at home. That earliest of home computers came with a game called Elite - and I became a gamer.

Since then I have gone on to forge a successful career in the media, starting out as a games journalist in 1995, and moving on to more serious technology reporting and presenting for outlets like the BBC, ITV, The Guardian, the Sunday Times, National Geographic Traveller, the United Nations and more clients than I can realistically remember in over two decades of freelance work.

I have also had the opportunity to lecture in schools and universities and speak at countless leading tech conferences and events, including delivering two TEDx talks in the past couple of years. Last year my website won the best individual technology blog at the UK Blog Awards and I was voted the 25th most influential woman in UK IT by the readers of Computer Weekly magazine.

Not bad for an academic dropout who left school with barely two O-levels to rub together.

I have often and very publicly attributed the direction my career took to my love of gaming, as it was a desire to get better at playing Elite that sparked an enduring curiosity about tech. Without the opportunity to study computers in school I would watch my brother learning to code at home. Some of his first lines in BBC Basic were:

10 PRINT ‘Matt is awesome!’

20 GOTO 10

As his little sister it amazed and annoyed me to see this mysterious object on the kitchen table write ‘Matt is awesome’ on the screen for infinity. Apart from anything else I knew the statement to be fundamentally flawed so consequently my own first lines of code were:

10 PRINT ‘Matt is rubbish!’

20 GOTO 10

I never went on to learn very much coding, but this gave me a basic understanding of what was going on inside the case and the possibilities for computers blew my mind. I often feel a bit sorry for young people today as they will never truly understand the wonder of going from not having computers, to having computers. For me, flying a Cobra Mk III through the procedurally drawn galaxy in Elite for the first time was a bit like looking through the door of the TARDIS.

This game literally changed my life, and in more ways than just learning about computers.

Growing up we had travelled the world due to my father’s work, and when I landed in a stuffy girl’s school as a teenager I just didn’t understand how the stuff they were trying to cram into my memory, mostly by rote learning, would be relevant to my life. I mean, we had the Casio calculator; when was I ever going to need to do long-division by hand?

But when I started playing Elite, a space simulation where you had to travel the galaxy building your fortune by fair means or foul, I started to learn a lot of the educational concepts they were failing to teach me in school. It’s primarily a trading game, so I learned the basics of economics - buy low sell high, make a profit to grow your empire. You had to navigate the galaxy without running out of fuel between suns you could scoop energy from; so I learned mathematics, basic physics and problem solving strategies. I even gained an understanding of politics as the game had a storyline based on the capitalist boom of the 80s when it was published. I started to understand about the cause and effect of drought, famine and political unrest, and how that affected the global economies I encountered.

Gaming labels

When I hear people, even today, saying gaming is a waste of time, it really irks me. There has to be balance, sure, and the right kind of game. But when I watch my nine-year-old nephew, who is typically shy and awkward around grown-ups, come alive showing me the working water cannon he figured out how to build in Minecraft, I can’t help but remember my own childhood and the sense of achievement these things gave me.

Right from the very start of my career I have been labelled a ‘girl gamer’. In the 90s this label didn’t trouble me as I was always very aware of the gender imbalance in my work environment. That said, I have never felt that my gender needs to define my opinion on something, which is why I still get frustrated when asked in an interview for my ‘female perspective on technology’.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying we don’t need to work to find ways to get more girls interested in STEM careers, but I am beginning to wonder whether highlighting the gender gap is actually reaping the results we seek.

Last year’s figures from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills show that from an average 47 per cent of females in the workforce, across all industries, just 27 per cent of the digital workforce is female - and despite how much focus there is on trying to bridge this gender gap, that figure has actually fallen from 33 per cent in 2003.

In a meeting at the House of Lords in June last year, Baroness Martha Lane-Fox highlighted that no progress has been made over the last 30 years in increasing the percentage of women working in technology professions.

Won’t somebody think of the parents?

As a high profile woman working in technology I get asked a lot why more girls don’t choose digital careers - which in many ways is a silly question to ask a female who has always been in love with computers. In trying to find an answer I’ve done a lot of research and spoken to a lot of girls in years 6 to 12, and I’ve come to believe that the role of the parents can’t be overstated enough.

In March last year the Institute of Engineering and Technology launched a campaign called Engineer a Better World, which aimed to inspire and encourage young people to consider a career in engineering. To support the launch the IET conducted some research into the perception of STEM careers both for children and their parents.

When asked about what jobs they thought they might enjoy, the study showed a very typically gender stereotyped curve in the answers given by girls and boys. But more interestingly, those stereotypes were almost identically reflected in the answers given by parents about what careers they thought their children would enjoy.

Unconcious bias

Far from being bad parents I feel lot of this is down to unconscious bias. We are all just behaving in the way our life and experiences have programmed us to think. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, suffers from unconscious bias to some degree and women working in the tech sector have to deal with it daily.

Take an unconscious bias test yourself one day and you might be surprised by the results. I know I - as a woman who has spent years campaigning for gender neutrality in the tech sector - was shocked and somewhat indignant to discover that I suffer from it myself. But when I stood back and thought about it I had to admit that I am obviously not immune to my own life experiences. Unconscious bias is called unconscious for a reason. Psychologists argue that most people’s patterns and beliefs about success and money are set by the age of seven.

This doesn’t make us bad people. But owning it means we can be aware of it and we can start to make changes (or point out to others when they are being biased) and that way future generations might finally be able to rid themselves of these pointless shackles.

One of the key ways that bias plays out in our lives is in the language we use. There have been lots of books written on the subject that men and women differ fundamentally in the way they use language to communicate. These differences routinely lead to ‘miscommunication’ between the sexes, with each misinterpreting the other’s intentions. This causes problems in contexts where men and women communicate regularly. Just being aware of it can really change the way you see both your male and female colleagues.

More and more people are becoming aware of the damaging effects of unconscious bias. According to FutureWork Institute, a global diversity consultancy, as many as 20 per cent of large U.S. employers with diversity programmes now provide unconscious-bias training, and that figure could hit 50 per cent in five years.

Role models

Having said all this, I believe we’ll start to see the tide turn as the next couple of generations get into the workplace. There is so much great working going on, and so many wonderful mentoring organisations putting role models in front of young girls; and that is exactly what they need right now. Girls look into the science lab window and see mostly boys, and that backs up the stereotype that lingers from the past saying girls won’t be interested in STEM. These are powerful deterrents to most young girls just heading into puberty.

Rewired State founder Emma Mulqueeny captured it perfectly when she spoke about running a campaign to encourage more girls to sign up for the Young Rewired State hack weekends back in 2012. By drawing attention to the gender disparity they actually experienced a fall in female registrants from five per cent to three per cent.

This quote was in The Guardian in 2012 from Emma Mulqueeny: ‘It was because I shed light on it being a more male thing, and that’s like social suicide. They think you’ll only get nerdy girls if it’s boy dominated.’

In the end the campaign engaged actress Lily Cole as an ambassador and signups by girls rose to 23 per cent.

Most teenage girls don’t want to stick out; boys too for that matter. Being a teenager is a difficult time when you’re dealing with raging hormones, acne and out of control emotions, right at the point in your life when you’re supposed to be making major academic decisions that will shape your potential career. The last thing you want is to be singled out from the herd and made the target of bullies.

The stereotype threat

In the case of girls there is also something called stereotype threat to deal with. Research has shown that, in environments where women are greatly outnumbered, or expected not to perform as well as their male counterparts because of societal gender bias, the pressure of not conforming to negative stereotype perceptions can actually cause them to underperform. So we’re kind of damned from the outset while we continue to make the differences in our gender the key focus of making changes.

It’s really down to all of us to fix the gender gap in tech - by eliminating gender biases from our thinking. That’s it - it’s really down to you and me, and everyone else on the planet that doesn’t live alone on a desert island with only a parrot for company.

This brings me back to the title of this missive: ‘I am NOT a girl gamer’. To this day I see websites, clubs, articles and communities, which define girls who play games by their gender as if we are some kind of curiosity to be pondered and observed to see what makes us tick. But study upon study in recent years actually show that women make up at least half, if not more than half, of the population of gamers.

Yes, I realise that there is still a desperate lack of women working in game development - only 11 per cent of game designers are female, and that number plummets to three per cent when looking at programmers. And this doesn’t make any kind of sense when you consider the gender split in the game playing population.

But maybe, just maybe, if we stopped attaching such a redundant label that makes us gamers who happen to be female seem like an anomaly, the idea of working in the industry could become a little more normalised, and thus the gender gap right across the tech sector can start to naturally level out.

So no; I am not a girl gamer. I am a gamer. In the same way that there are programmers, engineers, mathematicians, scientists and technologists right across the spectrum who have absolutely no need to be labelled by their gender.

About the author

Kate Russell has been writing about technology and the internet since 1995. Appearing regularly on BBC technology programme ‘Click’ she is also a partnered Twitch streamer and speaks at conferences and lectures in schools and universities inspiring the next generation of technologists.

Her website, KateRussell.co.uk, won the 2015 UK Blog Awards for best individual digital and technology blog, and in June 2015 she was voted the Computer Weekly 25th most influential woman in UK IT. Her debut novel was published in 2014 under official licence to space trading game, Elite: Dangerous, the childhood passion that inspired her love of technology.

As part of the licensing deal she got to name a planet in the latest release, Elite: Dangerous. She called it Slough.