When I first thought about writing this article, I thought it would be easy to find a wide range of female digital leaders from whom to learn and to admire. However, it has proved very difficult to find very many. This got me thinking. Why are there so few women at this level?
You would think that in these days of technology infiltrating every aspect of our lives, we would have women distributed at all levels of IT. However, a recent Computer Weekly report revealed that the average percentage of women working in technology teams in the UK is 12 per cent - down from 15 per cent last year.
Recent research from Approved Index shows female leadership in new technology start-ups at less than 10 per cent, and at the very top, representation of women as digital leaders is equally dismal. Sadly, this is also reflected in engineering and, to a lesser extent, science.
Is it that schools do not encourage the pursuit of the more technical aspects of IT for girls? Lack of knowledge and experience within schools combined does not help to create interest, never mind excitement. A curriculum that focuses too much on the superficial use of technology rather than the creation of technology has also failed to develop suitable skills needed.
Chloe Basu, currently studying history and international relations at St Andrews University, says:
‘When I was growing up, it was often viewed that computer games and IT were pursuits for boys, not for girls - for example there were large numbers of “wham, bam, zoom and kill” competitive and destructive games for boys. Teachers were surprised if girls displayed an interest in computers deeper than our basic skills as daily users of PCs, laptops, tablets, mobile phones and our other day-to-day technology.
On the one hand, such reactions made a few girls determined to start an interest in the subject, but having seen this lack of encouragement for most of my school life, I and most of my female friends did not feel confident or interested enough to pursue “geeky” technical aspects of IT, instead selecting other topics from the extensive range of interesting educational possibilities open to us.
My girlfriends and I were also discouraged by media reports about the male-dominated IT and technology worlds in which women were liable to face prejudice, lack of opportunity and “glass ceilings”. All of these factors combined to put me somewhat off IT as an academic and career choice.’
Is it the geeky image portrayed in the media and popular culture? Although we do see many more female technology characters in various TV series, e.g. ‘Criminal Minds’, they tend to be just as ‘strange’. The recently released (and quickly withdrawn) ‘Computer Engineer Barbie’ book shows how confused we are about the role of women in the digital world.
While you might think it was a positive move to have a popular girl’s toy depicting a female computer engineer (thus hitting two birds with one stone), in practice it only served to reinforce that women still need men to do the hardcore coding of software development. It was perhaps gratifying that there was such an outcry that the book was quickly withdrawn.
Perhaps it is the so-called ‘macho’ environment in many IT departments and companies holding women back from progress. A working environment that belittles women and treats them as figures of fun is not going to attract many women. Nevertheless, other largely male working environments, (e.g. construction) have not seen the same failure to attract women. What is it about IT that is different?
Some say that our concern should be less about the lack of women in IT, but more about the lack of interest in an IT career across the board. My own view is that they are part of the same problem. Lack of diversity creates a feeling of exclusivity in a culture that makes it less attractive to anyone outside of the core group. The core group thus becomes more exclusive and more entrenched in its attitude.
The more girls see and experience a range of different and positive female technology role models, from female digital skills teachers, through senior software developers to technology CEOs, the greater the attraction for them to take the first-step on the path to becoming great digital leaders
Keeping all this in mind, who are those rare female role models, and how have they beaten the odds to become digital leaders?
‘I'm not a woman at Google; I'm a geek at Google. If you can find something that you're really passionate about, whether you're a man or a woman comes a lot less into play. Passion is a gender-neutralising force’ - (CNN, April 2012) Marissa Mayer
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, was the first female engineer at Google and their 20th employee, rising through the ranks to executive roles including Vice President of Search Products and User Experience. During her time at Google, she taught introductory computer programming at Stanford, winning several teaching awards. Today, she is the CEO of Yahoo! at the age of just 39 years. In September 2013, it was reported that the stock price of Yahoo! had doubled over the 14 months since Mayer's appointment.
‘Endless data show that diverse teams make better decisions. We are building products that people with very diverse backgrounds use, and I think we all want our company makeup to reflect the makeup of the people who use our products. That's not true of any industry really, and we have a long way to go.' (USA Today, August 2014) Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, also worked for Google, joining them in 2001 as Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations. She went on to join Facebook in 2008 as their COO. It was her job to work out how to make this brash newcomer profitable. In 2010 she succeeded and in 2012 she became the eighth member (and the first female member) of Facebook's board of directors.
‘Technology can break down the barriers. I wish we could break down more social divides using technology.’ (Growing Business, November 2010) Martha Lane Fox
Martha Lane Fox, now Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, is probably most famously known for starting Lastminute.com during the dot com boom (and crash) of the late 1990s. More a businessperson than a traditional ‘techy’, she followed her passion for the use of technology to become the UK’s Digital Champion.
She stepped down from this responsibility recently to concentrate on the charity Go ON UK which focused on making the UK the world’s most digitally skilled nation. In her maiden House of Lords speech, she highlighted the lack of digital skills at the top of almost all corporates, public and political organisations.
With other rising stars like Emma Mulqueen, who has organised the Festival of Code for six years, and Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, maybe the situation is improving. This, together with the increased emphasis on digital literacy in the school curriculum, perhaps means we can look forward to the rise of more world-class female digital leaders.
Watch this space.