Women in IT and entrepreneurialism

September 2012

  • Elizabeth VarleyElizabeth Varley AMBCS, Co-founder CEO Techhub
  • Maggie Berry MD Women in Technology
  • Brian Runciman (Host)

BCS doesn’t hold with gender stereotyping, but is there a role to play in encouraging women into tech businesses? There is a possible counter-intuitive message to be put across. Are there gender-based assumptions about what makes a good entrepreneur in the 21st century?

What are the barriers to women entering the IT sector?

MB: There are a number of barriers, none of them insurmountable but they can add up. There is a perception about what an IT career looks like - that it’s geeky and male-dominated, in a dark room coding. But there are many kinds of jobs in IT and we need to make people more aware of them. There is a piece around education and women returning to work.

EV: There are so many different opportunities and in a way we do ourselves a disservice by referring to it as IT - most young people wouldn’t know what IYT really means because many tech careers are around internet, games, social media and so on. The way were talk about thee things can be corporate rather than fun and creative, which is what it can be. With regards to women we need to provide really interesting and exciting role models. We have opportunities around comms and education.

It seems it’s around 17 to 19 per cent of women in IT sounds a bit pathetic is it the same in the start-up arena?

EV: we do see less women starting up technology businesses. It’s around the legacy of education and the perception that science, technology and maths are things for boys. What we see now is more women getting involved because it’s more about the ubiquity of technology generally. If you’re using your phone everyday you may find that it doesn’t do what you want and you may decide to try to do something about it and it may not have to be seen as a massive career change. Making things as you want them is a good way to encourage people to start businesses.

Are there more women in the start-up area now?

MB: I have a network of women who work in all sorts of areas of IT from support to women building trading systems in financial - they are doing a vast range of jobs. You can’t put your finger on exactly what an IT job is now. Some are doing things on the side with the idea of leaving corporate life if their ideas take off and do their own thing. And this helps with flexibility in use of time. But the reality is it’s not a part-time job.

EV: So many people think that if they start their own company they can work only the hours they want. But when you run your own thing you work all the hours and it’s totally consuming. That’s an interesting dichotomy where the corporate environment with leave provision and more structured hours can actually be more conducive to having more time off. It’s a tricky situation.

Are the number of women over the 18 to 20 percent in your view?

EV: No. I don’t have specific figures, but even so I wouldn’t think it is more than 20 per cent. We at Techhub have a pretty good number of women entrepreneurs coming in, partly because we deliberately focus on having a very gender-specific-free environment. We do find that a huge proportion of our members are men, but we don’t see a big divide on that - everybody is ‘one of the guys’ where ‘guys’ is used in a non-gendered way! Everyone is in t-shirts and jeans, working long hours, devoting everything to their baby, the business they are working on. It’s about how good you are, how good your business and how well you network - rather than whether you’re male or female. There’s a lot of collaboration and friendships forming.

If the numbers are pretty much the same in start-ups and corporates, what can we do to encourage women into IT and the start-up arena?

MB: I think the pipeline of young talent needs work. I want to attract more girls to study the right kinds of subjects to lead onto computer science. WE want more young people generally considering IT as a career option. So there is a bit piece around connecting young people to young people already in the industry. There are a lot of projects like STEM ambassadors, or Girls in IT, which connects young girls to industry professionals - and they need to be close in terms of age so they can relate to them. Also careers advise at school is included, as well as what id possible in the entrepreneur space.

EV: There are great opportunities to make it less about school and more about trying something for fun. So many great entrepreneurs generally are fantastic because they are often self-taught and fiddle around with something of interest to them personally. I think encouraging playing around, fun - when you see entrepreneurs they work really hard but it is also fun and exciting - ‘what happens if I do this? Oh, that’s what happens...’ At TechHub we are working on a youth programme to get entrepreneurs who are close in age to young people to help them find work and run some deep sessions with entrepreneurs and running, for example, a games company. We have one company who produce Facebook games and that’s really accessible for a fifteen-year-old. Making these things much more individualized is an interesting way to say it’s not just about school subjects but asking what you really want to with your life.

Is their a gender difference in getting youngsters engaged?

EV: Well as of September this year IT is no longer part of the mandated curriculum. I was at the Tines Education festival a few months back and there was a lot of discussion about this. Some teachers are really worried about teaching fourteen or fifteen year-year-olds who probably know more than I do about this. The way to do this is get people in from industry - to help youngsters work in teams, and don’t worry too much about hitting certain standards in an industry where standards change constantly and rapidly.

MB: There’s a lot we can do. The curriculum needs to teach user skills, but it’s not about using Word, but creating the next Word. There is anecdotal evidence that girls find it difficult to break things and take them apart - to really play about with tech. Industry really does want to help - they want to assist in schools. With the growth of social media it is much easier to share ideas and content, cross county boundaries with different schools and so on. I’m really interested in returners to work, who have perhaps taken a career break - perhaps for five to 10 years. I am convinced that this is a group of women in the UK that, although they need upskilling, the industry could reach out to. I’d love to see companies develop a graduate recruitment type programme for returners to work. This could include techy courses, but also things about being back in the workplace. This is massive untapped pool for industry and entrepreneurs.

EV: I think there are opportunities for the intrapreneurs, those who are focused on innovation within a corporate environment. These people have the right kind of mind, approach and understanding of IT issues. It’s a shame that our education system and culture is about fitting in and ‘this is the way things are done’. I asked an event recently how many people in the room have heard the phrase ‘we don’t do it like that’ - all the hands went up. At the same time companies are saying we want innovation, the next exciting product. That’s a real dichotomy. There is an opportunity with young people and returners to work, or even those further on in their careers who want to make a career change.

Are intrapreneurs better placed to enthuse school students?

MB: Women in Technology have been supporting a girls in IT project which looks to connect employers and industry professionals to schools. They will provide a deck of slides, handouts for the kids, teachers and parents - so having a pack to take will make it easier for entrepreneurs to go out - they won’t need to prepare everything from scratch. Hopefully we can tap into a wide range of professionals to go into schools. Employers are more likely to give employees and afternoon to present to a computing class or an assembly, whereas entrepreneurs are a bit more conscious of their own time. But many women in my network would love to talk to schools.

EV: Creating materials is excellent. The other thing are doing is bringing the young people to the entrepreneurs in a peer-to-peer mentoring pool. We’d get two or three entrepreneurs and five or six students to meet together regularly. And this means that if one of the entrepreneurs drops out one month for some reason the others there and the peer-to-peer effect will cover for that. It all happens at Techhub, so it’s much easier for the entrepreneurs.

Let’s take a specific industry - the games industry. There are really interesting computer science and tech things going on - but the industry is also known for its stereotypical portrayal of women.

EV: I think we are seeing changes in that. Many more women are becoming engaged in games in writing and coding roles. We are seeing a huge rise in casual gaming which often has no reference to gender at all. The media portrayal of the industry is not as deep as it might be. They are looking for the hook or sensational angle rather than looking at what’s of interest to gamers rather than mainstream consumers.

MB: There is a women in games group here in the UK. I spoke at one of their conferences and it was a room full of women in the gaming industry. One of pieces of advice I always give to women in IT is to join women’s networks, join a professional body like BCS and it gives you an opportunity to meet other women in industry and make connections.

EV: We’ll see more of this as casual gaming in particular becomes more mainstream. More use will encourage more involvement, hopefully and we should see more general diversity in the industry - not just gender diversity.

What should be the role of BCS?

MB: For me the BCS should be looking at the issue of women in IT and diversity and inclusion - and I know there are panels looking at these things and we also have the BCS Women’s Group. We’d like to hear BCS’s voice to be a supporter of women in the IT industry. BCS has had female presidents, which is great, but I think we can do more.

EV: There is an opportunity for any organisation to celebrate women’s and other diverse group’s contribution without having to make a big song and dance abut it. Including women on panels, as interviewees, without actually pointing out the fact that they are females. At the end of the day, does it really matter if we are asking them about the games industry or whatever? Sometimes we can minorities within a disservice by saying, for example, ‘look, how exciting an entire panel of women here!’ We tend to present the same role models over and over again, so we need more diversity generally.

MB: As women, we also need to put ourselves forward to speak at conferences - if you’ve been asked you’re good enough! A lot of women do great stuff, but go under the radar, so BCS can get their own members who are doing great stuff to write for them and so on.

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