Answer: When you’re trying to get women into the profession.
That answer above isn't just cynicism. The issue revolves around not only the kind of language used when talking about tech, which tends to be dry, left-brain-oriented and jargon-soaked, but also around the context in which it is placed. Debbie Forster, director of specialist consultancy Novel Design, explains:
It’s about the context in which you set technology. You’ll lose girls if you just talk about the technology itself – and you’ll also lose a lot of boys too. But the issue with girls between 10 and 15 is that their confidence in their own technical ability plummets. So it needs to be much more about creativity - if you talk about mobile phone apps and use language like ‘let’s create some beautiful things’, they can relate a lot more.
As a result, Forster advocated changing the over-used phrase ‘STEM’ to ‘STEAM’, which stands for ‘science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics’ in order to highlight the importance of that creative element. Hema Marshall, head of country digitisation and skills at network technology supplier Cisco UK & Ireland, agreed. She points out:
With a MaKey MaKey board, the step from music to technology is very small – and some of it comes down to language use. People use terms like ‘technology’ and ‘digital’, but you have to look at what appeals to women – and if you change your language, you’ll find you attract different people.
Equally important though is breaking down negative stereotypes and replacing them with positive role models. However, these role models should ideally not just consist of the chief executives of companies as young girls too often associate them with their mothers rather than themselves. Therefore, they should also include members of their own peer group.
Julie Feest, head of strategic partnerships at The Tech Partnership, an employers’ body that promotes digital skills development in the UK, explains:
We need to see the end of negative stereotypes. It’s important to talk about digital in terms of retail or charity or sport because what drives it all is technology. One of our campaigns from last year, in fact, was using industry role models to show there are so many opportunities and ways to get into the industry – and many different industries powered by technology too.
But to get over the “imposter syndrome” that senior women often feel when put forward as being examples to emulate, Mivy James, head of consulting and an enterprise architect at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, advocated the notion of the “imperfect role model”. She clarifies:
Being an imperfect role model is beneficial as it makes you more approachable. Taking a meandering route to get where you are in your career is all the better as young women will know it’s also a route they can take too.
But Susan Bowen, vice president and general manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at managed cloud hosting services provider Cogeco Peer 1, who is also chair at the Women in Tech Council for UK technology trade association techuk, also pointed out that ultimately, in order to fill skills gaps in a tech industry that offers more opportunities than ever before, it is necessary to think about roles rather than jobs. She says:
We have to talk about what roles the tech industry can afford women. You can be a lawyer or a marketer in the digital space – it’s not just about coding. De Montfort University [in Leicester, England] was the first to recognise that if you’re going into art and design, you also have to learn to sell and market online. So the message is not about being a coder or engineer. You don’t have to be a coder as most careers have a tech angle these days. You can also be a sassy lawyer and work in the digital space.
Connecting the dots
Sarah Drinkwater, Google’s head of campus in London, agreed. She pointed out:
Often when people think about tech, they think of it in silos, that is purely tech roles. But there are lots of roles that make tech work and it shouldn’t just be about the usual stereotypes of marketing and HR for women. It should be about developing talent across all areas.
But doing so is not simply about introducing one-off industry initiatives here and there. Instead it is about different companies and industry bodies working together to connect the dots in order to create a more joined up strategy that works across different levels.
To this end, The Tech Partnership is, for instance, developing a portal aimed at both learners and their teachers. The aim is to bring together different resources, including careers advice and an “ambassador” service for schools, in a bid to signpost a variety of different pathways into the sector and provide practical support.
And such an approach is important, Novel Design’s Forster believes, because girls need continual help and encouragement to engage with tech. She explains her rationale:
You can’t just treat it as an immunisation, so you vaccinate them once and they’re STEMed for life. It’s about repetition, connection and ‘here’s what you could do next’. You have to understand where the gaps are and, if you’re going to undertake an initiative, ensure you know how to make the best use of your resources.
A final key point, according to Cisco’s Marshall, is ensuring that more men in general, and male chief executives in particular, understand how critical gender diversity is in terms of business performance so that they are prepared to take action. She concludes:
We need the full power of participation among those still not getting the business case because it’s about increasing profits and GDP - and eventually it’ll change the economy. But we need to change the culture of the tech industry so that people see this as an imperative rather than just another nice-to-have diversity initiative.
Although many jobs have a tech angle these days, there is no standard definition of what it means to have a career in tech as it underpins so many different activities, industries and roles. But such a state of affairs would appear to be both a blessing and a curse – while on the one hand, there is a lot of misunderstanding over what a tech career is or could be, on the other, the looseness of the definition makes it ripe for creative reinvention.