Quick quiz for you – name the first woman in tech that comes into your head.
If I could do a tally of the answers, I reckon there’s a good chance that names like Martha Lane Fox, Sheryl Sandberg, Meg Whitman and Marissa Meyer would crop up regularly. This well-known group have all proved you can make it to the top in technology as a woman.
But how valuable are they as inspiration for young women making decisions about whether to take a computing A-level or degree over French, English or Geography? Or whether to consider an apprenticeship or career in technology even though it’s still a heavily male-dominated arena?
Not very, according to attendees at the recent Women of Silicon Roundabout event in London. It’s well accepted that role models play a vital part in encouraging more women to join the tech industry. But as Jen Grant, CMO at Looker, noted during a panel discussion on attracting the next generation of tech talent, it’s always Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Meyer whose names come up. The problem is, these women aren’t particularly relatable to the majority of young women at school, university or early in their careers, and so Grant would like to see a broader range of people highlighted as role models for women in tech.
Justine Haworth, Global Head of Digital Engagement at HSBC, feels that there is less of a link between young women and the IT industry now than there was when she joined the sector 30 years ago as a graduate trainee. It’s now either geeks in basements or superwomen, she explained:
I don’t think we describe roles in technology and roles in science in a way that females can relate to them. Today, we don’t make them attractive. There are a lot of stereotypes that we associate with jobs in technology - darkened basements, hoodies, green screens.
Even when you look nowadays at female role models in science and technology in films, they’re always portrayed almost as superheroines, as something really different. It feels really unattainable, [young women] can’t relate to it because [they] don’t understand where [their] skills fit in this sort of world. Films like Black Panther, you’ve got these super geeky girls, there’s nowhere in between. It’s shrouded in a lack of realism.
Jo Morfee, Founder at InnovateHer, called for more role models who are everyday, normal human beings, real people achieving in the world of technology and solving real-world problems. She gave the example of UK startup Open Bionics, which makes low-cost 3D-printed prosthetics for amputees. The firm partnered with Disney to create limbs modelled on Iron Man or Elsa from Frozen, and has succeeded in making them more accessible and affordable for its target audience of young children. Now, rather than kids being asked how they lost a limb, they get asked how they got their cool robot hand.
But this mentality of finding ways to broaden the appeal of technology hasn’t made its way into the early years schooling system yet. Morfee referred to 2017 research from Centrica, which revealed that both male and female teachers feel STEM careers are better suited to men than women.
Morfee’s colleague Chelsea Slater, Founder at InnovateHer, said there is still a barrier in education for girls not feeling they have a place in the technology industry, and this is affecting their choice of subjects to study and career paths to pursue. Slater added:
A lot of teachers are telling them they can become teachers, nurses, doctors, hairdressers, things that tend to be a little bit more caring and that girls get boxed into. The boys are getting told to go into engineering and science.
Slater gave the example of a 15 year-old girl she was mentoring last year, who loves engineering and wanted to study the subject as a GCSE. Her teacher declined her request as she would be the only girl in the class. Fortunately, she persuaded a friend to take the course with her and so was allowed on to it.
The problem here is that teachers are so overworked and under-resourced, Slater maintains, that they are pushing the traditional roles and career paths onto girls and boys because that’s all they know.
While work is clearly needed within the education sector to ensure teachers are aware of the opportunities out there for young women in STEM, this year’s Women in Silicon Roundabout conference demonstrated the strides made on the corporate side. The event, which is only in its third year, attracted 4,500 attendees, almost four times as many as 2017. It had sponsorship from some of the biggest names on the global business stage - Goldman Sachs, HSBC, BP, Adidas, Sainsbury’s Argos, AstraZeneca to name a few - as well as the big guns of the tech world, from Google to Ebay to Amazon.
Only a few years ago, diversity in tech events would have failed to attract much interest outside the technology sector. Now, organisations in every industry are rushing to throw their money and opinions behind the cause – but how much of this is due to them truly valuing and understanding the importance of diversity and inclusivity? And how much is just paying lip service to the latest trendy cause, the new greenwash?
Haworth believes that by sponsoring women in tech events and making data available for projects like the Tech Talent Charter, shows firms like HSBC are heading in the right direction:
We’re working at a time when we’re trying to reverse decades of unconscious and conscious bias. I’m really encouraged by the commitment at the top of my organisation around both diversity and inclusion. It’s not just about having the right distribution of people. All of those people have to be allowed to fulfil their potential so we as a bank can fulfil our potential.
HSBC leadership is well aware, Haworth added, of the data that demonstrates where the bank has diverse leadership teams, those teams make better decisions and those decisions lead to better business outcomes, and hence an improvement in profitability.
But balanced against this awareness of the benefits of diversity, is the stark reality of the ongoing battle for tech talent. Haworth sees a risk that the lack of skilled technology staff might lead to firms diminishing their diversity efforts to just get the vacancies filled.
HSBC, which currently has 1,000 open technology vacancies across the world, is taking steps to ensure diversity does not get sidelined. All its hiring managers are undergoing specialist training to reduce and eliminate bias, and to ensure they are tailoring interviews to reflect that men and women demonstrate their skills better in different ways. Haworth added:
I would love for over 50% of those roles in technology in its broadest sense – they’re not just engineering roles, they’re product manager, project manager, data scientist, optimisation specialist – wouldn’t it be amazing if over 50 percent of those roles were taken by females? Together we can make this happen.
There is a disproportionate number of females at the top, HSBC included, but when you go to the middle and lower management layers, that’s not the case. We’ve all got a role to play in making this happen. There will always be people who pay lip service, but our strength as females is our unity.
What struck me most when listening to the views shared by the panel were those relating to the school-age girls, exactly the people we want to be including in diversity efforts. Slater’s example of a young woman being turned away from an engineering course as she’d be the only female is an attitude I’d have expected from teachers 20 or even 10 years ago. That young women are still being discouraged from taking STEM courses, rather than teachers welcoming them and making an effort to actively recruit more girls, is alarming.
I’ve also raised the point before that women in technology events often promote those who’ve already reached the top or have done something incredible and unique. So Haworth’s point about super heroines certainly rang true; let’s hear a little less about Sheryl Sandberg and Shuri*, and more from the everyday female software developers, systems engineers and product managers, who are just a few rungs up the ladder from school children considering their options.
*Black Panther’s super heroine technology genius