Tech and digital needs an Ally McBeal to encourage more girls and women into the industry.
I have a handful of friends who became lawyers because of Ally McBeal: I promise it wasn’t the weird dancing baby on the show that did it for them, but here was a female role model on TV who gave them a real feel for what a career in law looked like and seeing intelligent women like them doing the role.
We have wonderful people in Tech like Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE from the Stemettes, Belinda Parmar OBE and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, but we need more – and for them to be more accessible and visible to the wider public.
Right now, people on the street would name Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk as tech role models, perhaps YouTube stars too – but there aren’t many females they can name and that’s the problem.
You can’t be what you can’t see. Separately career paths into digital and tech are really unclear. I’m not sure many career guidance departments at schools are signposting Scrum Master and Product Owner roles…yet. And these are unfortunately fuelling the digital skills shortages that we’re seeing.
There are some standout examples and initiatives, but as an industry and as a society we’re not addressing the pipeline early enough, or indeed inspiring young women about how important it is to be part of this technology revolution which underpins our whole world now.
I feel that the media has an important role to play in changing perceptions. I would love a character in EastEnders or Hollyoaks to be a female coder, or for one of the contestants in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing to be a UK female tech icon and through appearing on the TV, to be able to open the door to show that tech and digital is a very creative, people-oriented and dynamic career.
It should be seen as a rock ‘n’ roll career, one that can take you all over the world. Only last month a friend finished his last day before relocating both him and his family to Oregon to work for Nike in tech. I’ve got another friend who spends a lot of his time flying around the world doing paid talks at Tech conferences. One week he’s in Argentina, the next Croatia. Not a bad life.
One of the things we focus on through my Empowering Women with Science and Tech initiative – a Leeds-based meetup and support network – is just how creative the digital and tech scenes are. It frustratingly doesn’t seem that way though, especially with films like Jobs and The Social Network which are great films, but not really representative of day-to-day tech life and very male dominated.
And these things resonate; one study showed that the types of words young women associate with computing are things like ‘typing, maths and boredom’ – whereas boys opted for ‘design, gaming and video’.
There is a huge rebrand we need to do around this and through ‘Empowering Women with Science and Tech’ we believe we can influence change by giving a stage to amazing people who can talk about their interesting jobs, what they’ve achieved and give advice/tips to those wanting to follow in their footsteps.
We pride ourselves in finding speakers that you wouldn’t immediately associate with tech, for example TV presenters Lauren Laverne and Sarah Beeny who are both tech entrepreneurs and indeed tech product owners in their own rights with their award-winning websites. These role models help show more women that it’s great to embrace their inner geek.
Leeds has a great mix of tech start-ups, agencies and client-side businesses. It’s host to young companies such as Cocoon, Crisp Thinking and Synap; tech giants such as Sky, William Hill and EE; and the tech arm of public institutions like the NHS Digital, Department of Work and Pensions and, in nearby Shipley, HMRC.
I think what makes Leeds so special is how important the grass-roots tech community is here. There are over 30 regular meetups happening under our noses, and nearly all of them are free to attend and kindly supported by local businesses that keep them going. All of them are non-for-profit and done by volunteers in their spare time to help grow the scene, enable knowledge sharing, offer opportunities for networking, and also at times, to consume unhealthy amounts of free pizzas and beers.
More and more companies are recognising how Leeds is leading the way in tech and wanting to be a part of the scene. The market is buoyant – but there are now more jobs than people who have those skills.
A key theme at ‘Empowering Women with Science and Tech’ is focusing on how important human skills (soft skills are) – we sometimes as an industry focus so much on just hiring for ‘hard skills’ ie technical skills, and neglect a core focus on the softer skills which in my opinion are harder to learn. Things like problem solving, strong communication skills, stakeholder management and empathy.
This is why the industry needs to be much more open minded about our hiring strategies and start to invite applications from candidates from other sectors who want to sidestep into Tech with lots of useful transferable skills without making it daunting.
I’ve met lots of women at our ‘Empowering Women’ events who desperately want to get into tech but are scared about what happens if it doesn’t work out. I don’t think we always realise what a leap this can be for many.
What can we do as an industry to help support that leap so it’s more of a hop and a step? I am fortunate that in my day job at Sky, I see many women join Sky’s free Get into Tech programme and learn coding skills to get a job in tech.
I myself sidestepped with transferable skills: I went from a rather random photography, film and TV, local government and marketing background – although admittedly I did know how to code – and finally into tech. I had lots of amazing people who believed and invested in me, and therefore I keep the door open and do the same.
There weren’t the opportunities available when I was at school and university to get into a digital or tech career because the sector was really immature at that time. Offering opportunities for women to sidestep into a tech career is now vital especially when just 17 per cent of the workforce are female. We need more business to see what is possible at companies like Sky and set up initiatives, mentorships and programmes to help change the gender imbalance across tech.
What is heartening is that the passion for women to get into the industry is there; we’ve had over 100 women register to attend our next ‘Empowering Women’ Ada Lovelace Day event in just four days. The tide is slowly turning.
The next ‘Empowering Women with Science and Tech’ event takes place in Leeds on October 9th which coincides with Ada Lovelace Day 2018.