International Women's day: a day to celebrate the achievements of women around the world, but also to highlight the inequalities many still face. Unfortunately, the tech industry is still years behind in terms of representing the real proportion of women in the population. Women still make up a tiny amount of those working in STEM fields, and the digital sector is no different.
I graduated with a degree in Computer Science last year, and although I would say that the overall experience was fantastic, the approach to girls in the subject at times was not. I can remember a tutorial/workshop session with around 10 of us in a room with a female tutor, and the attitudes of the male students towards her was at times uncomfortable. Another time, a friend was singled out to be put in an extra support group for a particular module, for what appeared to be no reason other than because she was female. The expectation that we would not achieve as much as our male counterparts was rife, and it results in many women who study Computer Science not going into programming based jobs. That's not to say however that it was all like this, many lecturers were incredibly encouraging, and there were schemes to try and get more women into the field going on at the University.
Shockingly, the proportion of women in computing is reducing. In the 70s, the number of women in the field was increasing, to a high of 37% enrolled in Computer Science courses in the US in 1984. After this point, that percentage has continued to decline, to less than 20% today. The reasoning behind this is largely because of advertising -- all the personal computer advertisements from this point featured solely male figures, implying that this was not something for women to pursue as a career option, or even as a hobby. These issues are still around today, with gaming and an interest in technical fields seen as something more suited to men. Industry is fully aware of the power of advertising to influence behaviour and bring about change. It is in their interest, and everyone else's, for them to turn these resources to this problem. And yet, not enough is being done.
Image source: http://blog.modernmechanix.com/two-bytes-are-better-than-one/
However, some improvements have been made. A few months ago I went to help at my Mum's primary school to teach some basic coding skills, as it is now part of the national curriculum, and I was amazed at how quickly both the boys and girls picked it up. Local meet-ups in Manchester such as Ladies of Code provide a platform for female developers to get into the industry and have a friendly environment to learn in. Computer Science is also becoming much more common as a high school subject, though the supply of teachers is very poor. In short, there seems to be an acknowledgement of the issue but the response has been disjointed and at times tokenistic.
I believe the main root of the issue happens much earlier in life; as children, many girls believe they cannot do the same activities or subjects as their male classmates. Of course, these gender stereotypes do not only affect girls: whilst I was outnumbered in my Physics A-Level class, my Art group had only one male member. In this sense, it is reasonable to conclude that sexism on a recruitment panel is less arbitrary, and more a result of an assimilation of latent gender stereotypes that we as a society possess: girls can't play with cars, and boys can't be princesses.
Although I was only doing my A-levels 5 years ago, I didn't consider or know much about Computer Science and programming at the time. With the rise of companies such as Google and Facebook, the tech industry is looking 'cooler' than ever, and more and more young people are seeing it as an option. Yet the number of women in my field is still woefully low. Personally, I have found this has neither been a detriment, nor an unfair advantage. When applying for my job at Code, there was never an indication that I was in any way different, and this has continued over the last few months of working here. I don't feel in any way inferior, and that has given me a fantastic environment to learn and develop. For women such as myself, there is a great career to be had in the Computer Science industry and I am loving every minute of it. But I have always been determined to follow this path regardless of the stereotypical comments and attitudes that are inevitable in a male dominated environment. The challenge is to reach women who are interested in Computer Science but are more dissuaded by these issues.
The problem cannot be solved by simply dedicating a desk in the corner of an office to females. Although this is a positive step in raising the awareness of women in the industry, it is perhaps demeaning to the achievements of the individual and opens women up to assumptions that the decision to give them the job was simply in order to satisfy their female quota. We need to start from the assumption that half of the best talent in the population lies in the female population and we need to realise that the computer industry is shooting itself in the foot by not addressing this problem energetically. The absence of a coordinated, comprehensive and effective national strategy to address this issue is a complete mystery to me.
Kudos to Twitter and several other high profile companies for directly addressing this issue in the past year. However, I believe that it'll take more than this to adequately tackle the issue. Grants, changes to the national curriculum and general raised awareness is encouraging. But there's a long journey ahead. Hopefully, one day companies won't need to declare the number of their female employees. Maybe if my children follow my career path, when they're interviewed for jobs, they will be comfortable in the knowledge that they're entering a blissfully level playing-field, completely devoid of gender stereotypes. I'm not holding my breath though.