BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour this morning had a feature on Women in IT asking why the numbers were so low. Maggie Berry reported on Women in Technology’s survey which showed that women will only put themselves forward for jobs if they feel that they meet all the requirements in a job advert. Christine Ashton spoke about her experience of advertising computing jobs and only getting women applying when she lowered the salary.
While the program was broad casting I was listening and also looking at Twitter. A colleague at UCL Dave Twisleton-Ward tweeted me because he had seen tweets about gender discrimination at CHI a major computing conference. A UCL PhD student had attended her first international conference and been shocked by the gender discrimination there, her blog post about this is here: http://oopsohno.wordpress.com/2012/07/19/gender-discrimination-at-chi-2012/
Reading her blogpost reminded me of my first international conference experience as a PhD student in the 1990sI had a similar experience of both overt and covert sexism from people that I just wanted to look up to and get along with. It was very traumatising.
I then attended a Women in Science conference in Brussels which changed my life, it was so friendly, inclusive and all about making great stuff happen. It changed my life.
I came home determined to try to make this experience better for women in tech/IT, I set up an online network called BCSWomen. The idea was that we were all isolated as women IRL, but onlne we could find each other, ask questions and make the world of IT/tech/computing a more friendly and inclusive space, together we could support each other and have fun doing that. BCSWomen has grown to around 1500 women and remains as friendly and supportive as it did in 2001 when I set it up. That is due to the hard work of the Chair and committee who work hard to ensure that women in need of support get that support.
In my almost 20 years now in this sector I see some things changing. In 2001 I was ridiculed by some for setting up a “women’s ghetto” group. a typical comment was something like “Isn’t it sexist to set up a group for women? What about the men? They need support too.” I think things have moved on since then. I do feel that even though there aren’t any more women in computing/IT than there were then, the environment is less hostile. Companies do now understand that there is a strong business case for diversity in the workplace. So we are moving forward…but…..
I think we do need to think hard about how we present this issue. The Woman’s Hour report whilst accurate did overall portray the opinion (I’m sure unintentionally) that basically it is women’s fault that there aren’t many women working in IT. They don’t put themselves forward for jobs and they don’t go for jobs with high salaries.
This is a much too simplistic and frankly dangerous way of tackling this issue. There is much more to the story than this and presenting it as women’s fault is unhelpful. This problem belongs to all of us, not just women and we can only tackle it together.
I recently set up The <goto> Foundation, a non-profit organisation to help everyone get more “hands on” with computing. Our first event #gototech run in partnership with IntellectUK was about showing that young children can enjoy and get excited about computing. It was a phenomenal success. We now have schools all over the country wanting to work with us 🙂
Having started thinking about Women and IT again this morning, I’m convinced that we should focus some of our future <goto> events on girls/women. We need to empower women to show them what great careers they can have in technology, to showcase the opportunities whilst at the same time trying to sort out the lingering gender related issues that still exist. We also need to sort out, for a start, the sexist conference experience as described by @oopsohno. Geek Feminism wiki has got a solution with practical instructions included on asking conferences to set up an anti harrassment policy.
The way to sort out this problem is NOT to blame the women, they have had enough blame thank you. We need a concerted effort from all of us in this area to show that IT/computing is exciting and that there are many fabulous opportunities just waiting for us to grab hold of them. These are exciting times, we are in the middle of a whirlwind digital revolution, let’s make the most of it!