Women in Tech: Dorito-fuelled, but no bra burning
"Good morning, you're through to Converged - Stacey speaking. How can I help?"
Quite often this is met with a request to speak to one of the tech guys.
This is not meant with any malice or ill nature. The perpetuated stereotype of the service desk tech – as parodied by Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd – paints a picture of a socially awkward, funny and Dorito-fuelled man who will no doubt check that you have indeed turned your PC on and off again.
The only difference with me from the above is that I am a Dorito-fuelled, socially awkward and occasionally funny woman.
As an aside, when you lie about having already turned your machine off, we know you are telling fibs!
Women were tech pioneers
Stereotypes aside, the number of women working in technology is significantly lower than most other UK work sectors. Just 17% of those working in technology in the UK are female. It wasn't always the case.
Let’s back up a little and travel back in time Doc Brown style (classic btw). Our first screeching stop is the 18th century where we meet some scientific computation developers (also known as human computers) including Nicole-Reine Lepaute who predicted Halley's Comet, and Maria Mitchel who computed the motion of Venus. It’s told that Nicole’s team worked throughout the day and sometimes mealtimes. Nothing much has changed from then then. These ladies really did reach for the stars. Next stop is Ada Lovelace, who was the first person to publish an algorithm intended to be executed by the first modern computer. As a result, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer. Interestingly Ada downplayed her role in her work during her life, for example, in signing her contributions with AAL so as not be "accused of bragging." Ada? Really? Damn right I’d be bragging. You go girl.
In the 19th and early-20th century, and up to World War II, programming was predominantly done by women; with more women being hired as human computers (I can totally relate to being on auto pilot). As war widows, their career choice was more about finding ways to support themselves (probably while holding the fort at home / bouncing baby on knee) rather than any burning passion. Others were hired when the government opened positions to women because of a shortage of men to fill the roles. This seems an appropriate point to introduce "Pickering's Harem," so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. I’m sure it sounds much more exotic than it was. Still these ladies are now an important part of history.
It’s 1935 and thanks to movies like Hidden Figures (another gem) we all know about the group of talented women, hired by NASA to work as a computer pool. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the 1961 launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, This really shouldn’t have been a surprise given that NASA themselves actually stated "the engineers admit themselves that the girl computers do the work more rapidly and accurately than they could.” UNDERSTATEMENT.
Around this time "tedious" computing and calculating was seen as "women's work" resulting in the term "kilogirl", invented by a member of the Applied Mathematics. A kilogirl of energy was "equivalent to roughly a thousand hours of computing labour." I’m shaking my head, although kilogirl does have a certain superhero feel to it.
After the 1960s, the "soft work" that had been dominated by women evolved into modern software, and the importance of women decreased. Yes, you read that correct. The lack of women in computing from the late 20th century onward has been examined, but no firm explanations have been established. That said, some believe that it was in no small part down to the dude-centric computer marketing campaigns of the 80s. Hopefully we don’t have to wait for World War 3 to be called back in on the Tech front.
Meanwhile having travelled back to present day (cheers for the lift Doc), many females have continued to make significant and important contributions to the IT industry, with women holding leadership roles in multiple tech companies, such as Meg Whitman, president and chief executive officer of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Marissa Mayer, ex president and CEO of Yahoo! and key spokesperson at Google. Hello? We’re still here waving our flags (which could do with a clean. Note I must add washing powder to the shopping list).
Move over Apple’s Messrs Jobs, Wayne and Wozniak and Facebooks Messrs Zuckerberg, McCollum, Saverin, Moskovitz and Hughes. Women have been pioneers in tech for centuries, long before you.
Getting the balance right
There’s no disputing that women in tech are a rare species. At times, the lines between work life and home life for any working women can be blurry. Something that most of us accept as part of the package – getting paid, working hard and always rising to the challenge (pardon the pun).
There is a huge array of technology jobs – IT support, robotics, automation, gaming and web development to name a few. They can provide women with excitement and fulfilment, yet present challenges too, especially when learning how to balance work-life ambitions and home life.
I, like many other working mums, most definitely have it better than some of our previous generations (read Dame Steve’s crusade to get women into IT– hats off) . Technology allows us to work from home, work in a more flexible manner and in some cases where there is a ‘follow the sun’ approach to the service – work less traditional hours to get more done.
Tech companies are starting to value women and understand the difficulty of finding a work-life balance, especially when returning to work after having children. They are offering more flexibility and work incentives than perhaps many other industries.
I am incredibly fortunate to be working for an organisation where there are no limits defined either in scope, or even in the culture of our office. Not only has there been a shift in the culture of the work place, but I truly believe, and certainly in my case, there is a shift in attitudes towards gender roles within the home too.
Twenty years ago, you would have probably found that Dad was the family breadwinner and mum had a part-time job and oversaw the house (think Marty McFly’s family). More and more I’m finding this has shifted. It is certainly the case in my house where Dad stays home to oversee the general chaos caused by our cheese munching (I’m not sharing my Doritos), Lego chucking five-year-old.
A world of opportunity
The tech sector is a fascinating, wide field and one that is growing rapidly and creating an ever-expanding range of job possibilities.
To those women or indeed girls, considering a career in IT, don’t be put off. The perceived barriers are just that.
Companies have learnt, to their detriment, that a workforce with no diversity can have long lasting reputational damage when they leave women out of their team. Apple was a case in point, specifically the design of its health app. This managed to miss that you may not be able to track things such as pregnancy and other life factors that can impact on the menstrual cycle. With half the population being female, this seems like a significant blunder and entirely out of touch with basic anatomy (but hey, I’m in tech not medicine).
Everyone in the sector has a responsibility to inspire and encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to consider IT as a career choice and fill the future skills gap. Particularly in data engineering, IT security, market research, app development and web development.
Inspiring children into STEM subjects can only help, particularly if girls are to be motivated into the tech sector and the current gender imbalance addressed. Unbelievably, only 7% of pupils taking computer science as an A-level course in England are female and only half of those who study IT and tech subjects at school go into a career in the same field. Shocking. Let’s all commit to ignite our kids interested in STEM subjects from a young age. The keys is to make it fun.
Crafting a career in IT
Depending on the area you are interested in, qualification requirements may vary. Do not be put off because you haven’t been to Uni. I didn’t and it certainly hasn’t stopped me in crafting a career in IT.
What did attempt to create a bump in my IT career path was a recruiter. During an interview for an IT helpdesk role I was asked why I was applying for such a role having not been to university. At that point I ended the interview. The recruiter was taken aback by my direct approach, then very awkwardly tried to give me a hug as I left. As it turned out, the company I ended up working for after that, who I contacted directly, was in fact using that same person for recruitment.
I think with an honest and upfront disposition and good customer skills, you can do well – and so much of this involves learning as you go! Learning on the job can, at times, be far more beneficial. Technology moves so quickly – it always has – that sometimes that’s exactly how to take on the challenge.
My current role on the service desk provides so many opportunities for learning and growth, on professional and personal levels. Being the only female member of the tech team in Aberdeen you do learn to develop a thick skin with some of the banter both on the shop floor, and with some of our more seasoned clients. No sexism, in fact sometimes quite the opposite. I am fairly certain that if it wasn’t for the fact I wear more make up than some of my colleagues, they probably wouldn’t have noticed I was a woman.
For me, it’s part of why I enjoy working at Converged so much. Would I class myself as one of the boys? I guess so, but I don’t think about it from that perspective. I’m just one of the team.
As a woman working in the tech sector I’m finding my own path, learning as I go, which is what everyone – male and female – has to do. Let’s sack the stereotypes and instead stimulate an interest in STEM subjects. If we do then even without the benefit of a trip to the future courtesy of Doc, I’m confident a less gender biased landscape exists down the road.
I’m not breaking new ground. I’m not trailblazing. That was done long ago by others. And I’m certainly not burning my bra! And thank goodness for that – have you seen how expensive these things can be?