Do we really need an International Women in ICT Day?

As technology advances in the coming years, we can fully expect Britain to be pushing the boundaries of innovation. After all, we invented the World Wide Web, and ARM architecture, and the Dyson, and Heston Blumenthal. We’ve proved that the UK isn’t just some adorable village in which vicars on bicycles deliver glass milk bottles to a post office run by the pig from Babe. We’ve been all fierce and modern. We’ve hosted the Olympics. We’ve got a train that runs to Paris under the sea. We’re completely 21st-century.

So why are we now celebrating International Women in IT Day? Surely the UK, with all its forward thinking, has a completely balanced workforce with no barriers to entry for any person of any gender, race or minority? In 2014 womenkind has come a long way – we have equal education, have won the right to vote, the pill, and haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. So why are we even talking about the issue of proportionate gender representation at all?

Because despite how far we’ve come, we’re not at the end of the journey yet, and IT is one industry where there still exists a significant gender imbalance. According to research from Nominet, women currently make up less than one fifth of the IT workforce. Most worryingly, based on current trends the gender gap is set to widen over the coming years.

Now, this fact isn’t a revelation – indeed the headlines have been filled in recent years with similar statistics. But since this article allows me the kind of monologue that one might deliver, in a slightly slurred yet impassioned way, to a minicab driver who is doing the best to ignore you and turn up ‘Alone’ by Heart on Magic FM, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore why we still have a long way to go in making technology a truly gender-inclusive sector.

As an XX chromosome touting journalist who regularly attends trade events, roundtables, conferences and meetings, I can categorically state that both the enterprise and consumer technology industries are demographically stratified. Despite major leaps in recent years behind the scenes, the industry does still little to help itself in the public eye: booth babes at trade events, a “brogrammer” developer culture and the skewed ratio of male / female speakers on prestige panels are some of the most obvious examples, but actually the problem is more insidious than the public sees.

Whilst IT really is one of the sectors where the glass ceiling for women has been truly shattered, on the ground level there still exist a lot of subtle prejudices. It’s a real cause to celebrate that ITProPortal’s Paul Cooper can put together a shortlist of just some of the women currently leading top companies like HP and HTC at C-level positions – his task would have been a lot harder, for instance, finding women who’ve climbed to the top of the finance sector – but what about the lower rungs?

From the gadgets that action heroes whip out to save the day to the geeky male stereotypes in cartoons that we watch as children, both genders are conditioned to see technology as “other” to women. A tecchie woman in popular culture is the odd one out. Something where it shouldn’t be. The unexpected item in the bagging area. While tech is considered a “cool” hobby for boys, the most technological that young girls’ toys and female heroines get are deciding what shade of lipstick would match their iPad cover – I’m looking at you CBBC’s Sadie J.

It’s a well-known fact that IT as it has been taught in schools for years has been uninspiring and irrelevant for both genders. This has meant that many who do forge careers in technology are led into doing so through the hobbies they explored in their spare time as teenagers and young adults: coding, video games, building robot kits and tinkering with PCs to name a few.

It’s unfortunate then, that in general it is boys – not girls – who are traditionally associated with those pastimes. It’s fantastic that young men are driven outside of the classroom to build the skills required to innovate groundbreaking new ideas in technology, but how can young girls do the same if they don’t receive the same amount of cultural encouragement?

Read more: Do we really need an International Women in ICT Day?


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