If software is eating the world, who‘s running the restaurant?

There’s a gender gap in tech. Can we narrow it?

Stef Lewandowski
Mar 16, 2015 · 7 min read

Prompted by an invitation from Women Shift Digital to speak on a panel at Nesta FutureFest, here are some thoughts on the subject (as a man).

Growing up in the eighties I was lucky to be part of a generation that was encouraged to be creative with new technology — consumer computers and robots were in their infancy and had just become accessible to children.

That early exposure to playing with computers sent me down the path of studying computer science, but also experimenting around applying technology in art.

I distinctly remember trying to explain to my school why I wanted to study double maths, physics and art. “Art? That doesn’t fit into the time table, sorry”. It was as if computing and art were seen as entirely separate disciplines. So I left that school and took a path that enabled me to explore both sides of my personality.

Years later, I’m now on the industrial advisory board of the school of computer science at Birmingham University, and I’ve been made aware of a worrying trend. The years that I studied, 96–99, were the high water mark for young people entering the field. Nationally (I’m in the UK), absolute numbers of people studying computer science and related disciplines has been on the decline. That seems at odds with the enormous opportunities that we’re seeing emerging around digital technology.

What’s worse still though, is that the percentage of women studying computer science has also been in steady decline.

What happened in those intervening years? Is it something to do with that decision point around art vs science that I was given? Is it down to marketing? There was certainly a huge rise in computer games, apparently squarely aimed at teenage boys, and I can imagine the effect of that being to make the software and tech industry feel less welcoming to women. We seem to have inadvertently got to a point where women are discouraged down this path.

If software is eating the world,
and the software industry is a boys’ club,
is a boys’ club eating the world?

It’s not just computer science. Much has been said about the gender imbalance in the wider “tech industry”. I attend a lot of events around Tech City (the UK’s hotspot for tech startups), and it’s remarkable how male-weighted the audiences tend to be.

There is now a prevalence of disruptive software-first companies (Uber, et al) that are altering established industries that we come into contact in our everyday life. The effect of some of these “sharing economy” startups is to disrupt the nature of work. Algorithms are replacing job functions, perhaps disproportionately affecting women. We’re seeing a rise in zero hours contracts, benefiting us as consumers, but surely not benefiting those with dependents (like me).

These trends worry me. And what’s most worrying is that we’re seeing an industry that’s primarily white, male-dominated having a huge impact on every other industry. Tech / digital / whatever you want to call it, it’s no longer an industry vertical, it’s a horizontal. Yet that horizontal has much to do to ensure that we’re all being brought along with it’s rampant disruption.

Is this by everyone?

“This is for everyone” was written large at the Olympics in 2012— those famous words by Tim Berners-Lee that launched what became the Web. I’ve written before about how we need to work on the implied question behind that — if the Web is for everyone, shouldn’t it be by everyone too?

Some would argue that it doesn’t matter who makes the software that we use. You don’t have to be a woman to write software that women use, they might say. Which is somewhat true. But there’s nuance here. I spoke on a panel at FutureFest chaired by Ghislaine Boddington, with Helen Lewis and Maggie Philbin, both of whom brought up the issue that in order to have technologies that work for all of us, we need to ensure that those who build and distribute those technologies have insights from a wide and diverse range of experiences.

It’s up to us to decide if we think this is a problem. I do. And if you agree that there’s an issue here, and like me, you’re a white man-in-tech, what kind of interventions do you take?

Pop your filter bubble

The simplest thing I’ve been doing for a couple of years now, is to do my utmost to follow a wide range of people on Twitter. Even people I disagree with or who rub me up the wrong way. The instinct is to just follow people you’ve come into contact with or whose views you agree with, but by working against that you might learn something just by listening.

We all have a filter bubble, and if you try your best to listen to a diverse range of people, you might be able to pop it somewhat.

Choose who you support

I’ve been advising, mentoring and speaking to startups for a few years now. That’s what I know about, so it makes sense. You’ll have other things that are your specialism. I just make sure that I’m not just supporting men through these activities. Just take a moment to think about who you’re supporting, making introductions for, promoting, and ensure there is diversity in those who benefit from those actions.

Enable career change

“Tech” is an all-encompassing term for a really wide variety of roles. I’m coming to the conclusion that the “learn to code” campaign, something that I really support, also comes with something of a down-side. I worry that we’re conflating “working in tech” with “being a developer”. If you look at the industry as a whole, there is a lot more going on than people writing code. It’s one aspect, but I’d like to see more discussion and promotion of the wider opportunities.

I spoke at a recent Startup Institute hackday, and found it really positive that they had a healthier mix of people than I was expecting, particularly people who were working in other industries and wanted to make a shift into “tech startup”. There’s something in enabling people to enter the industry by up-skilling and we should encourage and support projects that are working on this.

Inspire the next

People moving in to tech later in their career is one way we can make a change. The other direction is through the education system.

Children should be given the opportunity
to be creative with technology,
not to just consume it

With my local primary school, I’m working on an inspirational box of technology — robots, electronics and lesson plans to give the school pupils an opportunity to see what it’s like to be creative with technology. The observation came from conversations with Emma Mulqueeny (Rewired State) and Clare Sutcliffe (Codeclub), amongst others. Kids make a decision surprisingly early on about whether STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) is something for them.

There’s an argument that if you can make an intervention around the ages of 8–11 to inspire and encourage children to have an interest in these areas, that we could see an uplift in girls wanting to pursue interests in that direction.

Sherry Coutu’s Founders for Schools project is aimed at using storytelling to get past some of the misconceptions about STEM careers, so I’d encourage you to sign up if you’re in the UK. Maggie Philbin’s work on TeenTech is also aimed squarely at inspiring teens about what’s possible with technology.

Such projects aren’t about trying to push everyone towards learning to code, or having a career in technology. I see it as a way to instil in children and young people, the idea that they can be confident and literate with technology. A by-product of that confidence could be a more even spread of girls and boys being part of building a more equal tech industry, and slowly making a dent in the “boys’ club” culture over the coming years.

Fix the leaky bucket

All of this is entirely pointless, however, if we’re “filling a leaky bucket”, to borrow a term I read recently. Making changes around women joining a broken industry, and not making improvements to how we all conduct ourselves in that industry, will just mean that we’ll continue to read horrendous accounts of sexism, prejudice and bad behaviour. All of which pushes people to leave the tech sector. We need to fix ourselves too.

For me, and my next venture, I’m going to really think about how to build the kind of working environment that I’d be proud of and will support and encourage a diverse range of people to collaborate. I’ve not really managed it to date, which disappoints me, but I’ll keep trying. If we all listen to and read about good practice and ensure that we’re doing our best to create good working environments, then we might be able to reverse some of the trends I’ve been talking about here.

All in all, I’m an optimist. I’m positive about the changes we’ll see over the coming years around narrowing the gender gap in tech. It’ll involve work, and to my mind it’s not just about women taking responsibility for such change, it’s down to all of us.

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