diversITy: the lack of women in the IT industry

This series of entries, called diversITy, will cover a number of topics all concerning the diversity of people within the IT industry. Whether we discuss women in industry, sexual orientation in the workplace, religion or ethnic background; these are all topics which will have an effect on students, if not already.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
This series of entries, called diversITy, will cover a number of topics all concerning the diversity of people within the IT industry. Whether we discuss women in industry, sexual orientation in the workplace, religion or ethnic background; these are all topics which will have an effect on students, if not already.

For years now, the IT industry has been dominated by men – women deterred by the geeky image of an anti-social, geeky teenager who hasn’t seen daylight in weeks, working in the basement of his mum’s house, programming away to some complicated code. On the flip side, you have the perspective of a woman in the IT industry somewhere, where they’re sat behind a desk filing away, writing reports and performing general secretarial duties, whilst flirting with the other employees as she stirs their coffee, whilst imitating something sexually deviant with her tongue.

Both are wrong, because both are misconceptions and mistaken stereotypes. Although there may be elements of both some might actually like, it does pose the million dollar question. Why aren’t there enough women in the IT workplace?

Over the last few days, I’ve been in touch with some widely influential people involved in leading organisations, from Google to Microsoft (for once they agree on something), the National Center for Women in Information Technology, and getting the perspective to understand this problem from other prominent figures in the IT and technology industry.

Over the years, Microsoft has done their bit in trying to inspire the younger female generation to consider the perks of working in the IT industry. Every year, they carefully piece a 3-5 day curriculum aimed at high school aged girls, to show them some of the finer points of working with IT and technology, and hopefully they walk away with a positive attitude towards the industry, if not a career path lined up. Providing a free course, free lunches, and a wealth of experience and understanding, there's little cost to the parents, as their child gets to grips with the finer points of technology.

I spoke to an old colleague, Philippa Snare at Microsoft UK, a prominent leader and advocate of women working in technology. She told me about how she had started off in the first place:

“I have been in the 'IT industry' for over 15 years and yet when I left university I really didn’t know that’s what I would be saying. All I knew was that using computers and some of the software and services I could get on one gave me the ability to find information more easily, get stuff from my friends that they couldn’t and connect with people in a less threatening and more equitable way.”

She decided after finishing university that she wanted to “show the world that you didn’t have to be in the old boys club to become influential”, not only that, “[women] could really help people grow their business ideas, meet new people and do things they may have had self doubt about with no other form of support.”

I asked how women see the workplace, and how they perceive IT nowadays:

"Women often get attracted to roles in industries that are about the greater good, they do roles that play to traditional female strengths like communications, collaboration and getting the best out of people. It used to be the case that IT by the very name is harder to have an emotional connection with, it seems removed in some way. But I think that is changing; you ask a teenager now to give up their mobile phone and you will see how emotional technology has become."

By inspiring the younger generation of females at high-school age, Microsoft have been showing the lighter side of IT and how women can make a difference to a very male-dominated workplace.

"Microsoft is dedicated to bringing back that emotional connection, to help students and graduates use their expertise and knowledge to make a difference in the world. The student scheme we have been running is about empowering students to join the IT industry, learn and develop their strengths quickly and encourage their passions and then use these to challenge they way corporations do things - so we keep ensuring that new talent and industry corporations together are growing an industry stacked with talented individuals who are bursting with ideas."

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference is held every year in celebration of women working in computing, named after Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the best mathematicians and computer scientists of her day. By celebrating women in IT, this inspires and influences women into working in such a high-profile industry. There are a large number of women in technology already, and this should be celebrated - as the conference is the largest technical conference for women in computing, and this results in idea sharing, contributions, and showing the world what research has been done.

Without conferences and meets such as these, we may never have heard of Susan Kare, who created much of the user interface of the original Apple Macintosh; Sally Floyd who worked on the TCP(/IP) protocol. How about Mary Lou Jepsen, the founder and the chief technology officer for the OLPC project? These women have helped shape the world today, and in some cases the future as well.

I spoke to Laura Scott at Google, who told me how they were supporting women every way they can.

"Google is very committed to encouraging more women in engineering, all over the world - indeed many of our site directors in Europe are women - in the London mobile engineering office, Haifa in Israel and in Russia. It's core to our commitment to a diverse workforce."

Not only that, she provided me with some content over email about some of the initiatives and projects Google has been involved in over the last few years:

"As part of Google's ongoing commitment to women in IT, we offer several scholarships for women in computing and technology. These include the Google Anita Borg Scholarship, which was established to honour the legacy of Anita Borg and her efforts to encourage women to pursue careers in computer science and technology and to support women in becoming active role models and leaders."

"Amongst other activities, we have participated in Equalitec studies and partnered with BCS Women, Women In Technology, Roehampton University, Women in Mobile Data Association and Women@CL in supporting events and conferences. We were recently involved in the London and Scottish Hoppers, which are modelled after the US-based Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. We have contributed to St James's House "Diverse Britain 2007" publication, which tells the story of diversity in the UK. We host a number of Women in Engineering Tech Talks for external audiences and recently hosted a Girl Geeks event in our London office, aimed at providing a welcoming atmosphere and a platform for learning in an informal environment."

I asked about rewarding female university students, and extending work experience programmes:

"We have also introduced the "Google Prize", a financial award specifically for outstanding female computer science students. The prize is intended to encourage women to enter and remain in the field of computer science."

"During Girls@Google Days, the girls meet and spend time with Google engineers & product managers and participate in workshops that get them excited about technology and help to dispel myths about careers in computer science. As well as providing role models for the next generation, these pre-university activities are a great way for Google engineers to get involved in their local communities."

Hopefully over the next few days, I'll be able to update this post after speaking to Lucy Sanders, the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). They work with over 100 different organisations worldwide in increasing the number of women working in IT and technology, by expanding opportunities to cover a more creative aspect perspective to students.

When researching for this article, I came up with many pages, articles, interviews and talks. I spoke to the other ZDNet bloggers, and my colleague, Jennifer Leggio, who also writes a personal blog. As well as being an active member of NCWIT, she wrote an article about how the industry needs to change, and how women need to empower themselves to make things happen and speak up, and get the companies to lose the stereotypes.

In summary, there are a good number of women working in IT, technology, and the computing industry, but it's not nearly enough as most other industries. Whilst the opportunities are there, it takes the corporations, organisations and businesses to highlight some of the better and indeed more accurate perspectives of the industry, to the younger female generation. With enough luck, work, hope and effort, this very male-oriented business will open itself more to women over the coming months and years, as more and more girls and women realise their potential in making this world a far happier, better organised, and more diverse.

Comments:  These posts may seem controversial to some, so in light of this I will not be accepting any derogatory, sexist, homophobic, racially motivated, extremist, verbally violent, threatening, or anything like that. I'm all for openness, honesty and transparency, but I have zero tolerance over any of the above. If such comments are found, they'll be deleted straight away without warning or notification.
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