Business

Scarcity of female geeks questioned

Jemima Kiss

Why is it that although women make up 49% of the UK's labour force, they account for just 17% of IT and telecommunications professionals?

 What is more, the visibility of Marissa Mayer, the recently promoted Yahoo! chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the number two at Facebook, comes as the number of women in the industry in the UK has been falling over the past 10 years. Why?

There are dozens of groups promoting women in technology, from pub meetings to formal networking and corporate efforts, yet few seem to be taking the advice of former English football club owner Karren Brady in her autobiography – that pioneers in any field need to hold the door open "as wide as possible, for as long as possible, to allow other women to march through it".

One woman who believes the problems start much earlier is Belinda Parmar, who founded the Lady Geek marketing agency in 2010, advising corporate clients on how to recruit and sell to women. She was often shocked, she said, by the "shrink-it-and-pink-it mentality" of tech marketers, but that is hardly surprising when there are so few women employed in the industry. "I have a four-year-old daughter and I want her to think that anything is possible, that no career in out of bounds," she said. "If any other comparable industry had a female workforce of only 17% there would be an outcry."

Parmar has just launched Little Miss Geek, a book that aims to trace the obstacles women face when starting out in the tech industry. It is aimed at industry leaders, governments and parents and is at its most persuasive when it states the financial case for inclusion: tech companies with women on their management teams have a 34% higher return on investment, according to a report by Catalyst, a British non-profit organisation that expands opportunities for women and business.  Furthermore, a 2009 report in the Harvard Business Review claims that the female demographic is worth about $20trillion in consumer spending every year.

But there is something alarmist in the tone of Parmar's statistics and capitalised infographics: "GIRLS SEE COMPUTING AS UNFEMININE … 'I'D RATHER BE A DUSTMAN THAN WORK IN IT.'"

What seems missing from the campaign is the celebration of women's achievements in technology. And although we can all think of the executives – Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman and the vice-president and managing director of Facebook EMEA, Joanna Shields – it is those quietly successful women actually building great stuff that we need to hear from.

Creative technologists
The most inspiring role models, as Little Miss Geek's manifesto concludes, are those working on projects to which young creative technologists can relate.

The book suggests that the "ultimate goal is to make tech more glamorous and desirable to women". But the act of programming itself is not glamorous and the low-key nature of developing, perhaps even the male environment, is cited as a selling point for many women.

The industry is, however, trying to address its gender imbalance. For example, cult craft site Etsy has announced grants to support female hackers this year and  Google has developed an algorithm to identify when and why women dropped out of its recruitment process.

Is it time to forget the tired stereotypes of engineers and technologists as nerds and geeks and boffins?

Leila Johnston, writer and technologist in residence for the Happenstance project at Sheffield's Site Gallery, said: "My role models were people who seemed to do whatever they wanted, without caring what anyone thought of them.

"It might just be this attitude that gives girls the push to not care about going against the grain." – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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