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Gender bias in tech could ‘die out over time’, says UCL senior network architect

Senior network architect at University College London Emma Cardinal-Richards discusses her career as a woman in IT and a dissolving of the “old guard”

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The lack of women in the IT industry could be a problem that goes away as the older generation of IT workers leave the industry, says Emma Cardinal-Richards, senior network architect at University College London (UCL).

Cardinal-Richards says the IT industry and its groups of white males can be “hard to break into” for both women and minority groups.

“If we’re in the stage where most management is in that ‘old guard’, then I think it’s just going to be a time thing. As things move on, that generation will slowly get phased out and things will get easier. But it doesn’t seem to be going fast enough,” she says.

Cardinal-Richards attended Jisc Networkshop44 to present a talk on behalf of UCL on datacentre networking.

She explained to a room of predominantly white men how UCL’s datacentre network was designed on a dark fibre network to make application building simpler and to prevent stretched failure of networks.

Following her talk, Cardinal-Richards admits to Computer Weekly that she occasionally suffers from imposter syndrome.

This is when an individual feels unable to accept their abilities or accomplishments, and is common in women in the IT industry. “I do have the occasional panic,” adds Cardinal-Richards.

Stem role models

A lack of role models is often flagged as one of the reasons girls do not enter the IT industry, with the lack of visibility of females in the industry leading to girls believing they cannot go into technology-based careers.

Cardinal-Richards says she tries to be a role model, and adds that she is attempting to encourage her young niece into technology.

Research suggests that girls think science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) based subjects are too hard.

Read more about women in the IT industry

  • Social organisation Stemettes runs a two-day hackathon to encourage girls into technology careers.
  • Member organisation Everywoman launches the Modern Muse not-for-profit app to offer young girls access to female role models in Stem fields.

Cardinal-Richards hopes it is not a fear of being technical that puts women off a career in IT, and she encourages girls to break gender stereotypes surrounding school subjects, hobbies and sports.

“I don’t think women are scared of being technical,” she says. “I’m not quite sure how you fix that if that’s the case.”

She says she is supportive of the curriculum change in the UK, as well initiatives such as Stemettes, Code Club and Code First girls, as it will normalise technology and make it more inclusive.

“Understanding the fundamentals will hopefully help to make it seem like a more viable career choice for young girls,” says Cardinal-Richards.

“I feel like a very small part of it. I can try to help and do my bit, but I feel overwhelmed at trying to work out how I can help everyone. I hope they can see that getting into tech is not impossible – it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.”

Choosing the career path

Unlike many women in IT, Cardinal-Richards did not “fall into” the industry, but actively persued it following a love for computing and chemistry at school and a techy influence as a child.

Cardinal-Richards says: “I blame the IT part on my uncle, he was an IT guy. He built us our first home computer and I was just in awe of it.”

Working as an IT assistant alongside studying for a National Certificate for IT Practitioners, Cardinal-Richards gained the skills she needed to move into an IT support role in the education industry.

But finding a glass ceiling in her role, she took a step back in her career in to move to UCL and progressed quickly to the role she has now.

“It’s quite good if you don’t know what area of IT you want to specialise in. You can start off broad, doing a bit of everything until you work out what aspect you prefer,” she says.

“That’s a key thing for me – I want to be technical because I don’t think I can be taken seriously if I’m not. I think women in IT have to prove themselves more than men do.”

Changing the future landscape

When Cardinal-Richards told people at work she was attending an interview about being a woman in the technology industry, her colleague’s response was: “You should tell them no – we should stop making an issue of it, it should just be people in IT.”

“I told him he was saying that because he’s a guy. Equality is still an issue, so trying to pretend it’s not there doesn’t help. I understand what he means – that we should be able to move past it – but it’s not realistic,” she says.

“We need to focus on that issue because it’s never going to go away if we don’t form some sort of concerted effort – and he’s ‘one of the good ones’.”

Cardinal-Richards says there is still a long way to go to fight for gender equality in the IT industry. She has seen other people blame a woman’s gender rather than a lack of technical ability for being bad at a job.

“Equality is still an issue, so trying to pretend it’s not there doesn’t help”

Emma Cardinal-Richards, UCL

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“If you’re a woman in IT and you’re not good, it’s seems like you’re letting the whole side down,” she says. “The perception will be it’s because you are a woman, not because you’re bad.”

Cardinal-Richards claims the industry is better, but not fixed. She says even when women break through, they have to be “10 times better” in that position than a man to be respected.

“It’s much better than it was. The younger generation of IT guys are happy that a women is there,” she says, but adds that every so often she realises there is still “a mountain to climb”.

“When I was an engineer fixing computers, I turned up in the computer lab and there was student on a PC next to one I’d come to fix. He said to me ‘sorry love, it’s busted’, and I whipped out my screwdriver and replied, ‘yeah I know, I’ve come to fix it’.

“I like being able to surprise people,” says Cardinal-Richards. “But it sometimes surprises me that it still does surprise people.”

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Perhaps. I'd like to think so and can only hope you're right. But tech has fallen far since the days of Ida Lovelace. Unfortunately, misconceptions and prejudices are actively promoted by politicians and hardcore haters of every ilk. Many promote discrimination and misogyny, even formalizing in state laws. Tech has a special niche, but it's still a slice of society.

I would like to see a golden age, but we have a long way to go before we get there.
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