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Tech is trendy now but hasn’t always been, says Techmums founder

Sue Black thinks the technology industry is gradually becoming more accessible, but the journey is still slow

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It’s no secret that there has been a lack of women in the technology industry over the past 20 years.

There are many theories as to why this is, one of which is the negative stereotype surrounding the tech industry, with people thinking it is populated by “geeky” men with few social skills.

But Dr Sue Black, computer scientist and founder of Techmums, believes this perception is now being broken down, and the industry is slowly improving.

“It’s trendy to be in tech now, but it wasn’t always,” says Black.

Black says she has heard anecdotally that the tech industry had a more equal split of women and men in the 1960s, especially in development roles.

But when she was studying for her computer science degree in 1989, only about 10% of the students were women. By the time she set up BCSWomen in 1998, Black says the proportion of women in the industry had reached 20%.

Now women make up about 16% of the workforce in the IT sector.

“I feel like all of us have put so much effort in and then the numbers are still the same,” says Black.

“But I do feel quite positive about it, because 20 years ago, being in tech was not the trendy thing at all, but now I think more and more people are starting to understand the amazing opportunities if offers.”

Set up BCSWomen

Black originally set up BCSWomen as a way for women in technology to meet and network, something that didn’t exist at the time.

“It’s quite hard to be in a minority – I know that from going to computing conferences when I started my PhD,” she says. “It was only about 5% women and I had quite a hard time being in that 5% – it just wasn’t easy to network.

“Being in a majority, you don’t realise how easy that makes your life, and it’s not until you become a minority in some way that you realise how easy it was before.”

Black says she would be “shocked” if the number of women in tech does not increase soon, but stresses that the lack of diversity in the sector should not pit men and women against each other.

“I think it’s more about our culture and doing something that’s a bit different from how we were all brought up,” she says. “So actually it’s about change more than about one gender against the other. We’re going through a transition.”

Impact of social media

An important way to shift the dial is to ensure people are aware of the lack of diversity in the industry, and social media has contributed greatly to spreading the message.

“I think social media has had a massive part to play because we can all see everyone else’s opinion all the time if we go looking for them, whereas before, how would you find them?” says Black.

Black says that her book, Saving Bletchley Park, both explains the history of the Bletchley Park site and how it fell into disrepair, and describes how Black used social media to raise awareness about the building, effectively saving it from demolition.

“I wrote the story of the whole campaign all the way through using traditional media and social media,” she says.

“It’s like a case study of the power of social media; it’s a book about technology; it’s new technology saves old technology.”

But social media can also be a danger to young people who are not properly trained in how to use it, and many millennials have jeopardised their career prospects by misbehaving on social platforms.

Black says industry and employers must “change the way they see” indiscretions on social media, because so many young people use sites from a young age without guidance and are bound to make mistakes.

“We all have lives and we all do things that maybe weren’t the best thing to do, but you don’t know anything when you are growing up,” she says.

Teaching digital skills

The UK is currently suffering from a skills gap, with employers struggling to find skilled staff to fill roles, and there is also a digital divide, with 12.6 million UK adults without basic digital skills.

Although younger people have a better understanding of how to use technology, they still have gaps in their knowledge, such as not always being aware how to stay safe online.

“It’s like growing up with anything,” says Black. “You’re going to be more familiar in a certain way, but that doesn’t mean you understand all the ramifications and everything about it.”

Black started up Techmums to teach tech skills to mothers who grew up without technology. She says the responsibility to learn and teach tech skills is down to all of us, but she hopes the government will do more to upskill adults in the future.

“Showing people what opportunities there are in technology, you can really change the way people see things and see themselves,” she says.

Black says one of the best pieces of advice she was ever given was from another startup founder – that not being afraid of failure is one of the keys to success in the tech industry, because a failure is a lesson that can be learnt from.

“If you’re not scared of things, you’ll just play with them, whereas if this stuff has come in during your lifetime and you don’t quite know what it is, you just think you don’t know what to do,” she says.

“But you can’t just learn how to do something right from the off – it just doesn’t make sense.”

The quota controversy

There is a lot of debate around quotas in the tech industry, and whether firms should have to take on a set number of people from diverse backgrounds each year.

Black says that realising how slow the current pace of change in the industry is made her realise that quotas may be the only way to speed up change.

“If we don’t have quotas, we can’t move things on and it is going to take 100 years to make a change,” she says. “But I don’t think we need quotas for ever.

“I think we need some kind of transition period where we decide, maybe for five years, that we have quotas in place to get enough women and diversity of all types, so we can get more diversity at higher levels.”

Read more about diversity in the IT industry

  • More diversity in DevOps teams could expand the total addressable market for the products and services they create, says Chef.
  • The winner of Computer Weekly’s most influential woman in UK IT award, Maggie Philbin, says the IT industry should focus on wider diversity as opposed to just gender equality.

Black believes that once this greater diversity is established, there will be no more need for quotas because the industry will begin to equalise itself.

“If we just carry on with the way things are, it’s going to take 50 or 100 years to make a difference,” she says. “That’s not me, that’s not my daughter, that’s not even my granddaughter – that’s ludicrous.”

There is concern that if quotas are enforced, firms will begin hiring women just to make up the numbers, but Black says there are plenty of women worthy of tech jobs who are already being overlooked, and quotas will give them a better opportunity to be considered for positions.

“There are lots of good women out there – they are just not able to get to the positions they need to get to,” she adds.

“There will be peaks and troughs, but then suddenly the planets will align.”

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