Opinion

Women in Technology: Learning the rules of a boys' game

Maria Ingold, CTO of FilmFlex movies

Maria Ingold, is the chief technology officer (CTO) and head of technology at FilmFlex Movies 

I was born and raised in New Mexico in the United States, near where they drop-tested the atom bomb. That desert was a Mecca for scientists and artists alike. 

My father, a physicist, raised me to be curious, to question everything and to think. He’s passionate about science (and poetry and drawing feet). Not once did he hold back because I was female – he just shared what he loved. That created an amazing foundation to build upon.

In the 36 years since my father first showed me (in the basement of a military institution) how to write a computer program, I’ve seen a lot about technology and the culture that surrounds it. 

What seems clear to me is that there are three challenges for getting women into technology. One – generate enough interest in technology to learn about it. Two – enter into the work environment. And three – stay and advance in it through to CTO/CIO at board level. 

Generating interest

Women are easily as smart and determined and capable of picking up the skills as men – regardless of whether the technology is hardware- or software-based. So, it's not about ability. The limiting factors seem to depend a bit on what country you're in, parental and cultural support and how you think your peers will react. 

Back in 1986, when I studied Computer Science (with a minor in Fine Art) in the USA, there were about 40% women on the course. But when I came over to the UK in 1988 on exchange, the number of women studying computing was around 5%. That really surprised me. It struck me that the rigid curriculum in the UK of a science-based major only being paired with a science-based minor (or something "light" like Psychology) was limiting potential applicants to a very strongly left-brained oriented set. I never would have studied Computer Science if I couldn't also study Art, and that wasn't happening in the UK at that time.

I only started seeing a shift in the UK in the late 1990's when web development began to take off. Women (and men) who'd studied other, potentially "softer" subjects found web development a less onerous route into science. They could build their skills gradually, discovering their talent for logic, pattern matching and drilling down into detail. And it's great to see something happening on screen – visual feedback can be a great teacher.

But that still leaves fear to overcome. Fear of what other people will think – what if people think I'm trying to be better than them? Fear of not being good at it – no-one's expecting that much from me any way, why don't I just go for an easy life? Fear of being good at it – will this scare my boyfriend away if he thinks I'm smarter than him? And that fear can only be banished by the self-confidence and self-esteem that comes from within, not from what other people think. So, as a very good male friend in IT once said to me when I was a bit nervous about building a network from scratch: “Just get on with it girl!” And I did.

Entering the work force

There’s a lot of exciting and cool work in technology. I helped develop the early days of multimedia on a PC, I worked on a steam-punk shoot-em-up game set on Mars, I used games technology to create visuals for nightclubs and band tours and now I work in on-demand film delivery.

So, what does a woman bring that’s special to the play? I’ve seen three things – not exclusive to women but often more prevalent. Intuition, thoroughness and empathy. 

So, what does a woman bring that’s special to the play? I’ve seen three things – not exclusive to women but often more prevalent. Intuition, thoroughness and empathy.

Maria Ingold 

 

Intuition is another word for pattern-matching. It’s the ability to process a large amount of information at an unconscious level and make sense of it. Something highly useful in complex technical projects. 

Women in technology are also typically very thorough, as they often have to be at least as good, if not better, than their male colleagues in order to earn respect. 

Empathy is an interesting one. It helps with sharing, cooperation, management and leadership skills and understanding the end customer and client relationships.

If you’re passionate about technology, just do it. You can. There is no failure, only feedback, and that feedback will only make you stronger and better.

Stay in the industry and advance

I speak at a lot of conferences. I like helping people understand something I’m an expert in and teaching them how to think about it, rather than giving them the answers. I talk to a lot of people after my sessions. Amazingly, the most common thing I hear (maybe about once a week) is, “I’ve never met a female CTO”. That still makes me smile. And laugh. But it’s certainly time to do something about it.

So, why? Well, it’s a pretty small funnel to begin with. Interest. Enter. And then stay. And hopefully, advance. 

Staying on its own takes some strength of character. Technology is still predominantly a boys’ game. It doesn’t mean women can’t play though. It does mean that in addition to being good at the technology, a woman also has to learn the rules of the game. 

I’ve had some surreal journeys along the way. Meetings at strip bars. Men who will only talk to the man next to me and wait for the man next to me to repeat my answer. Men who go after my job and a heck of a lot of “propositions”.

Technology is still predominantly a boys’ game. It doesn’t mean women can’t play though.

Maria Ingold 

 

Luckily, it’s not like that all the time or at all places or even by the majority of men. Just be aware that it does happen. And, like an episode of Mad Men, it is fading into “the strange way people used to behave”.

What is the game? Well, I was chatting to a CEO on International Women’s Day about the increasing percentage of women on boards. He said something interesting – he was for it, he said, because not all women had the opportunity to be raised like Elisabeth Murdoch. What he meant was that Elisabeth knew, by the environment she was raised in, how to play the game. She knows how to talk to men and to women, how to articulate her points and when to use the gentle art of verbal self-defence. That’s the skill we need to teach women to allow them to play on equal footing.

But even if women have access to all the same equipment, the rule-book, and they’re on the pitch, then why are they not all advancing? Well, there are some practical reasons – they may want to have children and be at home to raise them. It then may be difficult to get back into work. Technology moves quickly, self-confidence is affected. That’s true for both sexes. But the biggest key around advancement (beyond skill) that we can improve is communication – both communication to the woman in a role and the communication from her – so that it’s clear that everyone is on the same team and is contributing to and moving towards the same goal.

There’s a lot to learn for a woman beyond just technology. And there’s a lot to balance, especially culturally, as a woman – work, family, self. But is it worth it for me? Is it worth the last 36 years since I saw my father write a loop in Fortran that said “I love you” 20 times? All this to be a CTO on the leading edge of creative technology? Absolutely. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

To find out more about Maria Ingold visit www.mireality.co.uk

Why not take our Mortimer Spinks/Computer Weekly Women in Technology SnapSurvey

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This was first published in March 2012

 

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