Every Woman in Technology Awards: Inspiration of the year finalist

This is a guest blog from Sheryl Newman, who is the operations director at Appetite for Learning

Sheryl Newman.jpgI was lucky enough to be selected as a finalist in the 2012 everywoman in Technology awards which celebrates successful women in the technology industry.  No one was more surprised than me to find myself not only in the running for ‘Inspiration of the Year’ category but also to be working within this industry.  

I am such a strong advocate of encouraging women to strive in this field, so you would therefore think my career began with IT firmly on the map. I did not grow up obsessed by computers or with dreams of becoming the next female Steve Jobs (who in later years actually became one of my tech hero’s and inspirations). I literally had no idea what I wanted to be.  But what I do remember is that I wanted to do something with people. If asked today, I would describe myself as both an accidental technologist and an accidental entrepreneur.

Where are we losing them?

The ICT industry in Scotland is growing faster than any other sector, with 40,000 new professionals needed in the next five years.  However school pupils and university students, in particular girls are failing to sit up and take note of the choice and rewards working within the technology field offers. This led me to question: At what point are we losing girls from considering entering into this rewarding, fast moving and highly engaging sector?  A white paper sponsored by Cisco on why girls are still not attracted to ICT studies, and careers, made for some interesting reading and offered some quite depressing statistics.

Analysis of the data shows that at age 15, both sexes have the same preferences and abilities but as they progress towards adulthood girls generally drop out of SET studies to pursue other subject choices.  90% of girls responded that they would be interested in jobs that helped others and improved the world but did not believe that ICT roles could help them to achieve this.  In three out of the five countries surveyed the majority of girls intended to study a foreign language, as it offered opportunities to travel the world.  Just over 60% of girls and less than half their parents and teachers saw ICT as a viable role which offered this. 

More than 50% cite female relatives and teachers as having the greatest influence in selecting study and career options. Worryingly these role models see the sector as more appropriate for men.

I’m a language graduate but my love affair with technology began whilst working on an R&D project to investigate IT technology and how people could use it to work to their advantage.  I had the opportunity to work and help people from every corner of the globe, I was able to travel and I got to play with leading edge technology every day. It was thrilling and motivating and still excites me to this day. But it seems I too have fallen into this female stereotype.

The glamour of ICT

Our organisation was invited to attend a schools careers day and I was optimistic that social media like Facebook, Twitter as well as smartphones and the multitude of applications would be the catalyst for changing the ratio in the technical fields.  It appeared however, that despite experiencing this technology on a daily basis the girls who attended could not correlate this media as being aligned to the ICT world. They spoke about pursing roles which they deemed as  ‘creative’ ‘exciting’, ‘glamorous’ – PR still remains the number one choice. 

Following on from this careers day I surveyed the 15 girls in the Information Technology Class that my 14 year old niece attends to understand what technical learning skills were on offer. Frankly I was bored when I heard spreadsheets, databases, and internet safety mentioned as the top three.  No wonder the findings also demonstrated that most of the girls who took ICT during secondary education, and who were competent users, did not choose to continue on with it into further education.

An Anita Borg Institute Report “Addressing Core Equity Issues in K-12 Computer Science Education: Identifying barriers and sharing strategies” suggests that in many instances both teachers and parents are poorly educated about what a career in ICT really entails.  ICT needs to reflect the realities of the outside world and teachers need more support to provide guidance on and showcase the breadth of roles that are available within our industry. We are a long way from the social inept nerds coding in the background however, this perception still seems to exist and we need to do a better job of communicating what we actually do. One thing is clear the parents and guidance teachers are the catalyst from which the change will stem. If they remain misinformed or unaware of the choices available for both girls and boys, they are unlikely to encourage the children to pursue them.

There is growing concern about the incoming pipeline of technical talent, especially when it comes to diversity. But there are ways we can start to slowly change the situation.

IT is creative

Those of us who are lucky to work in this industry (I stress the world lucky because I truly believe I am) know that it can be one of the most creative places to work and at a time when technology skills are becoming more and more vital to our economy, we should be introducing our young women to exciting leading edge skills like multimedia, gaming, and graphic design. This should be done through establishing a more creative use of ICT in schools and helping girls explore IT in a less formal situation, with IT female experts to support them.  Plus increased and regular exposure to industry initiatives, such as shadowing, clubs etc. Offer better support to teachers and career advisors so they can provide a more informed balanced view of IT career options, and access for these advisors to our industry.  If we can harness the enthusiasm so clearly demonstrated at an early age, this can make all the difference. Only then will we start to see a much needed influx of bright young women in the industry.

The number one most important thing we can do to increase the number of women in technology is to show how diverse the different roles are within this industry. Help them to identify with the breath of these roles and say yes this is something I can and want to be involved with.  The awareness and realisation that their inherent strong technical skills, collaboration and communication skills, persistence, humility, tolerance, nurturing skills, negotiation, willingness to learn and ability to multitask are more suited to this industry than any other.

More role models needed

We also need to provide strong, visible UK role models.   Throughout my career I’ve benefited in countless ways from the advice and support of female colleagues and mentors. Let’s showcase the bright spots of our economy who are currently working in achievable positions and are accessible to the common man or women! The everywoman awards are leading the way and play an invaluable role by showcasing these role models, recognising success and inspiring other women to venture into this field of business.

That’s the beauty of working in the ICT industry, there is real choice. There is power in choice and many ways of contributing, experiencing success and “helping people.”  Let’s make 2012 the year we work towards change.  We have all the tools to help ourselves and to help each other. The one thing we can do to grow the economy is to encourage these young women into the technology field.   In doing so, we also realise this valuable untapped talent into our industry and allow them to release their “inner geek”. I for one will be supporting and cheering them on all the way.

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