Earlier this week I participated in a panel to discuss the perennial question of ‘why aren’t more women involved in tech and what can we do about it’. It’s always a treacherous discussion to get involved in and if you think you know how it would have played out, you’re probably right, except you probably wouldn’t have expected Milo to have been quite as … let’s go with ‘provocative’ as he was.
It is very difficult to engage with this subject area without offending people, people people feel excluded or defensive – the sad thing is that I don’t think anyone who tries to start these conversations intends to do any of these things (and many thanks to Mike Butcher for finding a place for this discussion in the GeeknRolla program).
What we want is something practical we can do about it.
There was on this panel, and elsewhere, a lot of talk about improving the ‘image’ of tech so that is is more appealing to women and infiltrating the education system, reaching women whilst they are still young girls and showing that tech can be a cool, sexy, creative and rewarding career. I think this is probably the best longterm strategy we can put in place and I’d love to help get involved in making this happen (ping me if you’ve got something going on already or need help getting something off the ground).
I also think there are a lot of women who ARE women in tech, but who define themselves as marketing people, or managers, or PR people or designers, or researchers who just happen to only ever work in the tech sector. I’m not sure if there is something we need to *do* about this, although I’m starting a personal (informal) research project to better understand why these women exclude themselves from the ‘women in tech’ label. Perhaps it’s the information architect in me, but I have a feeling that a lot of this is taxonomy / labeling related.
All of these are long term and somewhat philosophical. What can we do NOW?
I have TWO suggestions for what you can do RIGHT NOW that I think will start to make an immediate difference.
1. That woman you know who works in tech, who is really smart and talented and should be doing more. Give her a nudge and say ‘you could do that’, ‘you should do that’. Be directly encouraging.
I know we shouldn’t have to do this, but in my experience we do. Many of the smartest women I know do need a little encouragement to be a little bolder in the way that they present their work, whether that’s just writing a blog, getting up and speaking at a conference, or starting their own business. Having someone pick you out and say – yes, sure, you can do it, you should do it, just a tiny bit of encouragement and confidence building can be the spark that sets people on their path.
You may think it is obvious that your woman-friend/colleague has everything it takes to be ridiculously successful, but all too often the response you’ll get would be ‘do you think so? you really think I could do that?’
I don’t know why and for the moment I don’t really care why. Let’s just start giving individual people who we *know* have what it takes a nudge, a little confidence boost and see what happens.
2. Write & speak about women in tech, and do it respectfully and supportively
Aside from cold hard cash there are two other incredibly important currencies when it comes to professional success – respect and visibility. The way you choose to write and speak about women can make a big difference with regards to their access to both respect and visibility.
Let’s take a case study. Here’s an article that impromptu panel participant and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos wrote for the Telegraph covering the panel discussion and his thoughts on it. Let’s ignore his pretty woeful argument that there is no place for this discussion at these conferences and the way that he referred to women as ‘girls’ throughout the piece. Notice the difference in the way he treated contributions to the discussion from Sophie Cox and myself compared to those of Joshua March and Paul Walsh. Sophie and I get first name treatment only and no links (despite both being very easily Googled), Joshua and Paul get full names and at least one link (Paul gets two!).
On the surface, this may appear accidental, lazy, coincidental, but that fact is that even if Milo disagreed with the points that Sophie and I were making in the way he has presented us in this article we are utterly unimportant, except that we provide the foil for his argument. Joshua and Paul on the other hand are obviously important voices because of the way they are treated.
If you *really* want women in tech to be confident and successful in tech, then treat then a really great way to start is to give them respect and visibility and if as a part of your trade you happen to be writing then:
write about them
use their full names (and try to spell them correctly, ahem Guardian)
link to them
Sometimes it’s the little things that really make a big difference.
My name is Leisa Reichelt. I am the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
I lead a team of great researchers who work in agile, multidisciplinary digital teams to help continuously connect the people who design products with the people who will use them and support experimentation and ongoing learning in product design.
If you're interested in working with me or would like to talk more please email me