Do women make better geeks than the men?

Despite some notable exceptions, women are under-represented in the technology sector but, as Stephen Armstrong discovers, there are moves to redress the imbalance


If you flick through the business pages you’d be forgiven for thinking the new digital era was in the hands of geeky guys and powerful women.

Marissa Mayer, chief executive and president of Yahoo, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, Joanna Shields, chief executive and chairwoman of the UK’s Tech City Initiative, or Olivia Garfield, chief executive of BT’s superfast broadband division Openreach, are each running huge tech budgets and steering major global corporations or powerful government initiatives. Given that women buy 40 per cent of all technology products and play 55 per cent of casual games, this is good news, no? For one of the industries of the future with such a deep appeal to the female consumer, this makes sense for UK plc. And yet, this appearance is deceptive.

“Technology as a sector was 30 per cent female ten years ago; today that statistic stands at just 17 per cent,” says Martha Lane Fox, founder of lastminute.com, the government’s UK Digital Champion and chairman of Go ON UK. “We need to make solving these shocking numbers an urgent priority. It’s crucially important that we continue to celebrate women who are working in tech, and to encourage girls from a young age to see the technology industry as a fascinating and miraculous place to work.”

Diversity is important in any industry, but is especially relevant when it comes to technology

Right now, there’s no obvious sign that this situation is improving. Gender imbalance is prevalent across IT-related courses and this is worsening over time throughout the education system. Some 15 per cent of acceptances to computing degree courses are female and the proportion of females taking computing A-level remains low at 9 per cent. Does this matter? It should, argues Belinda Parmer, founder of Lady Geek and the force behind schoolgirls’ education programme Little Miss Geek. She points out that the gender divide is less pronounced even in Eastern Europe.

“Tech companies with more women on their management teams have a 34 per cent higher return on investment,” she points out. “Diversity is important in any industry, but is especially relevant when it comes to technology. People have never emailed, liked, commented, called, messaged and tweeted more than we are doing right now – and half of all those people are women.

“It’s not that women are better or more effective than men, they just provide a different point of view, something that is vital when bringing a new product to market. Right now, the ‘pink-it shrink-it’ policy still seems to rule at tech companies: take last year’s product, re-release it at a slightly lower-price point, slightly smaller and clad in pink plastic.”

Why are women absent from this world – and absenting themselves still further? Maggie Berry, founder of Women in Technology, argues it’s partly because of the old stereotype image of pizza-guzzling IT boys with few social skills and even fewer personal hygiene habits still pervades.

“Going to consumer shows, like CES at the start of this year, you see near-topless girls on stands posing with a product – this really shouldn’t be happening,” she says. “That’s not making women see this as a female-friendly working environment.” Recent online controversies, including Twitter spats between executives and junior female coders over companies using half-naked models to promote products, haven’t helped.

“There’s a stigma attached to the tech world that isn’t a fair reflection of what a huge and imaginative industry it is,” she says. “Tech includes anything from laying fibre-optic cable to product design to digital story-telling. In fact, we find that, when we talk to women about technology, they switch off – when we talk about digital, they understand how creative they can be.”

Maggie adds that women’s lives are dominated by technology. “Women are happy using PowerPoint,” she says. “What we need is for them to create the new PowerPoint.” In an unscientific straw poll, two girls in the Little Miss Geek age group – Rosa, aged 11 and at secondary school, and Tess, aged nine – proved Belinda and Maggie’s point. Although both have made home movies on camera phones, written stories using PowerPoint slides, played online games every day and studied ICT at school, both say they have no intention of joining the IT industry.

“It doesn’t seem very creative,” Rosa explains, adding she expected the industry to be entirely male. “It’s just staring at screens all day long. Boys don’t mind that, they play computer games all the time. Girls like to get out and about, and they aren’t satisfied with square-block jobs.”

Tess thinks otherwise: “It depends what kind of a person you are,” she says. “I could see boys and girls working in ICT. Just not me, unless I didn’t get to do what I really want – a writer or a chef.”

Diana Verde Nieto, founder and chief executive of Positive Luxury, an online trustmark that rewards global brands for their ethical behaviour, thinks there’s really an image problem at work here. She came to the digital world from the more female-friendly environment of communications. Diana built and sold Clownfish, an international consultancy, and initially worried that tech nerds would make her new company a dull list of coding slang words broken up only by sexist jokes.

“In fact, that’s not true at all,” she says. “There are some elements of the stereotype that are true about coders – they are precise and logical, often, and they do like Star Wars. What that means, though, is that your requests work best when presented to them in a rational way. That becomes a good discipline for testing your ideas – if you can’t make it clear to the coding team then maybe the idea has more fundamental flaws.” Olivia Garfield agrees. A linguistics graduate who specialised in 15th-century French literature, she came to BT via consulting firm Accenture. Women have an advantage in tech companies because analytical and creative thinking is valued and that’s something women are good at, she believes. “As a senior woman you have to get on with just doing your job. If you’re in a meeting with only men, then you need to ignore that; otherwise, you risk it becoming an issue.”

WIRED columnist Caroline Drucker argues women can sometimes sabotage themselves in the workplace, not least by accepting the industry’s accepted term: girls. She says: “Girls are pretty, girls are bubbly, but most importantly girls aren’t threatening. Research shows that women often sabotage themselves in the workplace by starting sentences with ‘I may not be an expert…’ In the same way, referring to yourself as a girl makes you approachable, but does it say you’re here to do business?”

All the women interviewed wished there were more female role models in the industry, not just at board level, but at all levels. “This is something that requires education, but it’s something the industry needs to address itself,” says Belinda Parmer.

There are some encouraging initiatives underway. Social networking site Stardoll, which has millions of young, girl members who dress up and share digital dolls, plans to introduce a coding option. The corner of online pages can be lifted to reveal the site’s code underneath. Any changes to the code are then reflected on the dolls picture.

Meanwhile International Women’s Day sees Little Miss Geek take over two London primary schools to run hackathons for under-11s. These events can have a positive result. The Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology, known as eSkills, runs school clubs for ten to fourteen year olds, intended to bring the IT sector to life using fashion, music, celebrity and design. Some 84 per cent of the girls who take part say they’re more likely to consider further education or a career in technology. There are some encouraging stats from the sector. The gender pay gap is less pronounced than that within the workforce as a whole and job satisfaction is high. “It’s like an ocean swim,” Diana Verde Nieto explains. “Once you’re in, you can’t understand why everyone else isn’t joining you. I think the industry itself will provide the answer and I think you’ll be surprised by the positive changes over the next five years.” Come on in, in other words, the water’s lovely.