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Why the technology industry needs more women

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23rd Oct 2013
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Michelle Perkins thinks young women need to be encouraged to be more than just consumers of technology and play a more active role in ITS creation and development.

My 14-year-old niece sent me a WhatsApp message the other day saying “have you got Instagram?” I might work for a global IT company but my social networking skills pale in comparison to hers. Yet, she’s not considering a career in IT – she wants something more creative and inspiring. What could be more inspiring or creative than creating the next Facebook? Not to mention rewarding – in more ways than one.

Microsoft – a giant in our industry – has one of the best known brand names. Yet in the In the week that Steve Ballmer hit the headlines buying Nokia, a schoolgirl blogger for Computer Weekly described technologists as "...40-year-olds who work in a basement, can’t get a girlfriend and collect strange objects." I doubt it's an image he’d relish.

Martha Lane Fox was recently quoted saying that it would be an 'abomination' if young women didn’t start taking up the opportunities that an IT career can offer – she claimed (quite reasonably) that only 7% of young people entering the workforce with IT/computer science qualifications were young ladies. From downloading movies to uploading images and updating everyone on your day at school to finding your way around central London, technology is everywhere. Young ladies are real consumers of technology, yet they are not entering the industry in the numbers we should expect them to want to.

So, they’re consumers, not shapers, of technology direction. I think we should all be very worried about that. Of course, we can wheel out the very true arguments about the industry missing out on talent (which we are). The real truth is perhaps even more unpalatable; young ladies are going to be at a real disadvantage in the years to come if they don’t play an active role in the creation, development and generation of technologies. They will miss out to young men, and as a mother of a daughter I don’t think this is good enough. 

"Getting girls excited about technology isn’t just a job for schools; it’s a responsibility for all of us."

So, if we’re going to look to fix this where do we start? The 40-year-old male in the basement image is quite honestly ridiculous – we need to challenge that by showing that IT is about solving problems and creating new opportunities. You want to save the planet from global warming? You want to create a new product that all your friends want? Sign up now.

The way that technology has changed society since today’s 16-year-olds were born, has nothing on the changes that will come in the next 20 years. I predict that it won’t be long before Facebook is something that 'parents do', as tomorrow’s teens find something far better. But will it be a boy running it or one of our young ladies?

If we don’t encourage girls to do more than just consume technology we’re condemning them to a career on the sidelines, a lifetime asking others (probably the annoying boy in their class) to develop their app or set their new phone up. I want my daughter to have the very best opportunities, so she needs the best skills. I see too many young ladies who will choose not to take IT/Computing as a subject based on their common preconceptions. I’d like to see more IT professionals get involved in schools, starting from the bottom up by working with girls from a young age to ensure they have the knowledge and skills necessary to make the right career decisions.

The technology industry is growing faster than nearly all other industries today. Skills in IT are becoming just as important as skills in English, maths and science in defining a young person’s career potential. If young people invest in technical skills, soon they won’t just be consuming it, they will be defining it, creating it and sharing it with people all around the world. That’s why it’s crucial that schools and technology companies work together to reach out to girls. We need to share our enthusiasm and show them all the wonderful opportunities that are available working in the sector. Getting girls excited about technology isn’t just a job for schools; it’s a responsibility for all of us.

We need more IT companies involved – especially some of the smaller ones. Even if your company doesn’t have a corporate programme, there’s no reason why you can’t get involved.  These are my top tips to help you get started:

  • Each school is different – tailor your outreach activities according to their individual needs. Build personal relationships with teaching staff – by fostering a positive relationship with the Head of Year, for example, you are more likely to deliver a package that they want and be invited back again.
  • Create and deliver content which will be truly inspiring to young people – students will switch off if you spend an hour reading from a PowerPoint slide. Be creative in the way you deliver your story to inspire the next generation of IT professionals.
  • Use your employees as role models – bring them along to workshops and showcase their knowledge and expertise of the industry to inspire the students.
  • Use the experience to build on your presentation skills – if you can engage a group of 16-year-olds for an hour, you can use these skills to create a similar impression on clients.
  • Follow-up with the schools to evaluate your success – ask for their thoughts on the workshop; did the students enjoy it? Learn from your mistakes and build on your strengths to ensure you and your organisation stand out amongst the rest.

Michelle Perkins is director of the Schools Outreach Programme at Capgemini UK

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