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We need more female role models in tech – and we need them now

To mark Digital Leaders week, we reflect on the role of female leaders in tech and what we’re doing to offer girls and young women inspirational role models. Sue Lees, Chief Executive of Elevate East London – a partnership between Agilisys and the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham – and Chair of the Agilisys Women’s Empowerment Group, shares her thoughts.

Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the progress women have made in the last 100 years.  Securing the vote all that time ago was just the start of a journey, and since then we’ve seen the introduction of the equality act, access to free contraception, statutory maternity leave…surely the millennial generation have nothing to worry about?

The question is, how far have we really come in terms of equal opportunities and access for today’s generation of females?

In the technology industry, the statistics aren’t great. Women are significantly under-represented, and this seems to start even when young women are at school. Despite huge efforts with refocusing the national curriculum, girls and young women for whatever reason just aren’t excited by a career in IT.  In fact, it fares the worst out of all the STEM subjects, which are generally notorious for historic gender bias. This means that the world of technology is failing to attract the talent it needs and is missing out in the process. And that creates a real problem. But what’s the reason?

Whilst there are a lot of successful women to celebrate, we can’t help but feel the technology industry continues to be a stronghold for men, with what appears to be few senior roles available for women. So, what can we do? How can we attract young women from a rich mix of backgrounds into this career space? 

I run an IT department, consisting of 45 employees, of whom about five are women. These women carry out very technical roles and are highly regarded but they are the exceptions. To try and address this, on International Women’s Day this year we ran a work shadowing day for young women from local schools, pairing them with females in technical roles. They were sixth form students and already beginning to plan their next steps career wise. The feedback we got was interesting.  A sample of 12 isn’t representative, but it gave us food for thought none the less.

We heard that young women are not being encouraged into technical roles. Maths still seems to be ‘geeky’ and IT even more so – and you don’t want to be viewed as a geek, at the age when you are just discovering yourself as a woman. What’s more, we heard that these aspirational young women were being directed towards what were viewed as more ‘caring and compassionate’ careers, rather than hard edged technical roles. There’s clearly more work to be done to address stereotypes when it comes to jobs deemed suitable for females.

Our big conclusion was that we need to get women in tech more visible to overcome this perception. We need more leaders, more role models. Yes, we have people like Sheryl Sandberg and Martha Lane-Fox.  But we need to put ourselves out there too. We need to provide relatable role models to young women, and at a much younger age than sixth form, so that we can open their eyes to the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead of them before they narrow down their choices (or have had them narrowed down for them).

We’re starting small but hoping to make a big difference; we are going to offer work shadowing every year and will double the number who can participate. We are going to attend schools and career events for Year 8s and 9s to reach them early. We are going to be roles models and sing the praises of the geek – male or female – every day.

We want to see more women taking leading roles in tech, who can be inspiring role models for generations to come and challenge the status quo. My ask of you, as a representative of the tech industry, is this: let’s start by giving those women the chance in the first place. We all have a responsibility.