UK: The Curve For Women's Participation In IT

Last Updated: 20 October 2015
Article by Saray Cruz

October 13 marks Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Ada Lovelace has been credited with being the first computer programmer as her notes (written in 1842!) on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine, contained what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine.

From her pioneering work, fast forward a century and a half and information technologies (IT) touch almost every aspect of our lives. From how we interact with close friends and collaborate with strangers from across the globe, to how we do our shopping; from how we perform our jobs to how businesses attract customers and how governments interact with their citizens.

Moore's Law and the acceleration of IT

The year 2015 also sees the celebration of the 50 year anniversary of Gordon Moore's publication of his famous paper predicting the yearly doubling of transistors on a computer chip (leading to increasing processing speed and cost reduction). He was correct in his theory and the famous Moore's Law of exponential growth alone can explain much of the acceleration we're seeing in technology innovation the last few years. It is often the case with technology that the public suddenly wake up one day to a new reality, whereas industry insiders had predicted the same innovative developments decades earlier. Self-driving cars, IBM Watson's ability to process natural language or the latest developments in Robotics are a few good examples.

Source:Computer Business Research

But the same fast paced IT industry which is conquering ever increasing shares of traditional industries by doing things better, faster and more creatively seems to be painfully slow on tackling one of its key challenges. The legacy of Ada Lovelace as the first programmer has, so far, not materialised in a gender balanced industry, with IT suffering from one of the lowest levels of female participation. Gartner's data for example shows that women occupy only 11.2% of technology leadership roles in Europe. This is despite the wide range of jobs available and the opportunity that IT offers to work on some of the most innovative solutions to today's challenges.

Are we experiencing our very own Moore's law for women's participation in IT?

Although the numbers are not encouraging, I can't help but feel a turning tide and momentum for change in the industry over the last few years. I wonder whether IT has been seen as a bit of a "specialist subject" associated to "geeks", with visible examples of women doing incredibly exciting and cutting edge work very few and far between; and I wonder whether this is now changing.

The percentage of women in technology has been historically very low and, although increases in these percentages have probably been constant, they have not been sufficient to have a visible impact in attracting a new generation of women pursuing careers in technology. The environment was also, until relatively recently, not particularly encouraging of women in business. Dame Stephanie Shirley explains in her TED talk how she had to go by the name Steve when she started her programming business in the 1960s.

As time moves on and with a more egalitarian business environment, the continuous increase in the number of women who pursue a career in technology starts to create a multiplying effect. These women are often unaware of the fact that by merely doing their jobs – being anything from a programmer to the CEO of a well-known technology company – they become role models for future talent.

Two inspirational role models: Dame Stephanie Shirley and Shilpa Shah, Leader of the Deloitte Women in Technology Network

When I decided to study a degree in business, a career in IT was simply not an option I even considered. As a teenage girl, I guess Steve Jobs or Bill Gates might not have been the right source of inspiration for me; perhaps knowing about the work of Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In and COO of Facebook or Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, founder of and the UK's Internet Champion, would have made me realise earlier on that technology was a great option for me too.

A promising future for women in technology.

So the next natural question is: if we are indeed on an accelerating curve, where are we on the curve and how much do we need to push in order to increase the pace of change?

Things are changing, but given the low base we can't sit back and relax yet. This is why at Deloitte we have the Women in Technology network as part of our overall women's agenda in recognition of the need for a technology-focused effort in order to recruit and retain female talent in this industry. We also have a Women in Leadership programme to support women as they progress into leadership roles. Elsewhere in the UK, there are a number of initiatives and networks – Women 2.0, Stemettes and GeekGirlMeetup to name but a few – that are making great strides to support women's inclusion and showcase the exciting opportunities available to people from all walks of life in technology.

Drawing inspiration from Ada as the pioneer of women in IT, I certainly will continue to be someone "pushing the curve" and watching this space, as when the day comes where we achieve gender balance in the industry, I will feel like those technology industry insiders, smiling and thinking, "I told you it was coming".

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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