Category Archives: Interview

Why gender diversity isn’t enough in tech

Photo:Flickr/Michigantechcoe

Diversity in tech usually focuses on gender equality, but to be truly inclusive, the industry’s efforts can’t stop there. 

Lola Odelola, founder of the Black Girl.Tech community, talked to Project Ada about why looking at gender is not enough:

Race and gender are not separate. I am both black and a woman and there aren’t days where I can choose to be one over the other.

Intersectionality is the concept that different identity categories like race, gender, sexuality or class are interrelated, not layers that can be peeled away one by one and looked at separately.

Colorless diversity

Silicon Valley giants have been racing each other recently to lead diversity campaigns and release workforce diversity figures, but critics say tech diversity focuses on just one identity. Slack engineer Erica Baker coined the term “colorless diversity” in a Medium post, pointing out that the Grace Hopper conference for women in tech had no black women at all as headline speakers – but managed to make room for two white men.

Lola agrees it’s important to be more specific about diversity. When the conversation is largely about gender, she says, it “can only really go so far”.

“The conversation is led by people who don’t have to think about race. In that sense, they’re privileged and when you’re privileged, it’s very easy to miss the effects of your privilege on others,” she says.

Black Girl.Tech is a community looking to take that conversation further. Describing itself as “a space for black girls and women to explore and learn”, BGT is now nearing its second birthday. Lola, who taught herself to code after attending a bootcamp, started it to address what she discovered when she began looking for a job in tech:

I heard the word ‘diversity’ being used a lot, however black women were missing from the conversation and from the teams I was seeing.

Black women entering the tech industry face specific challenges, according to Lola. Finding a job is the first hurdle. She has also experienced microaggressions in the workplace, as well as getting treated differently from other employees.

Better hiring practices

“People’s implicit bias comes into play a lot,” she says.

“The difficulty is knowing if this is due to racial bias, gender bias, being a junior or all three.”

To combat this, Lola wants to see tech companies improving their hiring practices. Introducing practices like blind hiring has proved effective to improve diversity in tech. Lola adds that being intentional about diverse hiring is important, to avoid racist undertones about applicants with minority backgrounds lowering standards:

Many people say they ‘hire the best person for the job’, but that implies that by actively seeking out black women or people from other minorities the bar is somehow being lowered, which implies that those people are not as qualified or intelligent.

Suw Charman-Anderson: Why I founded Ada Lovelace Day

Suw Charman-Anderson (Photo: Paul Clarke)

Ada Lovelace Day on 11 October is a day to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM, and shine a light on inspiring role models in an industry long dominated by men. As the date approaches, we caught up with founder Suw Charman-Anderson to learn how it came about.

She tells Project Ada she founded the day in 2009, “fed up” of going to tech conferences and seeing few women on the speaker lists – or even none.

“I knew loads of women in the industry, but so few of them seemed to get conference speaking slots,” she said.

Suw, who was working in the tech industry at the time, recalls the women in tech community online discussing the issue, in blogs, social media and comment sections:

“People would name women who they thought should be on stage, but that never seemed to move the dial.”

“No one else had that imagination”

It was this frustration that gave birth to the idea of a specific day for raising awareness of female tech role models, spearheaded by computing pioneer (and this website’s namesake) Ada Lovelace.

The 19th century mathematician and STEM trailblazer seems like a natural choice as a role model. Often described as the world’s first ever computer programmer, Lovelace is best known for her work on Charles Babbage’s mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine and was the first person to realise the machine’s potential, far beyond number-crunching, to create music and art:

“She envisioned computer science as we now understand it, and saw how useful a computer would be to future mathematicians and scientists,” said Suw, adding:

No one else at that time, in the mid-1800s, had that kind of imagination or foresight.

Success stories “hugely important”

Ada Lovelace Day is all about celebrating those who inspire us. Suw says role models are “hugely important”, and she’s backed up on this by research showing that women actually need role models and success stories more than men do. 

The stories that we tell about other women inform the stories we tell ourselves about our own capabilities and futures.

In 2009, thousands took part in the first ever Ada Lovelace Day by blogging about a woman they admire. Seven years on, the day has grown into a fully fledged science cabaret evening: Ada Lovelace Day Live in London.

This year, speakers include design engineer Yewande Akinola, planetary physicist Dr Sheila Kanani, science writer Dr Kat Arney, developer Jenny Duckett, mathematician Dr Sara Santos, computational biologist Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani, and climate scientist Dr Anna Jones.

“Essential for girls to see”

“It’s an amazing opportunity to see the breadth of work that’s happening in the UK, something I think is often hidden away because the media are only interested in certainly types of STEM news stories,” said Suw.

The cabaret takes place in London, but Ada Lovelace Day events are being held worldwide. If you’re not close to one, Suw encourages women in STEM to celebrate simply by talking to their daughters, granddaughters or nieces:

It’s essential for girls to see that they have a future in STEM, and for women to see that they can progress in STEM careers all the way to the top.

 

(Featured photo: Paul Clarke)

Interview: How Hera Hussain helps women empower themselves through technology

Hera Hussain

Guest post written by Rebecca Sentance

By day, she’s the Communities and Partnerships Manager at OpenCorporates, ensuring that data is used for social good. By night, Hera Hussain helps women to empower themselves through technology with the organisation Chayn.

Chayn is a small, volunteer-driven organisation which mainly works with women, primarily in countries such as India and Pakistan, who are victims of domestic violence.

Its team are developing a number of technology-driven projects to help these women in different ways, whether through open-source how-to guides, informative websites or uplifting mental health campaigns. Hera, its founder, says:

“We use technology wherever we can to empower women.”

When Chayn was first founded in 2013, it was a “very lean start-up operation” with a budget of just £500, which was used to launch its website. All of its projects are open-source, collaborative and crowd-sourced from a global team of volunteers.

Why digital is powerful

Using the internet, it can reach and empower vulnerable women who may not leave the house very often, but will likely have a smartphone with internet access.

“That’s why digital is really powerful, because most women have access to a smartphone and internet.”

Not all of them, of course, but rather than try to tackle the complex issue of getting women online in the developing world, Hera and Chayn just make a difference where they can.

“You’ve got to pick your battles,” Hera states.

“So if the middle class has smartphones, then let’s go for that. It’s about targeting women you are able to help.”

Helping women escape abuse

Chayn’s resources on domestic violence aim to plug key gaps in the information available to women and give them simple, practical advice, such as how to save money if they want to leave home, or information on divorce laws in their country. So far it has helped 15 women from Pakistan to escape domestic abuse situations in some way.

The organisation has also recently started developing workshops which will teach women the basics of email, internet navigation and simple website-building.

Basic though it may seem, these are powerful technological skills which can open up a new world for women and give them marketable skills that they can adapt to their lifestyle, especially if they have children.

Empowerment pop-ups

“[Learning these skills] feels really empowering for them,” Hera says. “Getting them to set up their own website, even if it’s a WordPress site, is so empowering because many women grow up thinking they can’t do much; the fact that they can do something is life-changing for them.”

“It’s little things that add up to a big thing.”

Hera envisions these workshops taking the form of “empowerment pop-ups”, day-long workshops on key employment skills.

In the future, she also aspires to open an academy in which women who are leaving domestic violence situations learn how to build websites. “I think it’s a great profession for women,” she says.

“I think it’s great and I really want to see more women in tech.”

(Featured image: Open Corporates)

Interview: We Got Coders’ Dan Garland on getting women into tech

wgc class

Dan Garland is the founder of We Got Coders, a residential coding school that is offering scholarships to women who want to learn how to code.

Currently, only around 25 to 40 per cent of attendants at We Got Coders are women, something Dan wants to change. Women are often his most talented students.

We had a chat with him to see what he thought could be done to tackle the lack of women in tech.

Female role models in tech

Dan believes that more could be done to show the impact of women in the past on the tech industry today.

Women in the gaming industry

Dan points out that often the computer gaming industry can be one of the most intimidating for women to break into.

Making tech a more accessible place for women

Dan believes that solving problems like the work/life balance and maternity leave in tech would be a good start to helping women break into the industry.

He also echoes what we heard at the event A Web For Her, adding that the purpose of an app is very important for getting women involved in developing it.

What do you think can be done to make life easier for women in tech?

Geek Girl’s Josefine Hedlund on getting women on the stage

pa-ggm

Josefine Hedlund has never been afraid to experiment. As a little girl, whenever the TV broke down in the Hedlund family home, her dad would ask her to fix it, by poking and prodding at buttons to see what they might do, even though the “more natural” option might’ve been for her father to do it himself, as she says, laughing.

I’ve never been afraid of technology. I’ve always been happy to learn things.

The 31 year-old Swede founded Geek Girl Meetup in London in order to spread that confidence to other women. The organisation, originally founded in Sweden, holds regular networking events for women working in tech, and promotes female role models in the industry.

Getting women onto the stage

Geek Girls London chapter’s third anniversary is coming up, and Josefine has met with me to talk about the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Only 2 in 10 tech employees are women, an issue that hits close to heart for her, as a feminist working in the tech industry. For the past four years, she’s been at digital agency AnalogFolk, and is now a senior producer.

Sitting in the agency’s painfully cool open-plan offices, we’re surrounded by men. This is hardly a new situation for Josefine Hedlund, who says that she’s regularly the only woman in meetings.

A Geek Girl Meetup in September 2014.

A Geek Girl Meetup in September 2014. (Photo: Alessia D’Urso/ Flickr)

“I almost don’t want to say it, but I think it’s about confidence. Girls think they can’t do it,” she says.

Combating this lack of confidence is the driving force behind Geek Girl.

Thinking back to why Geek Girl was founded, she remembers going to tech conferences without a single female speaker.

“And we thought, ‘we know lots of great women in this industry. Where are they? Why aren’t they on the stage?’”

Starting at an early age

With Geek Girl, she encourages other women to get up on that stage. So does she happily get up and speak herself?

“I’m getting better. I don’t like to stand up and talk in front of people, but I force myself to do it. And it does get easier the more you do it.”

Josefine Hedlund Geek Girl by Sofia Villanueva

Josefine Hedlund (Photo: Sofia Villanueva for 1984 London)

A big part of tech’s diversity problem stems from women getting discouraged early on, she says, with young girls being made to take sewing rather than coding in school. Luckily for Josefine and her older sister, their parents were always encouraging.

“There was never anything strange about us being interested in technology, or sitting in front of the computer, playing Pacman or chatting on IRC,” she says.

“I think I’m quite confident as a person today. I’ve had a safe childhood, and was often in a leadership role, so I feel comfortable taking up space.”

Feminism “feels like a harsher word here”

Josefine has been living in London for almost five years. But she grew up in Sweden, where she says gender inequality is less of an issue.

“Everything is more divided in the UK than it is in Sweden. Even kids are divided, into girls’ and boys’ schools, and girls’ and boys’ sports.”

For Josefine, who likes to relax by playing football, this has caused some raised eyebrows amongst colleagues who were surprised she hadn’t grown up playing netball instead.

Calling herself a feminist feels different in the UK too, she says.

“It feels like a harsher word here. There still seems to be this vision of the ‘man-hating feminist’ cropping up.”

What makes a role model?

With Geek Girl, she certainly takes a more positive approach. It’s about promoting female role models. Josefine’s own role models are Heidi Harman, Geek Girl’s original founder, and Alice Bentinck, founder of several Silicon Roundabout start-ups.

And being a role model isn’t just about doing good.

“It’s also someone who’s good at talking about the mistakes they’ve made and the experience they’ve gained from making those mistakes.”

So has Josefine made any mistakes of her own? “Oh, tonnes!” she says, laughing.

It’s all about daring to experiment.

Tanya Cordrey: Progress for women in tech has stagnated

tanya_guardian

Tanya Cordrey, the Guardian‘s chief digital officer, is a leading figure in innovating the way we consume information online.

She’s in charge of engineering the Guardian’s digital product, using data analytics and testing labs to improve user experience.

One of the joys of working in digital media is that “you learn something almost every day,”  according to Cordrey. She emphasises the importance of “developing in the open,” with the launch of the Guardian‘s new website last Wednesday, stressing how essential it is to use tests to continually improve your product.

“Over the years I have become a complete evangelist around developing in the open – I’m a big believer that getting feedback and constantly learning from it is a really important process.”

tanya cordrey digital officer guardian observer

What’s the situation for women in tech?

Cordrey reflected on the “sad” reality that there are still many barriers for women looking to build a career in the technology industry.

“One can always think back on your career and there are probably several instances of things that have happened that I feel grieved about when I was treated a certain way because I was a woman.”

For example, when she had a child, her working hours shifted – coming in earlier in the morning, leaving at five to pick up her baby, and then working online after.

Colleagues had warned her that she was “putting my career on hold” while working fewer hours to look after her child. She said that leaving the office to pick up her daughter would be seen with disapproval:

There’s a kind of macho culture at the office of who can stay the latest

“What is more damaging and more pervasive is those constant everyday things: when you see women not getting invites to contribute as much; or women being described in different ways to men.

“If a man is described as ‘forthright’ or ‘decisive’, sometimes a woman can be described as ‘strident’ or ‘bossy’.

“It’s just that sort of underlying pervasiveness of it, not just in technology but in society overall.”

I’m not sure it’s got any better over the last few decades

On the working conditions for women in tech, she said that progress had stagnated. She described it as “sad”, adding: “I’m not sure it’s really got any better over the last few decades.”

Cordrey’s teenage daughter is coming up to the age where she starts looking for a job. “The truth is,” she said, “I’m not sure my daughter’s going to experience huge improvements being a woman entering society – because I’m not sure over the last twenty years, things have actually got that much better.”

When asked about why there are more male than female applicants for technological roles, Cordrey said that the “problem starts at a very young age”.

Her daughter has been to coding classes where, Cordrey thinks, she may have been the only girl.

There’s something going wrong at a very early age – where young girls are not being encouraged to do these activities

“There’s something going wrong at a very early age – where many young girls are not really drawn or being encouraged to do these activities. To help stop the problem we have to work when people are very young.”

guardian observer office kings place london

Photo: Bryantbob

So what can we do?

“I think that many people – both men and women – are doing a great job. They’re often humble and don’t think to stand up and be counted as a role model, but I would encourage all women who work in technology to take a deep breath and realise that they are role models.”

She would encourage them “to do what they can – put themselves forward to speak at conferences, put themselves forward to help organise events, put themselves forward to mentor younger women in the organisation or help with graduate recruitment programmes.”

I encourage all women who work in technology to take a deep breath and realise that they are role models

There are, of course, challenges with this – such as the “utterly depressing” abuse that women can get when they decide to be high profile on places such as Twitter.

She said it is also important to “give lots of support to the men you work with as well, because I know there are many men in the industry who are also despairing over the low numbers of women and are keen to address that.”

What does the future hold?

Looking forward to the future in digital media, Cordrey sees women playing a vital role.

It’s a “very exciting time” in the industry – with expansions in video, new forms of storytelling and user-focused innovations in design and interface.

Cordrey is confident that there will be greater equality for women in tech in the future. She is sure that women will be playing a “really important part” in tackling “all of these wonderful challenges ahead of us”.

How altruism can help to get more women in STEM

NigeriaGirlsRIGHT

Altruism can play a role in making science, technology, engineering and mathematics more accessible to women.

Anne-Marie Imafidon, assistant vice-president at Deutsche Bank and founder of Stemettes, an organization to inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM areas, points out that, besides creativity, it is key to show women they are able to solve problems by using technology.

Imafidon says women can be great problem-solvers when empowered by STEM knowledge.

To make her point, the executive mentions initiatives such as the group of four girls in Nigeria that created a machine to convert urine into electricity and the three Irish girls who developed a project to tackle the global food crisis.

Listen to the Stemettes’ founder talking about the topic:

When asked why the tech industry should be aware of the gender gap, she says that all industries would benefit from having a more diverse workforce.

“We have big problems. And no offense, while the guys are chasing billions by making apps, you have to have someone who is actually using the great technology that we have to solve the problems we have, whether they are hunger, illiteracy or infrastructure.”

Listen to her talking about gender equality here:

More from this article

If you would like to know about the examples Imafidon mentioned in her interview, here are the links:

Meet the 11-year-old inventor of the ‘unbreakable cup

This woman invented a way to run 30 lab tests on only one drop of blood

Featured image: Nigeria girls that created a machine to convert urine into electricity. Credit to Erik Hersman

What happens in a workplace with almost only men?

bros

What’s it like to have almost only male colleagues? As in the rest of the tech industry, there are very few female academics in computer science.

To find out what that does to a workplace, we spoke to Dr Simone Stumpf about her experiences. She told us the gender balance is certainly something she is ‘aware of’.

Dr Stumpf works at the computer science department at City University London. A scrape of the university website showed that only 7 of the 41 academics in that department were female. That’s 17%. The other 34, including the head of the department, are male.

“17% is actually relatively high”

This is lower even than several major tech companies, but nothing unusual for the world of STEM in academia.

“You could look at it the other way around, and look at the usual intake into computing,” argued Dr Stumpf.

“17% is actually relatively high, ironically, because the female intake among undergraduates who go on to a Ph D is actually quite appalling. Nationally, not just here,” she said.

The undergraduate intake into computer science hovers just over 17%, but declines further at a postgraduate level.

“Casually misogynistic” programming culture

When we asked about the work environment in the programming world outside academia, Dr Stumpf brought up the casually misogynistic ‘brogrammer culture’ which leaves women excluded.

The idea of programmers having to go into a darkened room and refuse to emerge for days on end is still prevalent, according to Dr Stumpf.

“And programming is something that you can’t just dip into and dip out when the muse kisses you. You have to dedicate some time to understanding the code, so you have to have a sustained effort,” she said, adding:

“But that doesn’t mean that you have to spend 24 hours living on beer and pizza.”

“Have to take the fear away”

Dr Stumpf was inspired to go into computer science early on, as she sat in her school computer lab programming in Basic back in the 80s, and says that it was the problem-solving that attracted her to it from the start.

“It was that sense that I could get things to work, figure out what to do about it, and then solve that problem using a computer program.”

She believes society is still dissuading women from choosing this field, and that we need to change our attitudes. When we asked her how this could change, she said that a lot of it is about ‘taking the fear away’.

(Photo of Dreamhack 2012 by Kelly Kline/Flickr.)

Tackling the gender gap in the tech industry starts at school

KIDS

The gender disparity in the tech industry starts earlier than people might think.

When looking to figures about the industry, it is not only that employers aren’t hiring women: girls are reluctant in choosing degrees in fields such as computer science and engineering.

The latest figures on women’s participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the UK show that only 13% of all STEM jobs in the UK are occupied by women, according to a study by the Wise Campaign.

“Technology is so much about innovation, about how you apply skills to make things better. And women’s creativity and mindset, which is focused on solving problems, are not being considered technology,” says Torie Chilcott, CEO and co-founder of Rockabox Studios.

Chilcott believes that to get more women to the STEM areas it is necessary to emphasize the creative aspect of these areas.

“Creativity is not being taught at schools as an skill and the STEM areas are not being presented in an appealing way.

“It is necessary to stop the vertical subjects and start focusing on problem solving,” she says.

Watch Chilcott, winner of the “Woman of the Year” at the everywoman in Technology Awards 2014, talking about gender gap in the tech industry.

Photo credit: Nasa.

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