It’s International Women’s Day and my thoughts today return to a perennial problem in the software industry, there just aren’t enough women working in it. This affects many of the STEM industries to one extent or another, but in my experience the software industry has a particularly poor gender imbalance. It’s not that we discriminate. There just aren’t many women attracted to a career in software development.
At Black Pepper we’ve been struggling with this almost since day one, and I ask myself whether the lack of women software engineers is because women find our industry an unwelcoming environment to work in or is there something else that stops women even considering it for a career?
Yes, the software industry, being highly male dominated, hasn't historically had a culture that is inclusive; it’s been unconscious and not deliberate like any group that is heavily dominated by one type of person. We've made great strides forwards over the years, and there is always more we can do, but that’s not the focus of this article. The more serious issue is that for many women, a career in software is not even considered as an option.
At Black Pepper, we work with a number of local schools to provide work experience for teenagers, giving them a taste of what it's like in a professional software company. It is a very rewarding activity, working with a young person to show them all the possibilities. However, even at this age there are hardly any girls who are interested in software development. It seems that it is already too late.
Society has already conditioned our young people about what careers are appropriate choices for each gender. The stereotype is already set in their subconscious mind that software is for boys. This is a great shame and it is just not true.
Some of the greatest pioneers for our industry have been amazing women. The world's first programmer was Ada Lovelace. Grace Hopper wrote the first compiler, Margaret Hamilton was the first Software Engineer, and there are many more examples.
Looking to the future, technology is only going to be more and more pervasive, from self-driving cars, to the voice-controlled household devices and artificial intelligence assisting all aspects of life and business. We can only make these tools if we have a widely diverse group of people writing the software. How can software meet the needs of wider society if women aren’t there to bring their perspective and experience? Can we as a country compete in a global market when we only have an opportunity to look for great talent in fifty percent of the population? Where would we be if Ada, Grace and Margaret hadn’t fought for their places in the industry?
Perhaps a bigger question is, imagine where we would be now if all those other potential Graces and Margarets hadn’t been channelled into other fields?
So how do we overcome the unconscious biases that keep women away from software?
Great things are already being done. Take the BBC micro:bit, which is given away to 11 year old children in the UK to teach them about programming. It echoes back to the BBC Micro days that helped me get enthused about writing software back in the 80’s. Having coding as part of the curriculum will expose girls to what they can achieve and dispel some of the myths.
But is even this too late for many girls who might find computing a wonderful and fulfilling career?
I argue that we need a fundamental rethink. We need a strategy to give girls and boys equal opportunities from birth. As parents we need to be constantly aware that centuries of tradition have given us all preconceptions that we need to challenge. Every pink toy is telling our daughters something, every movie princess is conditioning them about who they could be and what they should want from life. And we are unconsciously complicit in this because we’ve been conditioned too.
So, I have a call to action. Let’s break the cycle.
Let’s actively bring up our daughters to be software engineers.
When you are looking for toys, purposefully seek out the engineering ones typically marketed at boys. Actively encourage them to be interested in technology. Take them to the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Encourage them to watch great science and technology documentaries. Identify great women role models in computing that your daughters can identify with and look up to.
And if you are a toy developer, a children’s author, a documentary maker or doing anything which can impact girls and young women, think about whether you are reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes or if you can be part of this revolution.
Clearly not every girl is going to become engaged or excited about technology. But if we don’t create that spark, feed it the fuel it needs to grow and fan it, then we risk snuffing it out.
It will take effort. There are so many things stacked against us, that we need to be proactive. Our daughters deserve the opportunity.
No matter what career is eventually chosen, I believe that exposure and education about technology is vital. Every child today is a digital native and will use technology throughout their lives. Let’s make sure that they understand it and have the opportunity make and shape it.
Get out there and be an active advocate for our daughters’ careers. Bring them up to be software developers.
On International Women’s Day in 2043, when a girl born today turns twenty-five and is at the start of her career in software engineering. Let’s make sure that she can look around herself and see an equal number of men and women building the great technology that will transform the world.