We’re in the midst of a technology revolution – a ‘second machine age’. It will affect the entire population and could help transform industries – from the media and advertising to healthcare and energy – but are we ready for it?
Speaking at a House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills inquiry, Iain Wood, public affairs manager at TalkTalk, described the technology policy events he attends. ‘Often’, he said, ‘there are more iPads in the room than there are women. It is shameful.’
The Committee’s report, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future, was published in February – just ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March – and it makes for some pretty disappointing reading.
It states that women make up just 6% of the engineering workforce and only 15.5% of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. According to BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, of the 4,000 students who take Computer Science at A-level, fewer than 100 are girls.
Women in tech
Digital skills can be used to design smart homes and green communities, and help to ensure we capitalise on technological developments across all sectors. From robotics and flexible electronics to applications in vertical farming and food security, technology provides solutions that could change the world. But creative ideas will only come from a diverse workforce – and that means getting more women into the tech world.
Torie Chilcott, co-founder of Rockabox and winner of last year’s Woman of the Year at the everywoman in Technology Awards, in many ways embodies the ‘Make it Happen’ theme for this year’s International Women’s Day. ‘The world is tech and if you want to be working in an exciting and creative area, then technology is where it’s at’, Torie told PQ. ‘I started out as a tech interloper and for me, it’s always been very much about what tech can do. The fact that tech can fly you to the moon, save your life or get your fridge to remind you you’re out of milk, that is what excites me. It’s also about harnessing an explosion of absolute ‘can do’-ness to do something you really love or are passionate about.’
Diversity in teams
After kicking off her TV career as a production secretary, Torie found a real flair for creating original ideas – particularly in the world of factual entertainment. Her first creative break was to oversee the new Format Development team at FremantleMedia, which went on to develop ITV’s Farmer Wants a Wife and Pop Idol formats. ‘Telly is very much a team event – no one person ever makes a show’, Torie told PQ. ‘There is always a massive, hard-working team behind it. My telly career engendered in me, crucially I think, a team mentality which I’ve sought to carry forward with me throughout my career.’
For any team to be successful, it needs to be diverse. Companies understand this and use psychometric tests to ensure teams and departments contain a healthy mix of talent without too many clashes of personality. They can boost their productivity and, in many cases, their bottom line as a result. The same applies in the tech sector: the Committee on Digital Skills reported that increasing the number of women working in IT alone could generate an extra £2.6 billion for the economy each year.
‘Geeks and middle-aged men’
But attracting women to tech is no easy task. The Young Digital Taskforce ran an informal survey in schools and across social media, asking peers and parents to name people working in the digital industries. Most people were able to name Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg without any trouble – but then they got stuck. Not a single woman was mentioned.
‘Asked about the impression of people working in technology, the descriptions offered by the Young Digital Taskforce’s peers swung between geeks bashing away on keyboards or of boring middle-aged men in badly fitting suits doing dull repetitive jobs’, the Taskforce reported to the Digital Skills Committee. ‘The gender imbalance in tech is extremely damaging: it is hardly surprising that we have digital skills shortages given that we are failing to make the most of the talents of almost half of the potential workforce.’