Tech’s relationship with young women needs re-engineering

How do we inspire the next generation of women in tech? It won't be easy – but there are things we can all do

It's often the case that problems present us with a binary choice. If we take Option A, we do so at the expense of Option B.

But not when it comes to gender diversity.

Addressing the underrepresentation of women in tech presents no such zero-sum challenge. In fact, by building a more diverse sector everyone benefits - gender equality wins, and so does the bottom line.

The evidence is now confirming what many have suspected for some time: more diverse teams perform better, and companies which fail to embrace diversity are likely to be left in their wake. "Given the higher returns that diversity is expected to bring, we believe it is better to invest now, since winners will pull further ahead and laggards will fall further behind," argued a 2015 McKinsey report, Diversity Matters.

However, when it comes to how we inspire the next generation of women in tech, the solution is more complex.

In an increasingly competitive job market, one would think that the range of career opportunities that the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) sector currently offers young women would cause a surge in interest.

But the numbers entering the sector each year remain significantly below target. Statistics released by the Office for National Statistics in 2015 found that only 14.4% of the UK's STEM workforce is female.

Part of the problem lies in the way in which the industry is communicating with prospective female talent not just in what it is saying, but also regarding who is communicating this message, and how.

What's the message?

Last year, the humble hairdryer was propelled from mundane object to subject of global attention.

It owed its new notoriety to IBM's now-scrapped #HackAHairdryer campaign. The campaign, which was supposed to spark a conversation about women in STEM by tackling misconceptions about gender and tech, encouraged women to post videos of hairdryers they had hacked.

The company's motivation was commendable enough. However, IBM's decision to use a hairdryer out of any possible object also risked perpetuating the very stereotypes the campaign sought to tackle.  

"I leave hairdryer fixing to the men, I'm too busy making nanotech and treating cancer," tweeted one woman in tech.

Hairdryer-gate holds within it an important lesson for all of us in STEM.  It demonstrates how, if companies are to engage with women effectively and encourage them into STEM, they first need to understand their audience.  

Were there any women in the room when IBM approved #HackAHairdryer?

This isn't a flippant question. Women remain underrepresented in tech companies, especially at management level.  Often decisions about how to communicate with a predominantly female audience are taken by rooms dominated by male executives leading to unintended consequences.

to its figures

Consider Apple's Health Kit app, which was promoted as providing every test about your body you could ever need. Everything except anything related to periods, one of the most important aspects of women's health. Following criticism, the app was later updated to include period tracking.

How did Apple let this happen? Were there no women on the app's engineering team?

Ensuring that women are included in these kinds of decision-making processes isn't about tokenism. It's about delivering better products. And that means it's better for business, too.

The medium is the message

Having considered what kind of message the tech industry wants to convey to young women, the next question is how best to share it.

If the sector wants to demonstrate it's forward thinking and responsive, it needs to use a medium which embodies those qualities making tech the perfect choice.

It's a no-brainer. The effective use of technology is a space in which the industry has a major competitive advantage, and using tech to engage with young women will enable it to connect with them in a more direct and meaningful way.

Part of the challenge of making the tech workforce more diverse is the historical difficulty of attracting minority groups into careers in the field. But technology is powerful as a democratising force, and its ability to transcend barriers of age, gender and social class makes it an ideal part of the solution to this problem.

So how can tech be used to encourage more women into the industry? One strategy is to use apps targeted specifically at girls interested in STEM.

To respond to this need, in February Stemettes launched OtotheB, an app which creates a global online platform for girls interested in STEM and entrepreneurship. Founded in 2013 by child maths and computing prodigy Anne-Marie Imafidon, Stemettes is a social enterprise inspiring girls into STEM careers.  

OtotheB was developed following the success of last year's Outbox Incubator, a residential business incubator for girls with STEM start-ups, and the clear demand the girls demonstrated for tools to help them navigate a career in STEM. The OtotheB app offers girls functionality such as being able to engage with inspiring women in STEM through Google Hangouts, and access to STEM events and giveaways.  

In the same vein, this year Everywoman launched Modern Muse, a not-for-profit app offering girls access to female STEM role models.

In addition to using apps, big data is also being used deliver valuable insights crucial to building a more diverse tech workforce such as identifying hidden talent. Speaking recently to Forbes, Kieran King, Global Vice President of Loyalty Strategy at Skillsoft, said,"Big Data can identify qualified candidates maybe outside of the traditional structure of where that leader might traditionally come fromso (it's) very exciting to use data in that way because it opens up the candidate pool to a much, much broader canvas than ever before."

Men need to be part of the conversation

Who conveys the message that tech needs more women is crucial to promoting greater diversity the field.

For young women, engaging with female STEM role models is vital to helping them to imagine themselves as women in STEM. However, it is key that the voices of men are also heard.

Writing recently for Huffington Post, Stemettes co-founder Anne-Marie Imafidon said, "Men's voices are needed to be part of the chorus which inspires the next generation of women in STEM; allowing young women to know that they are needed and welcomed by a diversity of people in the industry - not just women."

If tech is to become more representative, it is going to require careful messaging, smart use of technology and a diverse range of voices to ensure that message is heard.

Unlike with the #HackAHairdryer campaign, it isn't young women who should be encouraged to re-engineer their thinking when it comes to building careers in tech.

Shouldn't it be the industry itself which re-examines how it communicates with the next generation of women in tech?

Jo Cruse is Stemettes' Communications Lead

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