… and why we need more diversity in tech
What does it feel like to be a woman in tech? Lonely, according to Alexis Monks who is passionate about redressing the gender balance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Part of the 10 per cent
When Monks studied Computer Science at Bristol University, she was one of the few women on her course. In fact, only a measly 10 per cent of the students were female. For Monks, this made for a difficult move to university, where she was also confronted with the traditional stereotype of a person in tech.
“I’d come from an all girls school,” she says, “so going from that to what was effectively an all male course was a hard transition for me. What’s more, I am a very social learner. I like to be able to discuss things in a group, to think how would we solve a problem. That’s the way I motivate myself. However, this didn’t fit with things like the 24 hour hackathons we had at uni. I don’t want to sit on my own in a corner and hack around on my computer all day. That’s not what technology means to me, that’s not what this career path means to me. That’s what got me interested in this issue – about why things are like this and what we need to do to change.”
Monks is involved in initiatives such as Code First: Girls, for which she was named one of their ‘Ones To Watch,’ and PA’s Raspberry Pi competition, which are both designed to encourage more women into the STEM sector. As Monks notes, this is becoming increasingly important in the age of Brexit.
“We are not training enough engineers in the UK,” she says. “We have a deficit of around 20,000 engineers and at the moment we rely really heavily on the EU for recruitment. However, this is a completely fixable problem. Only 8 per cent of trained engineers in the UK are female, so we have this untapped pool of talent which is being isolated for a number of reasons from this career.”
Rebranding the tech sector
Why are girls and women being discouraged from entering the technology sector? For Monks, it comes down to a branding issue. Think of a successful technology entrepreneur and the chances are they will be male – and probably geeky.
“If you look at the role models that we have within this career path – you have the Elon Musks, the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Bill Gates – they all look exactly the same,” she says. “In addition, they all have very similar ways of presenting themselves – as the geek who doesn’t really get along with people but who gets things done. They are the kind of person who would think nothing of staying up until 2am drinking Red Bull and programming. This isn’t the image we should be putting out there of the tech industry as it isolates a lot of people.”
Whilst the pale, male and stale stereotype remains difficult to budge, the IT industry simply isn’t made up of talented but antisocial individuals any more. More than ever, it needs engineers who are willing and able to collaborate.
“Companies no longer have just one IT person,” Monks notes. “It’s really a team effort. So we can’t be putting out this stereotype that the IT person just sits on their own in the corner. We have so much more work to do than that.”
“At the moment I am working on a cloud transformation project in a team of around 20 people, which you would never be able to do on your own. There is far too much work, there’s too many aspects to think about, there’s so many different angles from which you could look at it. You need to be able to bring through engineers who are interested in that communication and collaborative side by making sure that that’s the image you are putting out of the career.”
Tech solves problems
For Monks, the way to encourage women into tech lies in demystifying the subject for them and demonstrating that the old stereotype of a programmer is not actually the truth. Another tactic is to focus on the exciting side of technology – its fundamentally creative nature and its potential to solve problems.
“Nowadays everyone is interested in technology,” says Monks. “We use it every day. For me, it’s about then making that leap to be the creator of it. This means thinking about how that bit of code is going to change someone’s everyday life – it’s going to change how they interact with things, it’s going to save them 20 minutes every day, it’s going to enable connections between people from different parts of the world who are interested in the same thing.”
A focus on the power of technology, rather than the hard code, is what will attract more women to the subject. This is a goal that has driven Monks ever since she stepped in to her first lecture in Computer Science at university, and which will define her discussion at this year’s Disruption Summit Europe.
“The most important message for people to grasp it that we need to get more women into engineering. We should be discussing the different ways that we can do it, their effectiveness, and some of the things that are getting in the way at the moment that we can change. Some of the things we need to change are super easy, while some of them do take longer, so it could be a matter of looking for those quick wins. We also need to examine the different things that happen at each stage of education and life that affect why people go for a particular career path over another.”
“There is also the importance of taking this action now. With Brexit we are going to struggle to recruit. We are now going to be heavily reliant on our own education system and culture to train the next generation of engineers, so we need to find out what might be missing in the system and what could be improved.”
Alexis Monks will speak on The Next Generation panel at Disruption Summit Europe in London on 4th September.
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