Interview: Julia MacMillan – Why Are There So Few Women in Technology?

Driving Diversity in Tech

In the UK, only 17 per cent of technology workers are female. In schools, the number of girls that choose to study STEM subjects is consistently low, contributing to the lack of women who then go on to pursue careers in tech. Various reasons have been offered as to why this is the case, including the sweeping generalisation that females lack confidence in their own ability. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. As data scientist, entrepreneur and Women in Kaggle founder Julia MacMillan explains:

“In reality it’s a hugely complex and, more importantly, insidious problem. Being a little more flippant, I think that sadly it’s an extension of general prejudice surrounding the capabilities of anybody that’s not a young, white, straight male! People are always scared of difference when it represents the unknown and the more insular a society or a community, whether that be a workplace or a wider environment, the more reluctant they are to let it in.”

Starting a female revolution
In order to help women to find their feet in what can often seem like a hostile environment, Julia set up Women in Kaggle in 2017.

“Women in Kaggle is a London based tech meetup promoting and supporting women’s role in the world of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. We’re a mix of mentors, mentees, academics and industry practitioners that use Kaggle competitions as a framework around which to problem solve by pair/group programming. We provide a space for aspiring female data scientists at all levels, who would like to help each other learn hands on skills and share knowledge.”

According to Julia, combatting the undeniably masculine tech society is about breaking down the idea of limitations. “If we don’t set limits on our expectations for people, they won’t be restricted by them. There are so many inspiring campaigns that encourage people to remove social indoctrination from girls. Mostly we can lead by example. If women see women achieving their potential in all areas of endeavour, they’ll see it as an attainable goal for themselves. I recently studied for a master’s degree in Data Science and wasn’t taught by a single woman – that’s just not good enough.”

Julia explains that setting up Women in Kaggle was an attempt to redress the balance of opportunity, stemming from a lifelong mission to respond to injustice against women in all areas. Specifically, though, the tech meetup was founded as a response to a challenge:

“I asked at a workshop if they knew of a women’s group for Kaggle and the presenter said no, but if you start one I’ll come, and she did! I have a capacity of 40 seats for 40 bums and I would like these bums to belong to women, because in every other area of their life that day I’ll wager that they will have been under-represented. I really don’t think that in a city of nearly nine million, 40 seats are really going to disrupt the four and a half million of whom are male. Whereas in reaching out to one vulnerable woman attempting to dip her toe in the river of independence, boosting the confidence and skills of one self-effacing lady who has never considered asking for a pay rise let alone equal pay, just might equip her to speak out and might, just might, change her world.”

Taking action against under-representation
Of course, under-representation within technology isn’t just confined to women. So what does Julia think can be done to address the lack of diversity in tech-based subjects and professions?

“Screening gender, ethnic origin, age etc., from job applications is an obvious one. It’s surprising who lands a role when there are no prejudices in play as this story shows: https://www.the-pool.com/life/life-honestly/2017/37/marisa-bate-on-the-spectator-intern-mother-of-three.”

As a successful woman in tech, Julia is currently in the minority. As such, she has faced her fair share of obstacles. “The challenges in tech are the very same as those manifested in everyday sexism. It rests with the perception of woman as something other than successful by society, and as a direct consequence of that by themselves too.”

While Julia herself presents an example of a female who is actively combatting prejudice in her sector, has she been influenced by any female technology enthusiasts in particular? “Very sadly, I’m learning about the amazing history of females in tech rather too late. This again, is something that should be addressed by schools and by the media. Recently reading Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky, I’ve wanted to cry at the rewriting of history. It seems, amidst talks of the gender gap, that we’re still hiding in the shadows.”

So, what advice does Julia have for a young female hiding in those very shadows?

“I would advise her to find groups such as Women in Kaggle that are working hard to offer inspiring and supportive communities. These are environments where they don’t have to feel they are in a minority, and where nobody is judging their level of knowledge. They can exchange tips, find female mentors who have faced the exact same challenges they’re experiencing, and who will inspire and encourage them to achieve their goals.”

Bridging the gender gap
This year, the film Hidden Figures paid much needed cinematic attention to the inspiring women who developed the software that sent the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

“I was astonished to hear the phrase ‘I came up with the term software engineering’ from the mouth of Margaret Hamilton, the American scientist who created the software that launched the Apollo 11,” says Julia. “The sad fact is that I had never heard of any of the three protagonists in the fantastic film until I Googled them. But why hadn’t I known of the names of the women who have shaped our world? I believe this underpins the reasons why women don’t achieve their best potential, and is why we continue to have an image of the young, white, straight male as fitting in tech.”

Even so, further steps have been made towards supporting a new attitude to discussions of gender in influential corporations. This year, Google employee James Damore was fired for putting gender gaps in tech down to biology. Unsurprisingly, Julia feels that this was the right decision and that encouraging diversity within companies is necessary:

“Well done Google – it’s not acceptable to uphold that kind of divisive prejudice, not morally or technologically,” she says. “Research shows that it makes better business sense to run a diverse company. Companies with the power of Google have to build solutions that serve a diverse market. There have been too many instances of those built on biased training data, from the face recognition apps that don’t recognise a black face to the hand soap dispensers that don’t dispense soap to a black hand. Where does it stop – imagine self-driving cars that only ‘see’ white people?”

It’s clear that the small percentage of women within tech represents a wider problem with overall diversity. This has been enforced by a lack of knowledge, which startups like Women in Kaggle hope to dispel. For Julia, this begins with the creation of a safe environment for collaboration between a whole host of bright female minds.

“I see so many capable, tenacious, outstanding women in tech, talking at and running meetups in London that it’s easy to forget I’m in the right place at the right time. It’s easy to think that we’re further on than we are. Really, they are just the truly inspiring tip of the iceberg. There are so many more out there.”

To find out more about Women in Kaggle, please visit: http://www.womeninkaggle.co.uk/.