I’m not actually sure how I stumbled across Jemima Khan interviewing Hollywood actress and star of Desperate House Wives, Eva Longoria at the world's largest tech conference, Web Summit six years ago. All I remember is how their discussion, “Supporting Businesswomen and Facing the 'isms.’ left me feeling.
Unaware of Eva’s activism and how much philanthropic work she did outside of acting and directing, I was interested to hear her speak about her philanthropy work, her take on the impact tech makes, and what brought her to a web summit in Dublin.
Her answer was this…
“It’s how tech ties to philanthropy. You see we live in a global community and once you realise that you can adopt different models from different countries that are doing the same thing, you can also accept that the best way to share ideas–so you’re not reinventing the wheel–is through technology.”
As soon as Eva said that, Jemima looked at the audience, most of whom were men, and asked where were the women, what was the problem and where were we going wrong.
I loved Eva's reply and how she challenged the women in the audience (roughly about 15%) to become mentors to younger women.
“Show them the path. Hold their hand. Lift them up. Because without this, the system does not work.”
She then went on to talk about her philanthropic work to empower women, particularly Latino women, and how the best way to break the cycle of poverty was always via access to education. At any time. At any age.
A lightbulb went off in my head.
Educate a woman. Educate a nation. Impact the world. It’s that simple!
Inspired to be an instrument of change, I had no idea how relevant her words would be. Now, six years on, after much research, self-education, a best-selling book on women, and speaking gigs around the world on this subject, I fundamentally believe that ...
"Without more women in male dominated industries the world suffers. It’s less safe, happy and prosperous."
Caring immensely about our planet, this is my message and it's why I work tirelessly to train, mentor and build a strong, powerful and impactful women’s community, as well as act as a spokesperson, tech ambassador and advocate for companies who share my mission, like TechTalent Academy.
You see, I believe we face a HUGE threat to our planet’s wellbeing. When you look at reports from the World Economic Forum, UNESCO, the OECD, and others, the data tells a bleak story for girls and women especially when it comes to education and tech. For example,
- Of all the illiterate people in the world, two thirds are women and the share of illiterate women hasn't changed for the past 20-years. Among the world’s 123 million illiterate youths, over half are female.
- At 15 years of age, roughly 0.5% of girls aspire to work in ICT compared to 5% of boys.
- 7-million people work in ICT, and of those 30% are women.
- Women are under-represented in ICT jobs, top management and academic careers, and men are four times more likely than women to be ICT specialists.
- Only 19% of women reach executive positions in ICT compared to 45% in service industries and only 6% of CEOs at the top 100 global tech companies are women.
- Women-owned start-ups receive 23% less funding and are 30% less likely to have a positive exit compared to male-owned businesses.
- 45% of women in the USA leave the tech industries in the first year of employment, and despite being more educated than men, women in tech are still being paid less than men. In some states in the USA, it could be up to USD 16,000 less, and in the UK, it could be 25% less.
This table shows the share of men and women by professional cluster and country. Light blue represents women and darker blue men.
This table shows the wage gap between women and men, OECD countries, 2010-2019.
The road ahead is clearly uphill for women, and when gender parity in tech could add another USD 50-70 billion to our global economy, any right minded businessperson would be bought in to getting this problem solved.
Now I know that there are many in our world who believe you can’t force women into tech, or that maybe women just aren’t suited to it, but we know from history that women have played a significant role in tech for decades. For example, I can refer to Ada Lovelace, who’s often heralded as the first programmer, the women who were instrumental in shortening World War II–those who worked at Bletchley Park, women who were programming the US Army’s Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENAC), which is recognised as the first electronic general-purpose computer, or Hedy Lamar, who wasn’t just a Hollywood actress but was a mathematician and inventor who pioneered the technology that would one day form the basis for today's WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.
Then, there’s Grace Murray Hopper who came up with the first computer compiler and established the programming language COBOL. Mary Keller who helped develop BASIC, and Radia Perlman who built some of the early Internet’s protocols. During the 1950s and early 1960s, women were on a roll. Elsie Shutt founded one of the first software businesses in the USA, Comp Inc., Dina St Johnston set up the first British software company, Vaughan Programming Services, and Dame Steve Shirley started another British software company, Freelance Programmers (later renamed Xansa), where 98% of the workforce were female and working around family commitments. By the time “Steve’s” company was acquired by Steria in 2007, it had 8,500 employees, was valued at over USD 3 billion, and had made over 70 employees millionaires.
By the late 1960s, working in computing was so attractive to women that Cosmopolitan magazine wrote an article which proclaimed:
"Now have come the big, dazzling computers – and a whole new kind of work for women: programming."
However, since the 1980s, when the numbers of women in tech were at an all-time high of 38%, the numbers (aside from places like India) have dramatically fallen.
So, six years on from when I first heard Jemima ask Eva about the low numbers of women in tech and where we have gone wrong, I wanted to revisit this question and ask, what are the main obstacles that are still hindering women from entering and succeeding in tech? And, as fate would have it, I was invited to chair a panel at Web Summit and ask it.
As an influential woman in the ICT industry, I was joined by: Pallavi Malhotra, an experienced female telecommunication engineer and academic now managing the Huawei ICT Academy programme in Western Europe and designing ICT courses that impact hundreds of thousands of students; Janice Rae, a tech entrepreneur, top 10 UK tech influencer and founder of TechTalent Academy who is making it easier for women and individuals from under-represented backgrounds to develop a career in tech; and Priscilla Benedetti, a PhD student at the University of Perugia and Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, who’s majoring in edge computing, network virtualisation and machine learning.
With 30-minutes, we covered as much ground as we could.
I began by asking Pallavi, about how she started her career as one of the first female telecoms engineers with British Telecom (BT) in 1976. As she has more than 20-years’ worth of experience in ICT education and talent cultivation, and over 44-years' worth of experience in tech, I wanted to know how she’d become interested in tech, the challenges she’d witnessed along the way, and whether she’d ever thought about giving up during her career.
Pallavi talked about her early interest in cars, mechanics and how supportive her parents had been. Furthermore, how her father had gone into her school and had insisted she be given the same opportunity as the boys to learn about tech, rather than be confined to study girl-only subjects like Home Economics. She also mentioned how welcoming and progressive BT was when she was recruited, as a minority.
"When BT realised the uniforms didn’t fit us and that they’d designed them purely for a male workforce, they adjusted them, so the uniforms fitted both sexes. This made us feel welcomed and valued."
And when she left, after having her children, and went on to teach, how she could see just what an impact she’d made, as a female teacher, on other women studying.
My next question was about education. When I wrote my best-selling book, IN Security, I told a story about my daughter and a time when she was thinking about extending her computer science studying. Although she went to an excellent school, when she mentioned she may want to choose this as a GCSE subject at a parent's evening, two out of three teachers pulled disapproving faces or commented negatively. Thankfully, one of her teachers – and it was one she really respected said,
"Do what you love and if it’s tech, I think it’s a really smart decision, because tech is our future."
Looking at what’s going on in schools, and from available research, I’ve found that despite technology forming such an integral aspect of our working lives, and women having made huge progress in terms of equality, even in today’s society, in most parts of the world, girls are still not getting as much opportunity to use computers in schools as boys. Often, there’s a lack of encouragement, curricula that appeals more to boys than girls, and negative stereotypes about girls’ technical abilities.
And, as if these things aren’t bad enough, many girls aren’t getting good advice on how to pursue a career in tech from their secondary or high school computer classes. So, with this in mind, I asked Priscilla about her experiences and whether she’d ever faced similar situations during her education.
Priscilla talked about how there were only seven women on her master’s computer science degree course of 90, and how only two of her professors were women. However, at no point was she put off. She loved her field of study and it just made her even more determined.
Before asking my next question, I brought up one of my favourite quotes. It’s by Madeline Albright, an American politician and diplomat who served as the first female United States Secretary of State in U.S. history from 1997 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton. Many of you may know it.
“There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."
With this in mind, I wanted to ask Janice about the importance of women’s networks and mentoring and to hear what her most unforgettable experience of supporting other women as a mentor was.
As a founder of TechTalent Academy and believing passionately in the power of diversity to improve organisations and individual lives, she told me how she’d opened up TechTalent Academy’s doors earlier this year to women and individuals from under-represented backgrounds who wanted to get into cyber, data and software. And how, within a short space of time, they’d been inundated with over 3,000 applications.
“Women want to build careers in tech. When we began TechTalent Academy, we were so inundated we had to freeze applications.”
We then discussed how women are subjected to a phenomenal amount of bias in the workplace and one particular form of bias, The Pygmalion effect. This is a psychological phenomenon wherein high expectations lead to improved performance in a given area. Studies have repeatedly shown that top students or employees don’t necessarily do better because of their natural ability. Rather it’s because they get more attention or receive better opportunities or working conditions.
Janice talked about how she was inspired to start TechTalent Academy when she realised how little things had changed since she first began coding, over 30-years ago. She also spoke about the confidence one particular female students received when she was studying in a group of women-only. Up until enrolling on the Women in Cyber Academy, she had been studying computer science as a minority. She felt exposed, like the 'odd one out' and as if she didn't belong. This was affecting her work. But when she joined the Cyber Academy her confidence soared, and she quickly received job interviews and offers.
My final question was to Pallavi as I wanted to understand what Huawei was doing to educate women, girls and young people around the world, and why this work really mattered. She spoke about how Huawei values talent cultivation and education, and how through their ICT Academy, a flagship education project, they promote digital inclusion, so no one gets behind in the digital era. She mentioned three key programmes in Bangladesh, Kenya and Europe.
The first was the Digital Training Bus. In 2017, Huawei and the Bangladesh’s ICT Division, Robi Axiata joined forces to digitally upskill and empower women in rural areas of Bangladesh. For the past three years, six buses with fully equipped modern training facilities have been teaching key digital skills to more than 240,000 women across 64 districts of the country.
The second was the DigiTruck. Partnering with the Belgian NGO Close the Gap, Huawei built a mobile, solar-powered classroom so that digital skills could be brought to under-served communities and digital literacy expanded. Equipped with 20 laptops, 20 VR headsets, and built in Wi-Fi, and with courses running for up to a month, it’s provided over 25,000 hours of digital training to more than 1,500 beneficiaries in 6 counties since its launch in October 2019.
The third was the Smart Bus. Being another fully accessible, mobile interactive classroom, the Smart Bus travels to schools throughout Europe, delivering an evidence-based educational programme that’s focused on cyber bullying, online safety and data privacy. Since September 2019 to January 2020, the Smart Bus has reached 126 schools in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, affecting 22,900 students.
And with that knowledge, I closed the panel.
Now I want to hear from you…
- Please share with me your insights for being a woman in cyber or tech. Have you ever felt like you’re being hindered and if so, what have you done to address it?
- If you’re a woman or non binary person wanting to learn how to get into tech or if you’re an organisation or hiring manager with entry level positions for tech graduates from under-represented backgrounds, please contact TechTalent Academy.