[cross posted from my CACM blog]
Little Miss Geek is a book – and a wider campaign– by Belinda Parmar to shift women’s role in technology from consumer to creator. The book is mostly aimed at technology business leaders, offering practical solutions to help them make their workplaces better at attracting and maintaining female staff in technical roles. It argues that the technology industry needs to have more female employees in the interests of equality as well as their own bottom line: more women involved in the creation of new technology products will open up exciting new products tailored for an expanding female market.
Here’s the current sorry technology trajectory for girls in the UK, as summarised in the book. Little Miss Potential Geek starts schools. Due to poor quality IT lessons at primary school, she associates computers with boredom, maths or typing. Little Miss Potential Geek is persistent, however and wants to study it further. When she joins an A-Level computing class at secondary, she finds only 8% of the pupils are girls. Even though she is in the minority, Little Miss Geek (I think we can safely drop "potential" at this point) decides to study computing at university, and graduates with one of the 18% of technology or science degrees which are awarded to women. Initially not daunted by the fact that only 17% of the technology workforce are women, LMG gets a job. But danger lies ahead. For 41% of women leave tech companies after 10 years, compared to 17% of men. Will LMG (like 47% of other Little Miss Geeks) feel that she has to act like a man to get ahead? Will she want to have her own Baby Geeks and become one of the 84% of women in technology who thinks that their employers need to do more to encourage women to return after maternity leave? Or as an ambitious professional, will she simply object to the fact that with the tech industry that only 26% of women reach senior management or board level? Or will Little Miss Geek continue to rise within the profession and eventually become Elderly Dame Geek with a MBE for services to the technology industry? As much as we wish her well, we must admit that probability does not favour poor Little Miss Geek. Parmar’s point is that we have to get past just wringing our hands about gender imbalances in IT and take positive action.
What positive actions might companies take? The book discusses a number of workable proposals such as apprenticeship ,sponsorship, bursaries and mentoring for women; a supportive mum returner scheme; investment in female start-up companies; female heroes programmes; raising the profile of female employees within a brand; and even running coding workshops to encourage talented women from other parts of the company to consider more technical roles.
I applaud the book. The tech industry is indisputably not a female friendly work environment and this needs urgently addressed. I admire Belinda Parmar’s energy in mounting a campaign to bring the public’s attention to the issue, in a similar way to Jamie Oliver’s campaign to fix school dinners in the UK.
But – and for heaven’s sake don’t let anyone use this paragraph as an excuse to wriggle out of doing the right thing – I have to dispute one point in the book. I can’t help it. I’m an academic first and a member of the sisterhood of technical women second. The book quotes Baron-Cohen’s findings about women having poorer spatial awareness, then says that spatial visualisation skills are directly linked to the ability to interacting with computer software and interfaces. But it’s Ok, the book consoles us, because such skills can be taught. Women engineering students can be taught how to do mental rotations and such. Such minor deficiencies can be overcome before ladies can manage to do all those hard technical things. I found this argument both unpalatable and bewildering, so I followed up one of the (extremely obscure) references which linked spatial awareness to computing skills. For a start, that article didn’t directly discuss gender differences. But the main point is that it does not discuss the impact of weak spatial awareness skills on programming, or any other technically creative role. It is all about using technology. (In the early ‘90s. When people still used Hypercard.) Little Miss Geek is a technology creator, not a technology consumer. So her putative lack of spatial awareness will neither hold her back nor need fixed. Unless she particularly wants to pursue a career in computer graphics.
But let’s ignore this odd digression into spatial ability. Let’s focus on the key message: the time is right to inspire girls to become technology creators. The Little Miss Geek book will tell technology business leaders how to do it.