Women have always played a pioneering role in the development of computing. From Ada Lovelace in the 19th century – Byron’s daughter and reputedly the first programmer for the first computer, Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine – through to Grace Hopper – creator of the first compiler, one of the biggest first steps in programming and a co-inventor of the computer programming business language known COBOL – to Margaret Hamilton – whose code helped get astronauts on the Apollo flights to the moon.
Today, a quick look through the business pages of any newspaper would seem to contradict the notion that males dominate the technology business. Some of the industry’s most powerful people are women: Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook’s COO), Meg Whitman (CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise), Ginni Rometty (Chairwoman, President and CEO of IBM) and Safra Catz (co-CEO of Oracle) among them.
They are not alone: my personal experience of dealing closely with tech giants like IBM and Oracle would indicate there are plenty of female senior and middle managers working their way up the corporate ladder to leadership positions.
Today, the UK has a number of well-known women tech leaders, following the trail blazed by ‘Steve’ Shirley back in the early 1960s. Martha Lane Fox and Joanna Shields are high-profile ambassadors for the tech industry in political circles, both sitting in the House of Lords, with Baroness Shields being the Minister for Internet Safety and Security – a topic close to my heart. As well, Sue Black OBE, Liz Grant OBE, Penny Power OBE and Elizabeth Varley are prominent British tech entrepreneurs and digital champions. I know many of them very well and admire them all a lot
Where’s the next Lovelace?
All of these are tech businesswomen, eloquent communicators, campaigners and leaders, who have been quick to understand the implications of the changes technology has wrought on everyday life and grasped their business potential, through startups like Lastminute.com, and TechHub.
Few, however, are what I’d call real ‘techies’: programmers like Hopper and Hamilton, who actually know what it is to conceive and produce lines of complex code and drive ground-breaking technical projects. The only pure ‘techie’ among the current group of female British tech leaders I’m aware of is Sue Black, who worked for years as a software engineer before founding BCSWomen, the UK’s first online network for women in tech.
But there wasn’t always this lack of female programmers in this country. Back in the early 1960s, Steve Shirley was able to set up her pioneering company Freelance Programmers, because there were lots of women with maths or science degrees who had stopped working when they got married or started a family. Shirley’s firm’s great feats – which included programming Concorde’s black box flight recorders – were possible because there was a pool of talented women that she could tap into.
When I started in computing in 1976, I worked with a team of six techies, three of whom were female – one reason why I’ve been reluctant to recognise a gender gap in our industry.
Contrast that era – one, remember, where society was widely regarded as being sexist, particularly in education – with today, where fewer than one in five people taking computer science degrees are women, even though a higher proportion of girls achieve the highest grades in STEM A-levels.
Whereas in India, a country regarded as having a very stark gender divide, female computer graduates are pouring out of their universities. It’s no surprise that 30% of Indian programmers are female, while just 14% of ICT ‘tech professionals’ in the UK are women.
A skills problem, as well as a gender one
This difference between true techies and tech-savvy entrepreneurs is important, because it points to a deeper problem here in the UK – our lack of digital skills generally. We need to boost the number of women taking computing degrees and becoming programmers, that’s for sure, but we also need to boost the number of men who choose a technical career in IT too.
The simple fact is that we just don’t have enough skilled computer engineers in this country, full stop. There’s a gender gap in IT, but there’s an even bigger skills gap, and it’s becoming a growing national problem, as our workforce’s lack of tech skills will increasingly harm our competitiveness in the global digital economy.
In fact, a better job’s being done encouraging more girls to do science and computing courses than boys. The number of women doing STEM vocational qualifications has leapt in the past few years, from 14,600 in 2010/11 to 237,100 in 2012/13, while the number of women taking engineering and technology degrees has risen 5% since 2011, compared to only 1% for men.
The prime reason we don’t have a British Sheryl Sandberg is because we don’t have a British tech giant like Facebook – or Apple, Google, Oracle, IBM, HP, or eBay. Again, this wasn’t always so. Back in the 60s and 70s, when the UK was in its ‘white heat of technology’ period, it could rightly claim to be as much of a global leader in the sector as the United States.
But we’ve lost a lot of ground since then, as successive governments (of every political hue) have ignored the need to boost our population’s core computing ability. As other countries have increased the scope and depth of their children’s IT education we have dumbed ours down. In the UK, teaching computing skills has been regarded as acquiring a basic ability to use a PC, to work simple everyday software programs and search the internet, rather than electronics design, computer programming and data science.
Today, it’s not all bad news, as there are plenty of thriving tech start-ups in this country – and not only in Silicon Roundabout either. The problem is that overseas giants snap them up as they start to really develop: HP Autonomy, ARM Holdings, SwiftKey and DeepMind to name just a few. They may leave workforces here – but leadership moves overseas. Sometimes, Brit entrepreneurs even leave here and go abroad to ensure their companies take off, as Joel Gascoigne did with his social media tool Buffer.
To create a new generation of women programmers, as well as tech entrepreneurs in this country we need to create the right environment in which our tech industry can establish, grow and thrive. That means encouraging more young people (regardless of their gender) to study real computing and to acquire deep digital skills, and for our lawmakers and capital markets to do more to make the UK a global tech superpower. That’s a long-term task, and though a good start has already been made, the world is racing ahead. So we need to put the accelerator down to have any hope of overtaking the pack.