Bring the women back to tech, or risk a gender brain drain

In this column, Eleanor Bradley, Managing Director Registry & Public Benefit, Nominet, marks International Girls in ICT Day with a look back at some of the great contributions women have made to technology and why the sector should do more to avoid a gender brain drain.

At Nominet, we talk a lot about the Domain Name System (DNS), or the ‘telephone directory’ of the internet. This system allows users to type in memorable words that link them to the corresponding IP address, avoiding the need to remember a long and complicated string of numbers. The DNS is critical and underpins the whole of the internet, but did you know that, in the early days, the domain names were largely managed by a woman?

Elizabeth Feinler, an American information scientist, led the Network Information System Centre at Stanford Research Institute from 1972 to 1989, the place that managed the use of domain names in the years before registrars. In her time, women represented a far greater percentage of the technology workforce than we see today. In the US for example – something of a global hub for early technology – the number of women in computing tripled from 1971 to 1985 to become 38% of the labour force.

Where have all the women gone?

So where have all those women gone? Today, technology is a male-dominated environment. Women make up just 17% of the technology workforce in the UK, with similarly uninspiring percentages across the world. More worrying is that too few girls are studying STEM to offer any hope of a future pipeline; just 31% of STEM undergraduates are female, many of whom do not specialise in technology.

What is turning girls away from studying STEM, and from technology in particular? Recent PwC research, that surveyed over 2,000 A Level and university students, found that only 27% of women would consider a career in tech and a mere 3% think of it as a first choice. This is despite there being no evidence that females lack the appropriate skills for a role in the tech sector or appetite for the healthy salaries available to them.

It’s a man’s tech world

There are various theories for the lack of interest, from the ‘macho culture’ that has grown up around technology roles putting women off, to the proliferation of video games that mostly appeal to boys, shutting girls out from an early age. Jacqueline de Rojas, president of techUK and a vocal supporter of diversity, recently mused on Desert Island Discs that the marketing of computers to men – and the fact they were designed by men – could have gradually excluded women from the technology revolution. This can even be accurate at a literal level. For example, some research suggests the virtual reality experience tends to make women feel sick, but not the men who largely designed and tested the technology.

Some have spoken about girls’ lack of confidence dissuading them from pursuing school subjects wrongly seen as hard, such as maths, science and technology. Studies have shown that girls start to lose their self-esteem from as young as 12 years old and begin to believe that ‘brilliance’ is a male trait from as young as six. There is also a clear lack of female role models in the technology sector; the PwC research previously mentioned found that only 22% of all students could name a famous woman working in tech.

>See also: TVSquared: why perfect is the enemy of good for women in STEM roles

Work to promote gender diversity

Thankfully, both industry and Government are now proactively working to turn the tide and tackle all these issues. For example, the National Cyber Security Centre runs a CyberFirst Girls Competition while various organisations – such as Girls Who Code UK – offer programmes that work with school-aged girls to equip them with useful skills and nurture an interest in technology.

Further up the pipeline, the Tech Talent Charter is working with organisations in the technology industry (including Nominet) to promote gender diversity across their businesses. It can be quite easy to make changes, such as considering the wording of job advertisements carefully to attract female talent and trying to create a work culture and environment that is more appealing to women. The organisations who sign the Charter share best practice ideas and support one another to improve their ratios.   

Encouragingly, many women working in technology are proactively trying to be more visible too. This is something that Nominet gets involved with: our CISO, Cath Goulding, delivers talks about her work in schools, while we use our corporate blog to tell the stories of the talented women we have in the workforce. These blogs emphasise our employees’ different career paths, backgrounds and skills to demonstrate the diversity of opportunity available in the technology sector.  

>See also: Code First: Girls teaches 10,000 women to code for free in the UK

The benefits of a Takeover Challenge

We have also been involved in a Takeover Challenge during which students ‘take over’ a job for a day to learn more about a potential career. In November, we welcomed 11-year-old Izzy Kenny into Nominet to spend the day with Cath. It was an interesting experience for both, and Izzy was adamant that “more women need to be doing this sort of role”. Events like this are great opportunities to offer young people a glimpse into the realities of a role during their formative years, allowing them to keep their options open and ensure they don’t discount industries such as technology.

While there is no silver bullet, the only way to make progress towards gender parity is to keep it in the public domain while committing to do all we can, in whatever capacity we can, to consciously make a difference.

It is only by working together that we can we have any hope of changing the status quo and unlocking a valuable talent pool that the technology sector sorely needs. It’s time to start bringing the women back into technology to finish the great work they started and continue the legacy of inspiring women like Elizabeth Feinler.

>See also: CMO spotlight: Penny Wilson on sidelining ‘bro cultures’ to achieve real tech innovation

Eleanor Bradley is COO of Nominet, the technology company known for running the .UK internet infrastructure and which is also the founder and funder of the charitable foundation Nominet Trust, the UK’s leading social tech funder.

Eleanor has over 20 years’ experience in the internet industry and in her current role leads the teams responsible for commercial activity related to Nominet’s registry business as well as the company’s corporate services.