Women and tech – will it take us another 250 years?

I wrote a brief piece on women in tech back in March for the Belfast Technology Conference magazine.  The gist of it was something like this.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

As a woman working in technology in noughties Britain I compare myself mentally to a female artist in the 18th century.  I believe we are similar sorts of pioneers in our chosen field.  At that time significant gender bias existed in the art world and women artists encountered difficulties in accessing training, selling their work and in gaining recognition.  Although the Royal College of Art began admitting women in 1837 it was into a special “Female School”, it wasn’t really until the feminist art movement started in the 1960s that women artists became more mainstream. Even now they are paid less than their male counterparts and struggle harder with appropriate recognition.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun is widely recognised as the most successful female painter of the 18th century.  She became an artist because first her father and then her husband were both painters.  Really it was the only channel available to women at that time.  In the self portrait above she’s having a bit of a tongue in cheek laugh at us – showing us her palette (the tools of her trade) but dressing herself in a completely inappropriate outfit for working in oil paint.  The same woman caused a scandal in the art world of the time by breaking with tradition and releasing a self portrait of herself & her daughter smiling open mouthed (showing their teeth) – imagine!

Many prominent women in tech today are there because of early encouragement by their parents or by an enlightened teacher and this is a story that I hear over and over again when talking to my peers and indeed younger women.

I thought the comparison with the art world back in March was a good one – and then yesterday I was at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the Disobedient Objects exhibition and this poster literally stopped me in my tracks.

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

In case you can’t read it easily, the smaller text on the poster reads “Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are females”.  Hmm.  Maybe the art world hasn’t made that much progress in 250 years after all.

A lot of activity is going on and money is being spent across the world right now to fix the women in tech “issue” and make technology a more mainstream career choice for girls and women. Of course it makes a lot of sense, but let’s not be the generation that allows this process of transformation to drag on for 250 more years!

In this GCSE and A Level results month, encourage the young women you know to pursue exciting, creative and independent careers instead of dashing their dreams and pressurising them to study boring but safe subjects.

I usually stay away from this rather controversial subject but I’ve chosen it as the topic with which to relaunch my blog because the women in tech that I know and work with are all incredible…I just wish there were a few more of us.  As a final point it’s also worth noting that even back in the 18th century, Vigee Le Brun’s portrait commissions commanded a higher price than Gainsborough’s.

As always, your comments on my blog are most welcome and I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say on this topic.

7 comments

  1. Thank you for a fascinating post. With a background in the arts and humanities, I have got involved in tech via PhD research in social media and mental health, which led to setting up an mHealth programme http://www.mhealthleeds.co.uk earlier in the year. Having worked in the NHS for many years, a female dominated environment, it is strange to suddenly find myself in spaces where I am occasionally the only woman. For the first time in my life, I’ve noticed a tendency (not universal) to be spoken down to and patronised in the tech arena. I myself have played in to that role with the ‘I’m not a techie person’ apologetic stance. Only last week I realised that I have to stop professing my lack of technical proficiency when a female colleague picked me up on it. Hopefully then I can make a small contribution to challenging assumptions and stereotypes about women in tech.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Victoria. You should try & get along to the 9 October Teacamp – more details here http://teacamp.co.uk/2014/06/9th-october-digitalwomen/ It was an awesome event last year with 120+ government “techie” women in attendance.

      You would probably find Teacamp useful generally – it’s once a month – but that’s difficult from Leeds although maybe you could book other stuff in London around it – or maybe there’s something similar in Leeds. If there isn’t, there should be!

      I’m speaking at the 9 October digital women Teacamp event & I’ll be talking about my own experiences along the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” messages. Also it would be great to meet you.

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  2. Great post and we always need reminded of the fact that tech is still a male dominated business. I know many GREAT women in tech, like you, I agree there are not enough of them. Having lived in London for best part of 16 years, I don’t see it as a major problem in major cities like that. Women are given the opportunity…if they’re up for it. I now live in N. Ireland and find it a much bigger problem here. As the comments above suggest, girls/women are heavily encouraged into medical/public/caring (and school teaching) jobs here (UK & NI) and part of that is a cultural heritage with ‘that is what girls do’. Having moved here, I have never seen so many womens medical uniforms in my life (i.e white jackets with blue/green edging) or so many female school teachers. And they’re all in a job for life, very rarely leaving or moving jobs. We also need these people to do these jobs, so i’m not complaining really, it would be equally nice to see more males in school teaching jobs and working as Occupational Therapists. At the same time, the women in tech here are doing great things, but having only been here a short time, I suspect I know all their names by now (through the grapevine) and can count them on two hands. Lots of women in graphics, advertising, account managing, branding…but still not many making waves in tech. I ran a MakerDay in Belfast a while ago, and whilst it was well attended by both genders, I don’t think anyone was expecting a female to be hosting it. I made a point of putting major ‘women in tech’ as the keynote speakers (Haiyan Xhang, former co-founder of openIDEO, Rachel Kerr from UsTwo, Jane Austin Head of UX at The Telegraph). I suspect there’s still a lot of work to be done at school level and a cultural breakthrough is needed if we are to entice girls/women into more tech careers. In my own family I have a niece who could be a great engineer (great at Maths, super creative and can solve problems), but I have no doubt she’ll be pushed to ‘medical’. Another family member has a daughter who is very artistic, but rather than look at the wide array of options that artistic people can offer a tech environment, she’ll be an ‘Art Teacher’. All too much, the ‘easy option’ if you ask me. We need a task force to send into schools and make tech options more accessible.

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  3. Thanks for your comment Michelle. Yeah – moving to NI from London can be a bit of a shock. Happened to me back in 2000…that’s a story for another day. Are you at CultureTECH in Derry next month? I’ll be there from Weds to Sat & will be speaking at two events (so far!) – the Create 2014 Event on Weds 17 Sept & then a Honeycomb Careers Workshop at Thornhill College on 19 Sept. If you’re going, please let me know in advance so that we can grab a coffee & have a chat. Failing that I’m in Belfast at least once a month & would love to catch up & swap stories.

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  4. Thanks for posting Mary. This is such an interesting (and often surprisingly fraught!) topic. I was personally pretty shocked when I went into tech journalism – I went to an event with over 200 attendees and was one of only three or four women. That was quite a wake up call. And difficult to understand, especially coming from more female friendly spheres of polling and PR (journalism is an exception, we’re still a bit behind frankly – not as bad as tech mind you.)

    I am still not entirely sure why we have such a particularly bad problem getting women into tech. Is it an issue of role models? The education system? Sexism? Or is it way more fundamentally about the way we’re socialised from day one e.g. through toys, and taught that tech is ‘not for us’, it’s for hoodie-d boys in dark bedrooms with pizza boxes? If so what the heck do we do about it?! Because I for one am not happy to sit and wait for equality to turn up centuries hence…

    This is a good blog post on the subject sent to me by Brian Glick, by the way: http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/witsend/2013/08/why-schoolgirls-are-not-interested-in-studying-it.html

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  5. A great read. I am a mid/late twenties digital marketer/project manager and I feel as through I am on the precipice of a career in tech. I have managed a couple of website redevelopments and a CRM implementation and am discovering a huge passion for UX, but it’s taken until now to feel like I could reasonably shift my career path and goals. Why?

    Ever since my dad came home with a computer in c.1995 I was hooked and spent the next 7-8 years ‘making things’ on it (with a strong focus on web-based products – incidentally, it would be interesting to hear your definition of ‘tech’). I was the only person I knew, let alone the only girl, spending weekends coding, making music and playing ms dos games. At school I would teach the IT teacher how to do things and finished my ICT GNVQ before anyone else – and ending up with one of the only Distinctions. But I was bored stiff and spend most of the lessons working on my personal websites and chatting to early internet friends (all under one of two handles – those were the days of anonymity!). Soon ‘ICT’ was all but forgotten – despite my success there was zero encouragement to take my success any further and there certainly was no opportunity to study anything computer/technology-related at A level. My obvious skills in this area were barely acknowledged by a teacher who, if I recall correctly, was primarily a teacher of another subject anyway.

    As supportive as my parents were of my education, they are not involved in or interested in tech and so my life went forth, resulting in the requisite humanities degree from a ‘red brick’ uni… And the first job in marketing (very, very female-oriented, especially within arts and charity!)

    And if this is the typical path of a youngster who ‘self-discovered’ her skills and interest, what hope is there for encouraging capable but as yet ‘unrealised’, tech-wise, women to enter the sector?

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    1. I enjoyed reading your post, Mary. I wonder if some of the problem is a wider one of how women in professional roles are regarded?

      For a while in the late 18th century, it looked promising for women to be able to have careers as professional artists, but there was that tricky issue of not allowing them into the life classes. The study of the male nude was so important to history painting & history painting was supposed to be the élite level of fine art at the time.
      200 years later, I had to argue for us to have a male life model for a change on our art & design foundation course. They found an elderly man for a couple of sessions, and insisted that he had to wear underpants or a jock strap. The female life models were not asked to wear any clothing. We also had to ask for a male life model on our degree course, but they were much better and more willing to find us male models for one of the two life rooms and we had several during the time I was there, and they were not expected to retain any clothing to spare students’ blushes.

      There was, however, still an attitude that female students were not expected to become professional artists. There was one female tutor for our foundation course (she taught ceramics), although I think there must have been one or two others teaching on other courses such as pattern-cutting. On the fine art degree course, all the teaching staff, including visiting lecturers, were male. Eventually, they did add one part-time female lecturer or junior lecturer. She looked very nervous, and I can’t remember ever having the chance to speak to her.

      Some of the male lecturers were fine, others weren’t. My personal tutor (male) told me that I was “better suited to being a lady-of-leisure dabbling in art as a talented amateur than being a professional artist.” I was very upset (knew he was wrong) & allowed myself to be pushed off the fine art course but chose to do history of art & design (which included a day a week of practical art & they turned a blind eye to my being in the fine art studios). I was 19 years old & there was a limit to how much I felt I could fight back. I’m still rather hesitant to call myself an artist. Women artists still have a long way to go before they’re regarded at the same level as male artists.

      When I first came across computers I could try using, the people who knew most about how to use the specific machines were women. At the time, I was unusual, certainly as an art history student, in writing my dissertation on a computer (with data saved onto a tape cassette). A couple of years later, I got my hands on the IBM computer that was sent to our division at work, and after working out how to connect it up, switch it on, and upload software, I soon began to work out ways it could help our work. I was in a male-dominated workplace. I was invited to be the only female member of a very small team that created the organisation’s first corporate plan database. The IT managers asked for my views on IT issues, and directed their consultants to talk to me. I’m not sure that it mattered that I was female as far as the technology was concerned.

      It wasn’t until the 21st century that I started to come across negative attitudes towards women engaged with technology, and I was surprised by it. I’ve currently retreated a bit from digital events and being seen to do much digital stuff because I find the negativity off-putting, and I can no longer see where I can fit into today’s technology world. At most digital events I’ve attended, the women have tended to be be in the minority, and it can feel uncomfortable at times and a bit daunting even at the best of times.

      I am glad that there are female role models out there. I wish there were more. I was always interested in science and technology as a child, and remember that the stories of women scientists were told in girls’ comics and annuals then. I do think that enabling and encouraging girls as well as boys to explore science and technology at a young age is a good thing. After all, why should girls limit their career options? There are discoveries of global importance for at least some of them to make.

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