Another look at tech’s diversity problem

by Sparrho on their blog 13 Nov 2017

By some accounts, the existence of gender discrimination in science is a shock. For the women themselves, it’s a long-suffered truth.

In honour of Sparrho becoming a signatory of the Tech Talent Charter, an employer-led initiative to encourage greater diversity in the UK’s tech workforce, we’re revisiting stories we heard earlier this autumn from women working in science.

As the Charter highlights, only 17% of ICT workers in the UK are female, only one in ten women are currently taking A-Level computer studies, and yet there is a looming digital skills gap where the UK needs one million more tech workers by 2020. Gender imbalance is just as much a problem in science and research careers; across the world, less than 30% of researchers are women. Despite how far we’ve come, there’s a lot further to go, as these stories from women we met exhibiting at London’s New Scientist Live exposition in September highlight.

Across the world, less than 30% of researchers are women.

First up is Emma Wride, a Space Ambassador for her native Wales, who went straight into hairdressing after leaving school, because “that’s what girls did”. A lover of space science and astronomy since childhood, her passion eventually got the better of her in her thirties, when she went back to school and then onto university to study for a degree in astronomy.

Today, she tours the country encouraging the next generation to get involved in science. We ask why she is passionate about getting women into science: “because,” she says firmly, “if they want to be whatever they want to be, they can be. And they don’t have to do hairdressing just because they’re a girl.”

The idea that girls have one type of career while boys have another — as much as we might think it something of the past — persists, not only across generations but across countries. “We need more girls to do ‘boys’ jobs’,” says Lidia Gabarrini, a drone operator and repair technician for the company Extreme Fliers. The women in her family never accepted traditional gender roles — her mother drove “a huge truck” — and so Gabarrini grew up oblivious to the idea that some career paths might be blocked to her on the grounds of her gender.

Women are underrepresented within electronic engineering.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, the attitudes she encounters in her job make it clear that not everyone is equally oblivious. “When I do shows, people say ‘Oh my god, a girl can fly a drone, she can repair drones, it’s so cool!’,” she laments. “Yes, because we can do everything.” But, as the only female in her company that flies and repairs drones, she faces an uphill struggle: as a woman, she says, she has to work much harder than her colleagues to prove herself. “It’s very challenging, because it’s a man’s world.”

“We need more girls to do ‘boys’ jobs’.”

This is a sentiment that is echoed across industries where men have traditionally dominated the workforce. The field of space flight, in particular, is notable for the bemusement with which it greeted the arrival of female astronauts — Sally Ride was famously asked if one hundred tampons would be enough for seven days in space — and, for many women, this lack of accommodation can be career-threatening.

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, aboard the Challenger shuttle.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Discrimination against women is, infuriatingly, not a thing of the past, and often forward strides in policy — which should be celebrated — unfortunately also serve to conceal attitudes that remain outdated and harmful. Science charity founder Amy King, who was sporting professional-standard hair and makeup when we met her — in the midst of demonstrating complex thermo-chemical reactions to a crowd of children — knows this better than most. At school, she heard that as a woman in science there were only two career options open to her: “to be a doctor if you’re brainy, and a nurse if you’re not.” Later, during her undergraduate interview for a prestigious university, she was told that she was too glamorous to be taken seriously as a scientist, and that “the ‘hair and beauty’ was down the road.”

“She was made to recite the periodic table from memory to prove that she was a scientist,” her mother, Nicola, recalls. “She got to about the third or fourth row down when they said she could stop there.” The university offered her a place; she turned it down, and went instead to the University of Greenwich, where she preferred the laboratory environment.

At school, Amy heard that as a woman in science there were only two career options open to her: “to be a doctor if you’re brainy, and a nurse if you’re not.”

Her experiences drove her to found the charity GlamSci, dedicated to helping disadvantaged young people achieve careers in STEM. Now a lecturer and STEM ambassador working towards a PhD in medicinal chemistry, Amy is one of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 175 Faces of Diversity alongside figures like Heston Blumenthal and Bill Bryson.

Success stories like this are common among the women we speak to; there is, of course, hope for science yet. Pallavi Chaturvedi, a clinical development manager at GlaxoSmithKline, says the story has begun to change in her lifetime: “When I was growing up there wasn’t that much knowledge of what career progression options there were [for women], and I think that’s changed a lot.”

Pallavi highlights education as the “main thing” that will drive women to enter science: “having those focus groups, having those interactions,” she says, will help bring the vision of inclusive science to life. “There’s lots and lots of encouragement [now] for women to get into science,” agrees Emma Wride. But she’s not satisfied: “we [need] more women in science, and in higher roles — more professors is what we need to encourage the next generation.” Onwards and upwards.

“We [need] more women in science, and in higher roles — more professors is what we need to encourage the next generation.”

Tech Talent Charter CEO, Debbie Forster, says: “It’s vital for the industry to come together as a whole to do more to show females that a career in technology is incredibly rewarding, to increase the number of females working within the industry, to attract people who are considering a career change, and to encourage younger generations to consider these careers from the word go. One single company can’t do it alone, which is why we’re asking organisations to pledge their support for the Tech Talent Charter and join us on our exciting journey.”

“One single company can’t do it alone.”

Rt. Hon Matt Hancock MP says: “A digital gender divide is unacceptable, which is why we’re working with industry to ensure that everyone has access to the exciting employment opportunities within our tech sector. To make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business we need the right workforce, and it’s great to see more organisations sign up to the Tech Talent Charter and improve diversity.”


Part of this article was originally published at HuffPost.