It’s been a while since I last posted. Life can get in the way of blogging sometimes, particularly in Summer when the beach beckons and the heat makes you lazy.
Last week, however, something happened that kicked me out of my Summer stupor and motivated me to get writing again. If you read any of my previous posts you will know that I started a web development company 18 years ago. This became one of the leading digital agencies in my country and a few months ago I sold it to a big consultancy firm.
I have had a very successful and rewarding career as an entrepreneur in the technology sector, so over the years it has become a matter of increasing concern to me to note that very few girls choose careers in technology. When I went to University twenty years ago I was one of 5 girls in a course of 50. My expectation was that as the years rolled by the numbers would even out, but this did not materialise – girls in technology courses in my country are still a small minority. Statistics show that this problem is widespread and is in fact a reality throughout Europe, with low numbers of girls taking up IT and Engineering courses. Clearly there is something wrong.
Many people will say that girls are free to choose what they please and of course I agree, but my question is – are girls opting out of technology careers because they are not interested, or is it because society and gender stereotypes are putting additional hurdles in their way?
I believe that the truth is unpleasant but must be faced. We are not treating our girls fairly when it comes to technology career options. This was brought home to me in a rather brutal way this week, when I found out that my thirteen-year-old daughter was bullied and harassed during an IT course I had enrolled her in for the summer.
My daughter is very interested in IT – she was raised in a home where she never faced any gender stereotypes in relation to tech. She was never told that computers were for boys or that programming is a male thing that girls do not “get”. Her ambition is to become a software engineer and her subject choices for her GCSEs reflect this. Up to a few months ago I was feeling smug – whatever issues were affecting girls in tech, I had managed to avoid them in my family. Or so I thought.
In order to encourage my daughter and help her get ready to start her IT GCSE programme in October, I enrolled her for two courses at a reputable IT school over the summer. When she returned from her first lesson she told me that she was the only girl in class but it did not bother her. She was enthusiastic about learning how to program in Java and delighted to be experimenting with robotics, and the fact that she was the only girl in the room did not seem to cause her any concern at all.
Over the weeks, however, her enthusiasm waned, until one day she told me that she did not want to continue attending the course. After a lot of probing the truth finally came out – a group of 4 boys in the class had taken to commenting on various parts of her anatomy and took any excuse, such as leaning over to get the mouse, to rub against her. My daughter is no wuss– however she is a young girl and it is not easy to deal with these situations. Her first reaction was to ignore them, hoping that if she did not give them the satisfaction of showing them how hurt she was, they would leave her alone. Unfortunately, however, this strategy did not work and the situation escalated to the point where she could no longer cope with it and refused to go to class.
To say that I was furious is the understatement of the century. Finding out your child is being bullied is a nightmare come true. Add in the sexual harassment element and the nightmare escalates to Freddy Krueger levels. Luckily my daughter got a lot of support – from me, from her father and ultimately even from the school. However the truth is that the damage was done. My daughter got the message. It sucks to be the only girl in a large group of guys – and in the IT world that happens quite often.
I am of course not saying that sexual harassment is a common occurrence in the IT world. Far from it. I have navigated the tech world happily for two decades and I have not encountered anything that I could not deal with. However the fact is that when you have big groups of young guys then the atmosphere is “male” and many girls feel uncomfortable with that. Walking into a room of men and realising you are the only woman there is not fun. I am often in that position and it is no walk in the park, so I can imagine that it would be extremely intimidating for a young teen.
So intimidating, in fact, that she could opt for a totally different career to avoid it.
So let us not be complacent when it comes to the problem of attracting girls to IT. It is clear that sitting back and waiting for the situation resolve itself is not working. I have been around for 20 years and very little has changed. We need to work hard to create an environment that is as welcoming to girls as it is to boys.
And we need a zero tolerance policy for bullying or harassment of any kind.