What is effective ethical governance?

In mid-August I attended an “Ethics and Automation” panel run by HMG’s Automation Taskforce, and hosted by Katie Rhodes, Senior Policy & Strategy Advisor; this is a rather delayed part 2 of my thoughts from the session.

The second speaker was Dr Brent Mittelstadt of the Oxford Internet Institute and Alan Turing Institute. His belief is that only when you can answer the following three questions you can have effective ethical governance:

  1. What is legally required?
  2. What is ethically desirable?
  3. What is technically feasible?

AI has the potential to derive inferances about private life protected characteristics that could be used for online advertising, for example. We know that is technically feasible. It’s definitely legally and ethically dubious.

As many will know, we have a ‘black box’ problem. Often AI is designed in such a way that it cannot be or is not explained. Where decisions have been made (e.g. not to offer a loan, to increase car insurance, etc.) we have to be able to explain what has been done, and to people who are not technical too.

Brent talked about the following paper in the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 2018, which suggests that making counterfactual explanations can be useful. For example, as a consumer who has a loan application rejected, the bank should instead tell you what would need to be different in order for you to get that loan.

Brent also introduced the need for ethical auditing. As he said:

“Principles alone cannot guarantee ethical AI”.

They are a good starting point, however. Katie took us through Google’s 7 principles, including ‘be socially beneficial’ and ‘be accountable to people’.

As you’d expect, IBM has a set of “Principles for Trust and Transparency” and a longer paper on “Everyday Ethics for Artificial Intelligence“. That paper discusses and provides suggested actions in 5 areas:

  • Accountability
  • Value Alignment
  • Explainability
  • Fairness
  • User Data Rights

Essentially, ethics is everyone’s responsibility, and we have to embed it in right from the very start, through to the very end, of whatever we are creating.

Then, moving from principles allow, Brent shared with us that the Social Science Research Network has been considering how to audit how we implement, measure and govern AI.

Brent added a couple of cautionary remarks to close: models need to be trained with local data, and when we are building a solution, do we really need to use AI within it? (That is, when we have an AI hammer we have to be careful not to just see everything as nails!)

Let’s not forget why we are doing this though. AI has great potential to transform public services and help join up delivery. Bethan mentioned that AI can be put to good use, tackling misinformation online. Brent suggested that we can use AI as a critical mirror, to hold our personal biases to account.

For part 1 of this session, see https://samoore.me/2020/08/18/ethics-in-automation-part-1/.

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Ethics and innovation go hand in hand

Last week I attended an “Ethics and Automation” panel run by HMG’s Automation Taskforce, and hosted by Katie Rhodes, Senior Policy & Strategy Advisor; this is part 1 of my thoughts from the session.

The first panellist was Bethan Charnley, Head of Strategic Projects at the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI). The role of this organisation is to advise Government on how to maximise the benefits of data.

Bethan raised that often innovation and ethics are posed as contentious, but she sees ethics as an enabler for innovation. (For those of us in tech circles, particularly where we have association with BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, we are also familiar with people thinking that professionalism can stifle innovation. But look at some of the incredible, stunning, unique buildings that we see erected, such as the one below. Does professionalism in Architecture stifle innovation there? Anyway… ).

No, she clearly stated – and I wholeheartedly agree – that “ethics and innovation go hand in hand“.

I would argue that by considering ethics alongside innovation we are far less likely to have the unintended consequences we have seen in examples of AI that has been trialled, and not just trialled but put into production. By considering the ethics we are not prevented from innovating, we just do it better. Innovation is more relevant, more inclusive, more valuable to society.

Furthermore, Bethan challenged us to realise that we have to consider not just the ethics of doing something but the ethics of NOT doing something. I’ll take that one step further: is it ethical if a Government Department does not provide a service to someone who doesn’t know they are entitled to it, when said Department may already have the data that shows they are? (Just a hypothetical question of course.)

Naturally, we can’t have a conversation about ethics in the field of data science without talking about bias in algorithmic decision making. AI could be a way to remove such bias. But if we’re not careful it’s a way to bake that bias in: training with biased data, building bias into algorithms, testing with biased data, and so on. We need to make sure we get insights into every stage of the AI lifecycle.

That’s one of the many reasons why IBM has developed Watson OpenScale. It can trace and explain AI decisions across workflows, and it allows you to intelligently detect and correct bias to improve outcomes.

A good, fun example of this is how we applied AI fairly to pick highlights from Wimbledon. If you think about it, the main courts have the biggest audiences and may make the loudest roars during rallies and wins. But there may still be a fabulous shot, unique win, and so on, on one of the higher number courts. Just as in life where those who shout the loudest are not always the most successful, at Wimbledon you may still have an amazing shot with only a ripple of applause. We wanted to make sure all successes were considered.

I suggested that by considering the ethics we innovate better. By applying fairness to this AI at Wimbledon the result was “a higher-quality selection of sports highlights—and more of them.”

Read that Wimbledon storoy for yourself: https://www.ibmbigdatahub.com/blog/ai-picks-highlights-wimbledon-fairly-fast

Learn about how KPMG stewards responsible AI with Watson OpenScale: https://mediacenter.ibm.com/media/1_ulgwi98c

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“Blizzard of Demand and a Blizzard of Data”

RPA is dead, long live RPA!

With so much talk about intelligent automation, digital business automation, integrated automation platforms, and other such terms, you’d think that robotic process automation – RPA – doesn’t apply anymore.

But not so. Whilst I believe much automation will indeed come from machine learning, AI – and so on – applied to work that gets done, organisations are still reaping the benefits of RPA. I recently attended an event run by the Government Automation Taskforce and whilst they too are contemplating the value of intelligent automation and are in its early stages, many of the success stories there – such as this one from the HMRC – show RPA has more potential to bring value across the breadth of Her Majesty’s Government.

The title of this blog is a quote from Chief Constable Andy Marsh of Avon and Somerset Police. They have a grand vision of being an outstanding police force, but with “the blizzard of demand and blizzard of data” – 10 million new pieces of data into the force every day – they knew they need to do more in order to turn this into smart decisions. With many data flows and processes, there had to be potential for automation.

They began this process of applying RPA in 2019, after running a Proof of Concept with us at IBM. As Nick Lilley, Director of IT at Avon and Somerset Police, said, this was about “extending and augmenting” the police force, freeing up capacity to work on more activity where humans can truly add value.

Of course, key to implementing RPA to make sure you get the best value is not to automate bad, poor or unnecessary process. This is an opportunity to apply ‘Lean’* or ‘Lean Six Sigma’ to truly understand processes, improve on them, and collect relevant metrics to support continuous improvement.

One of those processes they decided to tackle was uniform ordering. With a backlog of 700 orders, that would take 2 months for a human worker to process, the digital worker they designed dealt with that backlog in just 2 weeks.

The public wants officers on the street and RPA is helping Avon and Somerset achieve exactly that. This video tells you all about it.

And this is not the only example of recent RPA success. When I attended #ThinkGov2020 I learned about what has been done at the Veterans Benefits Administration from Dr Paul Lawrence, Undersecretary for Benefits. With regards to their intake, it took a long time to move from fax/email to an examiner’s hands and they desperately needed intelligent workflow.

By applying RPA they were able to turn a 10 day process in 1 afternoon’s work. Furthermore, the folks doing that manual work had great experience and insight into the business and they were reskilled into higher paid jobs.

The VBA needed to be agile to implement new benefits, and RPA has been an enabler for this. The organisation did have to deal with a few myths, such as the belief that a wet signature was necessary for approvals, when in fact it turned out it wasn’t.

As Dr Lawrence said, these days we can get a pizza and see it tracked by the hour – why can’t we do the same with benefit applications?

(As always, if you’d like to know more about how automation can help the public sector deliver service more effectively, or even to discuss what we mean by RPA or intelligent automation then get in touch.)

*I searched on ‘lean’ to find an appropriate link to add to this blog. Turns out every day is a school day: according to Wikipedia, ‘Lean, also known as purple drank and several other names, is a recreational drug cocktail, prepared by combining prescription-grade cough syrup with a soft drink and hard candy.” I definitely did not mean that!

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“There’s nothing like a crisis to make long term change”

At #ThinkGov2020 last week Ginni Rometty, IBM’s Executive Chairman, had a conversation with Jessica Tisch, Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), NYC. At one point Jessica made the statement I’ve borrowed for this blog’s title.

It’s so true.

For a bit of background, Jessica Tisch moved into this role earlier in the year, and had 3 months to get to know what was happening internally and how it worked. Then COVID-19 hit and it was a baptism of fire for her. Firstly, she had to take the city’s workforce and get them ready to work from home, setting up remote access and MFA, distributing a great many laptops and such like.

The second phase for Jessica has been working with agencies to help them deliver traditional services and new services. For example, when people couldn’t leave their homes this left 1 million people food insecure. Her actions meant that meals could be delivered direct to people’s doors. Today they deliver 1 million meals a day. They built the service in a weekend. Folks can sign up online or call to register. They put the city’s taxi drivers – whose businesses had plummeted – to work. In Jessica’s words:

“we created a free Uber-eats in a weekend”.

It just shows what we can do when we have to – and how we can be imaginative when we have to. One of the challenges I have is making the time to think, to be creative. Anyway, I digress…

Jessica also told a story of which I am particularly proud. NYC has 1800 state schools with 1.1 million students. Whilst digital can be such an enabler, in the words of Ginni, it can create a “bigger have/have not society”. Approximately 1/3 of these students did not have access to an internet-connected device and therefore wouldn’t have access to education at home. NYC reached out to many suppliers for help; 3 stepped up. Apple provided 300K iPads. T-Mobile offered unlimited data plans for under $8/month, which made it affordable and achievable. IBM provisioned all those 300,000 iPads so they arrived with the students equipped with every app needed to support the remote learning curriculum, which meant they were ready to use out of the box. Now the most underserved can be included.

Ginni talked about what one Governor had said – there will be no more snow days! Now when it snows the students will be able to access their learning from home. I suspect there will be disappointment there!

And from what Tisch said, this new scheme is here to stay.

Ginni finished with some words that really struck me:

“Now is the time for leaders to lead with both their head AND their heart; the head deals with the mechanics, the heart will help deal with the systemic issues … we will have a chance to build back better.”

Then she closed saying that the crisis has show that we can find:

  • New ways to work
  • New ways to partner
  • New ways to fix some of what have been intractable problems (such as disease, work, social inequality)

Lets rise to that challenge!

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What I learned about hybrid cloud at #ThinkGov2020

I have a confession: this may not be quite all I learned; it was 4 hours worth and my hand got tired taking notes!

ThinkGov Digital was the IBM conference for Federal in the US, which took place on 1st July. I attended to see what would be relevant to the UK; quite a lot it transpires. Here’s my interpretation of what I did capture:

As usual, Arvind Krishna’s keynote struck a chord with me. He recognised that it’s been tough for the public sector recently with social unrest and the rise of unemployment. COVID-19 has shown us that technology that enables innovation, speed and insight is of most importance. Technology platforms determine how well you pivot, serve citizens, scale and respond to a crisis. Naturally, hybrid cloud and AI drive that digital transformation.

Arvind Kirshna, IBM CEO

Focusing on hybrid cloud, Arvind talked of 4 imperatives that drive hybrid cloud: history, choice, physics and law.

On history, rarely do organisations start from scratch, certainly not in the public sector. Processes are well integrated into systems. The role of hybrid cloud is to meet you where you are not.

Re: choice, relying on one public cloud locks you in and locks you in to only one company’s innovation.

Physics <one of my favourite subjects at school as it happens> has a role too. You cannot run a robotic floor that needs swift response times through a cloud. Government may not run too many of those, but something that springs to mind is the need for the Met Office to run its intensive modelling on premises but use public cloud for its analysis and reporting.

And there’s law, the legal frameworks and sovereignty issues with which we need to comply. IBM provides the reliability and continuous security that government demands for mission critical workloads.

Arvind tells us we’ve made some bold bets:

  • We’ve joined forces with Red Hat to provide the platform that will enable you to build apps that will run anywhere
  • We are committed to interoperability
  • Some clouds are more suited for some workloads. We believe IBM is the best for regulated workloads.
  • Open is the foundation for IBM Cloud
  • We have 190 cloud native, open services that can run anywhere
  • We have start of the art cryptography, meet current standards such as FIPS 140-2
  • We allow you to Keep Your Own Key (for k8 apps) – you own your encryption keys and the HSMs that protect them.

Following some discussion on AI (I’ll probably blog about that another day), Arvind went on to state IBM’s commitments to you:

  • we’ll continue to deepen our understanding of your needs,
  • we’ll help you identify opportunities to deliver value to the people you serve, and
  • we’ll continue to be a leader and foster an entrepreneurial culture.

Naturally, Arvind spoke on more, but I’ll perhaps include that in a future blog…

A little later, in the “Future Proofing Government with Hybrid Cloud” session with Paul Smith, SVP and General Manager, Public Sector, Red Hat, his arguments extended Arvind’s message and included:

  • The technical debt that public sector is trying to deal with demands a hybrid, multi-cloud architecture < I would add that it also demands the ability to manage the heritage technology as well as the transition and target platforms>
  • What we offer is a foundation that allows you to move workloads anywhere you want any time you need <although I add that I don’t necessarily expect you to do that often!>
  • Not all clouds are equal; IBM’s is the most open and the most secure
My well-thumbed copy of The Cloud Playbook

I recently had the pleasure of digesting ‘The Cloud Playbook’ pulled together by the team behind the One Government Cloud Strategy here in the UK. Unsurprisingly, the messages overlap: lock-in, openness, and the challenges to transition. Building native digital services in cloud is not so hard, but transforming what’s left behind can be. We have some good ideas about how to do that – from a technology, skills and culture perspective. Do shout if you’d like to know more.

I learned a lot more at #ThinkGov2020 – on AI, automation and stories of which to be proud, so will share those here soon too.

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It’s time for change.

There are many reasons why unconscious bias needs to be discussed and addressed within the IT industry.  One of those is that there will be more STEM jobs in the future, and if fewer women study those subjects and work in that industry now, they are even futher likely to be impacted.

And there’s plenty of evidence about why gender diversity is so important, and companies with greater gender diversity at the board level perform better and have better reputations.

But 70% of women who graduate with a STEM degree do not stay in STEM post 5 years.  One of the reasons for that is that we need to feel like we belong.  I’ve experienced folks from Catalyst who talk about the importance of belonging.  In fact, they have a rather handy page on why diversity and inclusion matter, with links to relevant research.

And we *all* have a role to play in inequality.  Conscious bias clearly does still exist, and is dangerous.  But unconscious bias goes on largely unnoticed and is more likely experienced in a professional environment with less obvious complaint mechanisms than conscious bias.

Many folks talk about ‘the management team’ undergoing mandatory training for this, but we all need it, and need to refresh it, and constantly keep it in mind.


On 12th February, Talat Yaqoob, Director of Equate Scotland, spoke at a BCSWomen event I ran with the BCS Tayside and Fife branch on this very subject, and she highlighted 3 unconscious biases I thought I’d share.

One is in group bias, where we favour in our image.  We see like for like, and all too regularly asses likeability over competence.  I saw it in practice recently when recruiting new people to a team.  Comments were made about the ability of our new members to gel with us, and be able to cope with the style of existing members who were rather happy to share their opinions, ideas, worries, concerns.  But rather it should be for the existing members to ensure the skills and experience that was lacking were sought for first, and the responsiblity of those existing members to ensure that everyone had a say.  There’s something about extroverts being preferred that means we end up without diversity in that characteristic!

The second was confirmation bias, when we hear what we want to hear.  Sadly I didn’t hear an example, but I suspect many women suffer from this one.  Say there is one woman on a team, a board, in an org, and she fails (you know, sometimes it happens!)  Far too many folks think therefore if she fails then all women will fail and therefore they shouldn’t be on boards, in certain positions, etc., etc.

The one that made me chuckle was unconscious bias bias!  This is where someone thinks that as they are an open-minded, logical person they don’t have any unconscious bias!  Or they think that because they have had unconscous bias training they are no longer biased!  But we all have them.  Talat covers this sort of subject all the time, and she told us a story (that I don’t feel at liberty to share here) of an example of her unconscious bias too.

Of course, bias is not just about gender either…

Something else to be aware of is macro and micro aggressions.  Macro aggression can be seen in the gender pay gap, the lack of women in STEM, the lack of men in vet medicine…

Micro agression can be seen as ‘death by a thousand cuts’, where you’re just not happy with an organisation, team, etc., but can’t necessarily put it down to one obvious thing.  Describing an event as “black tie” can even be thought of as a micro-aggression, especially when it’s an event for women; why aren’t we describing what women should wear?

Another common micro aggression is women not being heard by men.  Take Obama’s 2009 administration for example.  Two thirds of the top staffers were men, and the women’s voices were just not being heard.  So the women did something called ‘amplification’.  They went to meetings in at least twos, and every time a woman had a good idea other women in the room would positively reinforce it, perhaps by stating it was a good idea and saying “tell us more”.

So, what can we all do?  Challenge our own thinking.  All the time.  And slow down decision making.

Do get trained.  More than once.  A training session allows for self reflection in a space we don’t often give ourselves.

Pick people up on their unconscious bias, point it out.  Don’t be mean, but don’t hold back either.


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Have I forgotten IWD already?

It’s been just over a month since International Women’s Day and already I’ve neglected at least one of the pledges I made for progress.  So, I thought I’d take a look back at the notes I took from the event I ran for the BCSWomen and Scotland Women in Technology networks, featuring some inspirational women who had been nominated for the SWIT Awards 2017.


Some of the pledges made in Edinburgh by BCSWomen and SWIT attendees

First up was Talat Yaqoob, Director of Equate Scotland.  Her CV for the advancement of diversity is impressive.  She talked about action that she and Equate are taking to press for progress, and the need for industry and education to come together.  She stressed that a 45 minute session does not “cure” unconscious bias and shared that positive gender stereotypes are crucial.

We then heard from Jude McCorry, Head of Business Development at The Data Lab.  She described herself as mother, manager, employee, daughter.  She has been identified by us as a role model, but we all play many roles at different times and in different contexts.  She was keen to impress upon us the support that she has received from men, and that male role models can be equally as valid.  And men – we *do* need your support.

Last, but by no means least, was Ilana Munckton, Director, Growth at Skyscanner.  She gave us an honest account of her experience of imposter syndrome, describing reactions such as “I’m not as impressive as any of these other women”.  Boy do we know these: “I’m not good enough”, “I don’t deserve to be heard”, “my skills are not as good as yours”…   We tell ourselves this all the time.  This still happens in a nurturing environment.  And it’s not just women, men suffer from this too, although I suspect men are better at faking the confidence.  So how do we shut out those voices?  As Ilana put it, “we need to champion intelligent, hard working women relentlessly and passionately”.  A positive action I learned from Ilana, then pledged to do and have almost immediately failed upon doing, is #HighFiveFriday.  Every Friday she recognises someone (or some people) for being awesome.  If I remember correctly she tells their manager.  But just doing it is great.  We may find it hard to build ourselves up, but it’s a lot easier to build up others.  So that was my pledge and I have two days to get started again….

(I also pledged to nominate someone for this year’s Scotland Women in Technology awards, but as they are not ready for nominations I don’t feel I’ve slipped up on that yet!)

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What the travel industry did to celebrate #IWD2018

A tweet about this was the first thing I noticed about travel and IWD: Trainline partners with Code First:Girls to train 20,000 women in coding by 2020. The plan is to deliver a training programme with their staff acting as mentors for women, and Trainline will also provide financial support. Together they will campaign to raise between £0.5M and £1.5M each year for three years.


As the DailyEdge put it, “Aer Lingus offered women priority boarding for International Women’s Day and it caused a LOT of controversy”.  Apparently a few were calling for the same to happen on International Men’s Day, and there was some rather unhelpful dialogue on Twitter, but overall this was well received by both men and women.

If you travelled on a Gatwick Express train you would have been inspired by quotes from famous women shared on the passenger information displays.

Go Ahead Group’s Morebus shared a video of three female bus drivers, discussing what it’s like when there are so many more male bus drivers.

At Emirates an all-women team made flight EK 225 from Dubai to San Francisco happen. This included a fully female flight crew, and only women working on all the ‘above wing’ and ‘below wing’ activities to enable the flight to depart. This was a team of over 75 women, with over 25 nationalities between them, so there may not have been gender diversity that day, but it was certainly a diverse team.


But it wasn’t just Emirates, on Monday 5th British Airways claimed a record for the most women involved in a single flight – crew, baggage handlers, check-in staff and security. (But Emirates seem to have smashed that on the Thursday, see above.) This was flight BA1484 from London Heathrow to Glasgow. easyJet had six all-female crews operating 16 easyJet flights on #IWD2018 and Virgin Atlantic had three all-female crews on flights out of Manchester, London Gatwick and London Heathrow.


One of Virgin Trains East Coast’s business travel professionals spent time at Northern Ballet to share thoughts on women in leadership.

Several airports also had all-women teams on shift, including Bengaluru and Kempegowda


Maersk partnered with ITC for an IWD event, #SheTrades, and shared this video:

I’m proud to be a woman working in travel and transportation, and IT.

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Women take over the Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament – both debating chamber and gallery – was full of women on Saturday 5th March.  It was quite a spectacle.

I was delighted to be allocated a place (only 350 places were available with 900 people applying) to go along to the Scottish Women’s Convention conference and listen and meet some inspiring ladies.  I usually go to events related to women in technology, and this was far more focused on women in society; it was rather interesting to think about the gender gap from a different perspective.

First up was Agnes Tolmie, SWC Chair, and after welcoming us made a point that those of us who are fans of social media should not forget: the power of social media is influencing young women to conform to unrealistic standards.  I wonder if we can do something to systematically help share role models instead.

Our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was up next.  I smiled when she said that her happiest day in the chambers, every year, is this day, the day of the SWC conference.  She also added that she believed that if more parliaments looked more like this all of the time the world would be a better place.  I don’t think she was saying that all parliaments should be all-female.  Indeed, evidence proves that diverse organisations have better performance so all female may not be any better than all male.  But we definitely need more women in parliament, more to represent what society actually looks like.  As if she had read my mind she did then add that until at least half of the seats in the chamber are female we’ll be under-represented.

The FM (am I allowed to call her that?) talked about International Women’s Day’s “Pledge for Parity” and the fact that if we continue at our current rate, it will take until 2133 before we achieve equality globally – according to the World Economic Forum’s report in 2015.  From an education and health perspective in the UK we’re doing pretty well, but economically and politically we still have a way to go.

Ms Sturgeon (that’s probably more acceptable) also mentioned that on the day she was sworn into Parliament she made a pledge to her 5 year old niece that she would win the outstanding battles in our generation so she doesn’t have to.  Definitely a pledge worth making, perhaps not so easy to achieve.

One rather pleasing statistic about the Scottish Parliament is that when it was installed in 1999 there were more women MSPs then than the total of female MPs combined in Westminster, ever.

She also talked about the need for councils to work on the proportion of female Councillors, and suggested that women need to be encouraged to step forward for local elections.  Ms Sturgeon indicated that evidence proves that they are as likely to succeed as their male counterparts, if only they would step forward.

Ms Sturgeon talked about some of the achievements that the Scottish Parliament has made, such as new criminal charges to help prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women, including revenge porn.  As a country we have also made good progress regarding apprenticeships: in 2008 1 in 4 apprentices were taken by women, last year (2015) it was 4 in 10.

One last point (there were many) is that only one quarter of private boards in Scotland have women, but 50% of those appointed to public sector boards, last year, were women, so “government” is making progress that the other sectors should be or could be imitating.

Another of our speakers was Kirstie Steele, actor from Waterloo Road.  She talked about women we see on TV and in film.  Far too many are in reality TV and programmes such as “Snog, Marry, Avoid”, that don’t necessarily represent women in the most flattering way.

I liked her saying “not all TV is the same”.  Her character in Waterloo Road was intelligent, hardworking, represented the school.  In Glasgow Girls she played Jennifer who stood up for her friends, and the programme received a Scottish Bafta and an award from the Royal TV Society.  But then she mentioned how she was then portrayed out of the show.  She was interviewed by teen mags such as TeenNow and instead of them tackling the challenges of a deaf female student in school they put Kirstie in the fashion and beauty sections.  Rather than focus on the serious issues that other teens may be facing they asked Kirstie for her make-up tips.  What a missed opportunity.

Kirstie also talked about her exposure to the negativity that can be found online.  She has been the victim of trolling and although she said she got used to it, supported by friends and family to help brush it off, this doesn’t make it acceptable.

But she did then focus on the much stronger and positive side to the internet and media and gave the BBC3 programme, Girls Can Code, as an example.  Apparently Kirstie volunteers with CoderDojo Scotland (who would have thought?) and she’s been using SonicPi to code her own version of a Taylor Swift song.  Those of us fighting for the “women in IT” cause should definitely be “watching this space” when it comes to Kirstie.

Lastly, Kirstie returned to positive role models in television, suggesting Sarah Lancashire’s character in Happy Valley and Olivia Coleman’s policeman in Broadchurch, amongst others.

Her plea to us was to stop watching the shows that portray women badly, to switch to shows with a strong female character, and also to tell the producers and the broadcasters what we want to see – and what we don’t want to see.  Personally, I haven’t made my mind up on “strong female” characters yet, I’m not sure they always need be strong, but I do want more positive female lead roles.

She made one more ask: be the positive role model you want to see on screen in real life.

Our penultimate speaker was Jane McKay, Former Secretary of the Glasgow Trade Union, and she talked about the impact women can have when they work together.  Her stories were of difficult times when Chile was ruled by Pinochet, and the efforts made by women (and men) in Scotland to welcome refugees and to comfort prisoners of war.  She told us that the action of sending postcards of support to people in prison in Chile resulted in torture being stopped for some.

She reminded us that sometimes in the press we hear terrible stories about refugees as if they weren’t men, women, children and babies, as if they weren’t human.  She urged us not to forget.

Lastly, Dr. Marsha Scott, Chief Executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, talked of 40 years of Scotland’s Women’s Aid movement.  It all started with women like us who were tired of seeing the discrimination, violence and abuse that their friends and family were receiving and no-one cared about.  Those women opened their homes.  But tragically there were too many in need to find enough homes.  We’ve got where we have because women like us complained and marched and didn’t give up to make sure it was noticed.

Yet 40 years later – i.e. 2015 – there were 70,000 police reports of domestic abuse.

There’s still a long way to go.

Dr. Scott talked about the cross-party consensus reached in Scotland so that we can all be “equally safe”.  The problem being, that when we’re not viewed as equals we are more likely to be abused, and if we are abused we are less likely to be seen as equals.

There are some real political hurdles that make addressing this tough.  Most Women’s Aid groups have no more than 1 year of funding, and cuts from local authorities is having an impact.  Scotland’s housing and homeless policy means that women at the local level who need help need to make themselves homeless before they will get it.  This wasn’t an intentional result, but has happened as a result of a policy decision made in silo from other social challenges.  Forcing women and children from their homes is traumatic.  Another complication is that free legal advice is means tested.  A woman who leaves an abusive home will have the value of her assets assessed, but just because she has a house in theory that does not mean she has access to any of its value.

Another tragic fact is that abused people are most likely to be murdered when they try to leave.

I can’t imagine how horrendous it must be to be in that situation.  Dr. Scott pointed out that being an exile, a refugee, a sufferer from domestic abuse is not a choice, but we, society, can choose how we act.

It’s sobering.  But then I’m reminded of the change that can be made when we all work together.  Think of what happened at Dagenham in 1968 for example.

And at least once a year we know the Scottish Parliament will be full of women.




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What does one do with a Barbie?

Today I had the privilege of chairing a panel at the Women of Silicon Roundabout in London.  Our focus was “Closing the Gender Gap”.

We started with a discussion on targets versus quotas.  The panel appeared to be in agreement that quotas – a government requirement that organisations comply to a certain number/percentage of women, with repercussions if they do not – can be harmful, putting more pressure on those women who *may* be a number rather than there on merit, even although it was admitted that in some countries the quotas appear to have worked.

The panel also agreed that targets, however, can be useful. Fiona Hathorn, MD of Women on Boards UK, stated:

 “What gets measured gets managed, and what gets managed gets done.”

That really resonated with me.  Targets can also make it much more clear where the problems lie in an organisation; for example, if a company can meet a target of 50% female applications, 50% female hires, but not 50% females in the middle management layer there’s clearly a challenge to be investigated.

But we could talk targets and quotas for ever.  So I moved us on.

There was also violent agreement that there is a problem with pipeline.  There definitely needs to be more done to interest children, at the primary level, in technology.  IT – specifically in the UK – has a poor brand, and it doesn’t help that many people outside of the industry struggle to articulate what a career could be, including influencers such as parents.

I certainly don’t envy teachers of computing at schools; how they stay up to date with technological advances and how they can make technology attractive when so much of what they have is out of date is beyond me.  Susan Bowen of TechUK commented that to compensate for a country-wide, government-led change, work is being done in pockets across the UK, largely by volunteers who recognise the need.

Someone asked the panel how we keep children interested in technology assuming that we have caught their attention.  And certainly, Clare Sudbury of LateRooms had commented earlier that when she was younger she had had a fear that her liking of science, of puzzles, of maths, was wrong because she was a girl.  In my own experience I know that I stopped asking for Lego as a present because I didn’t think girls should do that*.  I started asking for Barbies in order to fit in.

I didn’t have a clue what to do with a Barbie.

So, there are quite a few organisations out there to help; organisations such as CodeFirst: Girls, Stemettes and CoderDojo may fit the bill, the latter particularly for younger children.

We also talked about name-blind applications and unconscious bias.  I related the anecdote that Dame Stephanie Shirley used her nickname “Steve” to sign communications with clients because they didn’t respond to a woman.  Toby Mildon, Diversity and Inclusion lead at the BBC, told us more about what they are doing to ensure no unconscious bias screens out suitable applicants early in the hiring process.  He told us of one who had had two applications turned down at the very first stage in other scenarios, but made it right through as the most qualified candidate at the final stage of recruitment when they applied through the name-blind process.

We talked about many other things too, but lastly I just want to highlight the discussion we had about men.  Gents, we can’t meet that gender gap without your support.  Don’t forget, we’re not really taking your places, it’s more that there’s a huge skills gap in the market and women can help fill that.  It’s likely that women will join you, not replace you.  And there’s lots of evidence out there that proves that diverse teams are the most successful.  This is not just a touchy-feely thing about diversity; there’s a real business case behind it.  So, be our mentors, be our sponsors, be our advocates.  Come along to “women” events to see what is on our minds and some of the challenges we’ve faces.  You might be the only man in the room, but do remember that often we’re in the reversed scenario.  I once ran a BCSWomen event to which two men had signed up.  They walked into the room, saw all the women and walked back out again.  If I did that at work when I saw all the men I’d never get my work done!

Of course, if you’re a dad/uncle/brother help your daughter/niece/sister explore what technology means to them, how it has an impact on their lives.  Don’t let them spend any time feeling bad if they get teased for being different.

Also, if you haven’t yet watched Emma Watson’s HeForShe event at the UN in 2014 do take a look.

I also have my own opinions on how flexible working can help the gender gap too but I will save that for another blog another day.

So, what do you think?  Have you seen the effect of targets?  Have you suffered from the unintended consequences of unconscious bias, especially at the application stage?

And what does one do with a Barbie?

*I’m over that now.  It was a while back now, but in my first visit to Hamley’s at the age of 22 I bought a Lego Ferrari. For me (just in case there was any confusion there).  I’ll be making sure my nieces and nephew know that they can play with Lego no matter how old they are.


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