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up to date with technological advances and how they can make technology attractive when so much of what they have is out of date is beyond me.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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