'I'd rather be a dustbin man than work in IT'.
These are the exact words of an 11-year-old girl. That's how she responded to my suggestion that she consider a career in technology. Ouch.
As part of the Little Miss Geek campaign, I've spent the past six months visiting schools around the country researching my book that tackles how to get the next generation inspired to work in technology - an industry that where currently fewer than one in five workers are female. Hardly any of the girls I spoke to could ever see themselves working for a technology company. But why? What is it about it that they find so off-putting?
Bottom line: Tech has an image problem. A serious image problem.
I repeatedly encountered the same three misconceptions that schoolgirls had about tech. Unless we start to correct them - which is why we have launched the Little Miss Geek campaign- we will find it almost impossible to convince the next generation of female talent that a career in technology can be rewarding, challenging and even - shock horror - creative.
MYTH 1. IT'S DULL AND UNCREATIVE
Working in tech is achingly dull. It's about sitting in front of a screen, bashing in numbers, not talking to anyone. Right? Why would anyone subject themselves to doing something they saw as mind-numbingly boring? Especially when they could be doing a more 'creative' job, working in a role that utilises their imaginations (and maybe has a ping-pong table in the office).
A study by Cisco in 2009 found that 80% of girls want the chance to be creative and independent in their work environment - and yet, only 30% believed a job in ICT would let them do this. Except tech is incredibly creative, people just don't realise it.
It's my experience that a technology company can be one of the most challenging, rewarding and downright exciting places a person can work. And you know what? It can be a lot of fun, too.
To imagine tech lacking in creativity and excitement is ridiculous, particularly at a time when most so-called 'creative' jobs are increasingly reliant on tech products. Tablets, phones, computers, apps, websites are all designed to be used creatively, as well as functionally; to write, to read, to design, to draw and to compose. This begs the question: how can the industry that created such creative tools be considered uncreative? We need to get girls equating the fun and imagination that goes into using tech products to the fun and imagination that goes into developing tech products.
MYTH 2. IT'S JUST FOR SUPER-NERDS
We all know the type.
The guy who rebuilt his mum's computer at age four. The friend who still keeps an old Atari 2600 - in mint condition - in his bedroom. The colleague who'd rather die than use Windows over Linux.
It's a popular misconception that unless you are a computer-obsessed, coding-straight-out-of- the-womb sort of nerd, the technology industry isn't the place for you.
But tech companies require a variety of skill-sets, and, like several careers, many technical skills can easily be learned on the job. Of course, it will always need computer geniuses, but it also requires all-rounders who are just as happy writing copy as they are at writing code.
Once we stop making technology firms seem priesthoods for computer-obsessives, and start showing that they need talented, hard-working employees, whatever their passion, amazing women from all sorts of backgrounds will start flooding through the doors.
MYTH 3. IT'S NOT A JOB THAT HELPS OTHERS
We all like to imagine our job means something, that it is making some difference in the world. For many girls, however, this wish is more than just an idle longing - it's a genuine job requirement. The same Cisco study found that ninety percent of girls hold 'the opportunity to help others' as a priority when it comes to career choices. It's no surprise to see them being drawn to industries like health, education, charity or the public sector.
Sadly only 60% believe that ICT would provide them with the opportunity to help another person, another knockout blow to tech's chances of being attractive to women.
But one only has to look at the thousands of ways the fields of health, sanitation, communication, entertainment, politics and agriculture have been improved by technological advancements to see that although it might not offer the one-to-one rush of teaching or nursing, say, a tech company offers the chance to help people on a global scale.
We need to start communicating to the next generation of talented girls- our daughters, our nieces- that the world needs talented, smart minds working in technology. Great minds make great products, and great products can change millions of lives.
The big irony is that while girls do not see themselves as creators of technology, almost every girl we spoke to loves technology. What teenager would ever go out without their cherished smartphone? There's no more desirable Christmas present than the newest iPad. It's obvious that girls love this stuff as much as boys. It's not the product but the image of the industry that turns girls away from considering a life in technology.
The book Little Miss Geek, is just the starting point for a much bigger campaign that includes after school clubs and 'code in a day' workshops. We are on a journey. The Technology Industry is alienating 50% of the population. The good news is that the companies that suffer the most from this problem are also the ones best placed to fix it. I've developed a 10 point Manifesto in my book for how companies can start to chip away at this image problem and reverse this unhappy trend. That's going to be the subject of next week's article.
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