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Claire Broadley Headshot

Why Women In Tech Aren't Getting The Respect They Deserve

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Last week, I was befriended on LinkedIn by someone I didn't know. This usually happens because someone wants me to do some technical writing work for the company or introduce me to their services.

It turns out that the guy simply wanted a "really nice" woman to chat to on Skype. I guess I'll take that as a compliment.

LinkedIn as a dating site? Sounds unlikely, but it's not as uncommon as you may think. A female friend of mine was also approached on LinkedIn by a guy who "loved her smiling face" and subsequently followed several similarly-named accounts on Twitter in the hope that one of them was hers. There's even a third party website, hitch.me, that professionals can use to scan profiles for eligible, trustworthy business people that might be interested in taking things to the next level.

In a way, it's hardly surprising. Female businesswomen and entrepreneurs are something of a rarity: a curiosity, even. But they do exist. Yahoo! just appointed a female CEO, Marissa Mayer; she joins Ursula Burns at Xerox and Virginia Rometty at IBM in the exclusive 'female CEO club'. You'd be forgiven for never having heard of these women before - they simply don't get much press, despite running some of the longest-standing tech companies on the planet.

Nobody's saying that positive discrimination is the answer, but let's pluck an example from thin air to demonstrate the point. Cast your eye over the UK covers of Wired magazine: seven of their nine 2012 cover stars are men. The other two are computer-generated graphics. In 2011, a women made the cover in January (in an article about Tron: "Light Cycles, Daft Punk, Future Sex"), and in August when Bjork rightly took centre stage.

One innovative woman on a Wired cover in 21 months? According to Catalyst, 16.4% of Fortune 500 companies have women in the driving seat. How come one of the biggest tech mags in the world has put women on less than 5% of its covers in the past two years? Sure, they have a 65% male readership, and they need to cater to their readers. I would still argue that a 35% female readership is enough to not place a woman next to a headline that reads "Future Sex".

All in all, the evidence says a lot about how women are regarded in business and technology. We're told things are changing for the better, but I'm not so sure. Let's not forget that Ada Lovelace created the first computer algorithm in the 19th century, nor that Jean Jennings Bartik programmed the ENIAC. Wrens who worked on the World War II ENIGMA machine at Bletchley Park were actually called 'computers'.

Back in June, Google hit the headlines when they manufactured a women's t-shirt for their annual conference. Not a big deal, you might think, but the fact that someone at Google expected female coders to show up is enough to make women genuinely feel included. Compare this with Nokia who just launched a new pink Lumia 900, complete with matching pink nail polish and an excruciating marketing video. (The video reminded me of a video named 'Science: It's a Girl Thing!', the horrendous European Commission video which attempted to attract girls to careers in science. A male scientist is seen fiddling with lab equipment; images of make-up are cut alongside girls modelling for the camera. The video was shelved after massive criticism.)

But I digress. Nokia's pink gadgets are nothing new; they and Samsung were making pink mobile phones ten years ago, and laptops, netbooks and other devices soon followed. The Vertu Pink Diamond Signature launched in January 2007 for a cool $83,000; pink has always had its market, and the mobile phone has been considered a fashion accessory ever since Nokia started making detachable fascias. But why not produce a range of colours? Are we really still doing this 'pink-makes-the-boys-think' thing in 2012?

There's nothing wrong with pink per se. But there is something slightly unsettling about an industry that can't market tech to women without adding Barbie-esque fluff. An industry where men attempt to chat up female businesswomen on professional social networks. An era where female entrepreneurs are practically ignored in the press. There is something strange about marketing black business-like handsets to men while simultaneously bundling pink smartphones with fashion. It's sad to see science degrees paired with make-up in a misguided attempt to make them more appealing to girls.

It might only be entertainment, eye candy and marketing spiel, but Nokia have revealed a lot about what they think a typical female customer will be into. It's a stark contrast against Google, whose humble, white, girl-shaped t-shirt is a big step in the right direction.