I attended a fantastic event last week. Its sole aim was to raise the awareness of how we need to actively get more women into technology. Currently only 17% of the industry is made up of females, lower even than the number of women who are in the House of Lords. Of those who do decide to forge a career in IT, a staggering 56% of them have left the industry by the time they reach the middle of their careers. Whatever is going on here, the fact is women simply don't want to hang around.
Furthermore, speakers at the event highlighted how this wasn't just a feminist issue, but one that will affect us all. Experts predict that by 2017 the UK will have a digital skills gap of around 750,000, rising to one million by 2020. Digital job growth is forecasted to outperform all other occupations within the next five years. If we don't address the challenge of how to attract and retain female talent within technology, we simply won't be able to close the job gap.
This was the key message of the event and it was delivered through a series of panel discussions made up of inspirational women. Each had either achieved great success within the tech world, or was working imaginatively to change schoolgirls' perceptions of IT as a career choice, whilst also nurturing upcoming female tech talent. The audience was predominately made up of women and there was a great atmosphere, one of potential and excitement for the opportunities that lay ahead.
Then a guy decided to ask a question. The only problem was it wasn't a question, more an anecdotal story. And the story briefly went like this: "I think to get more girls into tech you should tell them how lucrative it is. My wife earns a lot of money as a lawyer. The only reason she accepted my advancements was that I was the only one who didn't stare at her tits whilst at work." Silence. The panelist: "Sorry was that a question?" Guy: "No I just thought you should rethink the way you get girls into tech".
Somehow this bizarre reference to his wife's tits managed to encapsulate why women aren't sticking around in STEM professions. The unnecessary objectification and sexualisation of his wife, combined with the arrogance of his delivery (he went to the front to say his "question") and ability to dismiss the panelists' earlier points, suddenly made the 44% female retention rate make a bit more sense.
Don't get me wrong - I'm sure every event sees audience members making crass or controversial comments. It's just that later on in the evening I got chatting to a female CEO and gentleman, who also worked within the industry. He floated the idea, that to get more women into IT, "they need to stop recruiting those stern, manly women". I asked him how this would impact the recruitment process and he clarified that these women "were putting off the more girly ones - they should at least hire ones in skirts".
Here I was at an event that was bristling with progressive ideas about tipping the balance of women in tech, yet still sexism was creeping in. For me I could shrug it off. There was wine and other people I could talk to, I could roll my eyes with the CEO and make my excuses to the canapés. But these two instances gave me insight to why women were dropping out of IT at such an alarming rate. Five years of those comments with no fellow female colleagues? I wouldn't hang around.
It truly was a fantastic event because on multiple levels it highlighted why there was still a way to go when it comes to getting women into the tech industry.