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The Biggest Stories About Women in Technology in 2016

In insight / By Ellen Bowers / 18 November 2016

In the year where PayPal held an all-male panel on gender equality in the workplace and failed to see the irony, women working in technology appear to have the odds stacked against them. While there has been some improvement with the number of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) - with women now earning half of all bachelor’s degrees in science and maths, women in technology are still heavily outnumbered and the number of women participation in computing has steadily declined for decades.

Tracey Welson-Rossman founder of TechGirlz, a non-profit organisation focused on getting more girls involved in technology during their time in education states “my hope for girls and women in tech is that we continue to build and expand upon the current process that has happened over the last three years.” As a society, we lose out on the potential innovations when we do not have a diverse workforce participating in the field of technology. Undoubtedly women’s presence in the technology sector has improved, there is still a long way to go, women make up just 26% of the tech industry.

Who to blame for the lack of gender equality within technology is hotly contested. The standard response is that it is not the fault of the hiring companies, they are not simply refusing to hire women based on their gender, women are simply not applying for the roles on offer.

So, these tech companies need to ask themselves why they’re finding it so hard to get women through the door in the first place.

Tech companies pass the blame for their male heavy workforce on to universities: if more women took up IT or computer science degrees then we wouldn’t have this problem and there would be more women involved in tech. Universities then pass on the blame to schools: not enough girls take on STEM subjects in school and in turn the schools blame parents who indoctrinate their children from an early age that science and maths are for boys and English literature is for girls.

To put things into perspective three decades ago, 42% of software developers were women. And then something changed, women left the profession, and now only 25% of computing professionals are women. Women feel pushed out by the tech industry that fails to accommodate for working mothers with non-flexible working schedules and feel discouraged by an extreme shortage of female mentors.

Despite the overwhelming gender inequality in technology here’s a look some inspiring stories and tech pioneers that have come to light with women’s involvement in tech.

Afghanistan’s Female Coders

Women’s evolvement in technology is often linked with their empowerment and in no situation is this clearer than the Afghanistan’s female coders that are defying gender stereotypes. Fereshteh Forough set up an after-school programme Code to Inspire – Afghanistan’s first coding school for women. “The beauty of coding and tech is that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are – with one computer and the internet they can reach the world and work without even leaving the house,” states one student, an Iranian-born Afghan refugee.

To put things into perspective, Code to Inspire was born in a country where just fifteen years ago, not only was the internet banned but girls’ education was deemed illegal, even today up to 85% of women have no formal education and only a measly 16% of the countries workforce are women. Currently, Code to Inspire has taken on 50 students, between the ages of 15 to 25 with plans to expand the programme to more cities across the country. One of the students Heydeh aspires to become a web developer explains “I have big dreams; I want to make websites to support local people with their work.”

Code to Inspire highlights that even in the most unlikely of places technology can inspire and give a voice to previously silenced women. The programme allows women power, allowing them to build confidence, use their creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills.

Carnegie Mellon’s 2016 Computer Science Class

Despite many statistics that show men heavily outnumber women in STEM classrooms and in the workplace, there is one respected computer science programme that has made great strides in recruiting women. Carnegie-Mellon’s 2016 computer science class with females making up 48.5% of the enrolment class this year. With recent surveys stating that an education in computer science or IT is in the top five for job prospects and found that half of high-paying job roles require coding skills.

Telle Whitney, president of a non-profit organisation designed to recruit, retain and advance women in tech, states ‘Carnegie Mellon is an important role model for other schools in their commitment to increase the participation of women in computer science.’ Whitney believes that the example that Carnegie Mellon sets will change the educational experience for its female students and provide the female role models that are currently missing in the tech industry.

While some schools do boast that they have 30% to 40% of women studying STEM subjects, they fail to acknowledge is that most of those female students are studying environmental, biomedical or chemical engineering – therefore Carnegie Mellon’s statistics are so remarkable as computer science and computer engineering are traditionally the lowest represented fields for women.

Jen Fitzpatrick

Jen Fitzpatrick is the ideal role model for girls who want to work in tech, after getting her masters in computer science at Stanford in 1999, she was soon offered a job at Google and she’s been there ever since. Fitzpatrick heads up Google Maps, an app used by 1 billion people globally "the central problem we're trying to solve is how to help people explore the real world," says Fitzpatrick. "And the level of detail people expects Google Maps to answer about the world is rising all the time.

It's a huge challenge, but it's also an exciting moment because it means we're getting information to people that really matters to their lives." Fitzpatrick is also a keen ambassador for women in technology and increased gender diversity at Google by insisting that at least one female executive interview every job candidate companywide “as important as it was to bring in strong women,” Fitzpatrick recalls, “we also wanted to recruit male programmers who would be great colleagues to women.”

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality has been a huge trend in technology for 2016, and nobody understands that more so than Gemma Busoni. Busoni who is only 17 co-founded DiscoVR Labs, an educational virtual reality start-up, Busoni’s aim is to solve a decidedly 21st-century dilemma, how to make virtual reality an even playing field for both men and women.

With any developing form of tech comes the research and a growing body of this research shows that men and women experience virtual reality very differently. The main crux of the issues is that women process the sensory immersion of VR in different ways to men. Although this may seem like a very niche issue, as this technology continues to grow and become increasingly more apparent in our day to day lives when one-half of the population experiences VR differently than the other, it’s a problem.

DiscoVR Labs looks into developing VR as an educational tool, as the company evolves its educational material Busoni and her team is looking closely at how gender effects the learning process. Busoni’s start in VR came about because despite her interest there were not any robotics programme at her school – so she did what any enterprising student would do: she started one herself!

Whitney Wolfe

This year Whitney Wolfe was named as a leading female tech pioneer thanks to her dating app Bumble, she was previously the only female member of the dating app Tinder’s founding team, and claimed that executives had attempted to strip her of her co-founder status because they felt that having a woman in such a senior position make them look like a joke.

With this came a lot of media attention, and lots of articles claiming that she knew nothing about the industry, so she decided to prove them wrong.

Bumble flips the dating game and the traditional gender script on its head allowing only female users to make the first move, racked up 3 million users in its first 14 months. "A lot of people create products that change how we live," Wolfe says. "But to create something with a positive message at the helm, that's what we're most proud of."

Ellen Bowers

Ellen Bowers

Ellen is a freelancer writers for various British technology companies, she writes regularly for The Nasstarian on a wide range of subjects.

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