How tech can learn from the Lionesses

England Women's Football Team - Lionesses

Article by Amy O’Donnell

Watching the Lionesses win the Euros was a game changing piece of history. I cried at how momentous it felt.

The atmosphere and excitement felt not only significant for a sport where we traditionally only see men on the prime TV spots, but because feels like the winds of change for how women are perceived in the UK.

The ban on women’s football by the Football Association was only lifted in the UK in 1969. At primary school in the 90s, I remember the boys had our male teacher referee their football game as they played on the flat, professionally marked out pitch with the best quality ball. Us girls had bumpy scrubland with a half-flat netball and were left to our own devices. Speaking with young women in the youth group I run, the lengths they go to at school to get equality in sport makes it feel like not much has changed.

Unlevel playing fields

Women and girls face similar unlevel playing fields in other areas of society, including the tech industry. I can’t help but think what the industry I work in could learn from the Lionesses’ momentous journey.

With an all-time high of 870,000 UK tech vacancies in a world where females hold 17% tech jobs, there are huge repercussions – not just for filling this gap and equity of opportunity to attain a highly paid tech job.  It’s bigger than that – who designs technology impacts how our society is shaped and how decisions get made.

Role models

For me the first lesson we can learn from the Lionesses centres around role models . I watched Alex Scott’s documentary The Future of Women’s Football where Simone Magill (striker for Northern Ireland) said: “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”  Role models are powerful in showing what is possible and inspiring others “who look like me” recognising barriers are often confidence over capability.

In our Nominet Digital Youth Index, we found female respondents were less likely to want a career in tech than males and Tech She Can research found 3% of females cited technology as their first-choice career.

This comes down in part to a lack of role models and the way careers in tech are perceived as just coding when in fact, there are diverse inspirational applications digital roles in fashion, in the environment, in charity and beyond.

The documentary also spoke to lack of diversity in the women who make the team – the same goes in tech. Just 4% of technology professionals are women of colour. In both tech and football, we have to recognise women do not have homogenous needs and barriers, and there is a gap in well researched intentional strategies for inclusion.

Inspiration from a young age

The second lesson is starting young. I think the whole country has enjoyed getting to know schoolgirl Tess Dolan dancing to Sweet Caroline at the semi-final as a symbol of inspiring the next generation. Ian Wright asked her on BBC breakfast “After watching the match, does it make you think you can do that?” and Tess said: “Yes, definitely.”

Ian Wright spoke about this milestone moment for girls getting to play football in schools.  Likewise in tech, it’s about having the opportunities – it shouldn’t be just those at private schools swanky computer labs who get an early introduction to learning digital skills.

There are some starting points in tech we’ve made in tech around girls in STEM Micro:bit are getting minicomputers into primary schools, and Brownies are gaining coding badges with Google giving the opportunity to learn skills and shift attitudes about girls in tech. Stemettes run intersectional programmes, impactful events and inspirational platforms to support young women and non-binary people ages 5 to 25 into STEM and related careers.

Last night, Jonas Eidevall – the Arsenal women’s coach- said “We need better talent academies… the players you see here are not here because of the system, but despite the system.” Likewise, while this collection of universal initiatives offer a great start, there is a gap in the pathway of support for young people into digital careers at a systems level – to help them understand their options, entry points and support around mentoring and professional development.

Male Allies

There is also a role of male allies. Are men’s voices strong enough in advocating for women in tech, similar to the way Ian Wright speaks out in support of women in football? In 2015 Owen Barder invited people to sign a pledge to boycott men-only speaking panels (known as #manels). A great start – but what could the 2022 pledge look like to have men displace privilege? Standing up for better diversity in recruitment processes or team dynamics and supporting women’s leadership not just at public events but every day in the workplace.

Changing norms and narratives towards sustainability

Finally, and most crucially, mindsets matter for what is perceived in society as important. It leads to investment and commitment which is fundamental for sustainability. The London Olympics in 2012 transformed sports like cycling a decade on – how do we do that for women in tech?

The post-match discussion centred around investing and putting resources behind women’s football and how the early adopters will reap the rewards and tech is the same. The companies that go the extra mile to attract diverse talent and support early careers will come out on top. Diversity is more than a tick box, and solutions from teams with better gender balance are more likely to appeal to a diverse audience.

Two years on from the UK Equal Pay Act, women in STEM careers typically expecting to be paid £7,107 less than men. Lewes FC is the first club to guarantee equal pay and the same ticket prices for women and men. If men and women received equal pay in tech, it would be easier to attract women into the sector.

The Lionesses have inspired me in my life. They are doing so much for women in sport and beyond in other areas of society too. The journey over 15 plus years has shown what it takes to counter norms. It’s now important to make this legacy last, not just for women in football but for women in tech too so we can all have our lioness roar moment.

Amy O'DonnellAbout the author

Amy O’Donnell is Senior Programme Manager, Social Impact, at Nominet where a large part of her role is to support partners in navigating the way digital technology is impacting young people in the UK. She leads on strategic pillars exploring digital transformation in mental health and widening participation in digital skills and careers.

With over ten years’ experience supporting social impact initiatives, and helping to design inclusive approaches in the context of new digital realities, she has played an active role in the strategic direction of the Nominet Digital Youth Index, offering interactive, annual benchmarking data and insights about young peoples’ experiences both on and offline.Amy is passionate about privacy by design, ethical good practice, diversity and intersectionality.

With previous experience as Digital in Programme Lead at Oxfam and Project Director for FrontlineSMS:Radio, Amy joined Nominet in 2021 and has brought with her vast international experience as a champion for responsible data and countering inequality in a digital world.She is also dedicated GirlGuide Leader and co-District Commissioner in Headington, Oxford, which most recently has involved running activities connected to Safer Internet Day 2022.