Could Disruption be the long awaited catalyst for Diversity? (F)
Diversity – Via Shutterstock

In an increasingly complex world, we need everyone – women and men, a variety of people from different backgrounds and cultures – to solve the hard problems we face and make the world a better place.

We live in a time dominated by technology and algorithms, it’s simply unavoidable. While machines are beginning to ‘think’ for themselves, they are coded by humans, and their interfaces and decision-making reflect the conscious and unconscious biases of their authors. Despite the best intentions of these coders, it is virtually impossible to make technology work for everyone if the engineers who create it are from a social monoculture. Sadly, women are still largely underrepresented in many STEM professions and in STEM fields at many universities. Awareness of this issue has risen in recent years, and we are making progress. But given the increasingly immersive nature of technology, it is absolutely vital that women play an equal role in building our future world.

Awareness days, such as Ada Lovelace Day, have helped to raise the issue. Ada Lovelace is known as the world’s first computer programmer. Her work with Charles Babbage to create the Analytics Engine, an early predecessor of the modern computer, was followed by the publication of the first, most elaborate and complete programme sketched out by a programmer. It was not until the software boom of the mid-90s that demand for coders skyrocketed. It continues to grow to this day, driven by advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) and the Internet of Things. Ada Lovelace was a pioneer but to encourage more women into STEM professions, we need modern-day role models. To be it, women need to see it.

Changing the world

PwC recently looked at the role of women in tech in the UK. In STEM fields, women accounted for only 15 per cent of employees. More distressingly, there are few signs that this number will rise without extra action, as only 15.8 per cent of undergraduates in STEM fields are women. It is well documented that girls outperform boys in STEM subjects at GCSE but lack the confidence to pursue these studies further.

A study by Microsoft found that 72 per cent of girls polled said it was important for them to have jobs that directly helped the world, but only 37 per cent thought of STEM careers as being creative or making the world better. That’s a key misconception that needs addressing because in today’s world STEM subjects, specifically coding and designing products for the masses, has a major impact on making the world a better place. There’s nothing inherently male about technology; it’s a tool to solve problems. With software and devices becoming more dominant in our daily lives, it’s important that women have an equal voice and opportunity in shaping the effects that these technologies have on day-to-day life.

Support from parents and teachers and evidence that pursuing STEM subjects can make a real impact on society boosts young women’s participation. Microsoft’s research found that girls are more than two times more likely to say they’ll study Computer Science in high school and three times as likely to study Computer Science through to tertiary education when both a teacher and parent support them. We need to show young women that they can do it, and what impact that they can have on the 7.5 billion people who could end up benefiting from their work.

Seeing is believing

Ada Lovelace, a pioneer in her time and an inspiration to many inventions that followed, is one of few role models for women in technology; how many women CEOs can you name? Gender balance in leadership has benefits beyond inspiring girls to pursue a career in tech; it can help attract top talent and increase innovation via a broader range of perspectives. Companies that don’t mobilize to increase women in senior management will be left behind. From sponsorship to family-friendly policies, there are proven methods to attract, retain, and advance women.

Businesses also need to play their part to target encourage people still in education to consider a STEM career. Work experience placements and internships are a fantastic way of showcasing the numerous opportunities that a career in STEM offers and will help to change any misconceptions that young women may have about the industry.

We have entered an age where machines are increasingly capable of thinking for themselves, learning from past data to make judgements. Research has found, for example, that AI programmes have picked up on human language biases on gender and race. With diversity in the spotlight and technologies being built today that will shape the future of humanity, identifying and unlocking these biases is very important. We need more diversity in the tech industry, and we must do more to help women see the value that they can add.

About the author

Therese Stowell is Director of Product Management at Pivotal.

After graduating with honours in Computer Science from Brown University, Therese joined Microsoft, working in the operating systems division as a programmer. During that time, Therese worked as part of the first Windows NT team, writing the command line environment singlehandedly. She also worked as a UX designer and Programme Manager as well as founding Hoppers, the women’s group at Microsoft, in 1990.

After being headhunted, Therese ran a software team at Sony Research Labs. Following this role, she later spent time at Hitachi.

Following the birth of her son, Therese combined her long-held programming and design skills by retraining in web development and running her own consultancy for nine years. Being deeply concerned about the environment, she became involved in a number of local food initiatives – creating a weekly vegetable delivery social enterprise which used a network of farms to supply Londoners with fresh, locally sourced produce.

Therese then moved back into tech, taking product management roles at two startups: one of which, FoodTrade, won the £40K Nesta ODI Food Challenge.

Therese joined Pivotal Labs in March 2016, having been attracted by the culture, the product, and the engineering rigour.