by David Henderson

Geek girls – Finding the next-generation talent solution

Jun 06, 20135 mins
IT Leadership

The latest CIO 100 list features only five female CIOs. This year in the UK, only one in 10 Computer Science graduates will be female. Women contribute less than 2% of open source software and file less than 5% of technology patents. Less than 10% of venture capitalists who invest in technology businesses are women.

For many CIOs, attracting and retaining top technology talent remains an absolute priority. A recent McKinsey study predicted that high-tech companies face a global shortfall of 40 million skilled workers by 2020 and industry analyst Mary Meeker estimates that demand in the USA for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) graduates is four times higher than those from non-STEM subjects.

Here in the UK, girls still outperform boys in STEM subjects at 16+ but have a higher drop out rate than boys in these subjects at university. A Computer Science Professor at the University of Southampton, Wendy Hall, argues that the root cause goes back to the marketing of the early personal computers in the 1980s as “toys for boys” thus alienating 50% of the population from working with computers in just half a decade.

Despite today’s graduates having never lived without the internet or personal computing technology, there is still a need to address perceptions of careers in technology for women and ensuring the university environment is one in which both men and women can flourish. The challenge is, as new recruit Jen Catlow pointed out, to “bridge the gap between the stereotype of the IT crowd and the uber cool innovative image of technology giants Apple and Google”.

There are some encouraging signs. Intense lobbying from the British Computer Society and a number of industry CIOs resulted in the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announcing that from next year the “dull” subject of ICT is to be replaced by a new Computer Science subject that includes a programming element.

Little Miss Geek(top image), a campaigning agency, took over two London girls’ schools for a day in March to show 11-and 12-year-olds that they can create and not just consume technology using inspiring speakers, coding and games-design workshops – and awarded prizes such as Xbox 360s and Raspberry Pis for the best work.

There are also an increasing number of high profile female role models, such as the Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs Marissa Meyer and Heidi Rozen (who sits on the Board of Directors of my organisation). Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has published Lean In, a book which encourages women to take a more active role in their career management.

Back in December 2008, CIO magazine published an article titled Where have all the women gone? Around the same time my own team was 95% male and our culture could only be described as macho. Soon afterwards we set about addressing this imbalance realising that a number of factors were in our favour – media industry, West London location, flexible working and a relatively generous maternity policy.

The situation today is that the technology team is 80% male and 20% female that is better, but far from ideal.

I have started presenting technology trends at a local school and we started presenting at graduate fairs and targeted students who had spent their sandwich year as interns hoping they would understand that technology had become the heart of most business strategies. We also persuaded a graduate interested in journalism to switch to technology.

We launched a culture change initiative called EPIC that introduced a new office environment, corporate responsibility initiatives, flexible working and more social events that suit mixed environments such as Summer Garden Parties and Softball tournaments. At the same time we published a short, irreverent video on our diversity philosophy.

New starters Katie Muir and Melissa Grant said that “the banter is better in a mixed gender environment” and that it is important “to create an environment that is not intimidating for women”. Both feel that teams are more effective when they comprise both sexes.

Julian Goldsmith argued in CIOback in 2012 that “to get a 50-50 gender split in the CIO 100 of 2032 -a move for quotas of women in appointment committees, not boards, to be imposed”. I disagree and am pleased to report that we have avoided quotas and positive discrimination. All recruitment has to be on merit but we have had to work harder to achieve a more balanced short list of candidates to choose from.

Catherine Rush, our Head of Talent, believes that “there are far more opportunities for women to build their career in technology today compared to 20 years ago. While equality and diversity have helped to makes this happen, the key question for CIOs is how do you make technology more interesting and inspiring appealing to women.”

The fact that demand will outstrip supply of graduates by 2020 is a given. Our response must be to act now and invest in attracting next generation talent to the technology industry. The greatest untapped source of this talent are females who haven’t considered or don’t currently find careers in technology of interest.

It is our responsibility as an industry to change this. Not only can I see my team is stronger and an immeasurably better place to work with a more balanced gender split, it is smart economics to ensure our industry does not remain male dominated into the future.

David Henderson is CIO of Daily Mail & General Trust