First there was Google’s diversity report, then Twitter followed suit. And in case you weren’t already completely clear that the tech start-up world is dominated by white men, last week saw the launch of new TV satire, Silicon Valley.
Already dividing the tech community in the US, the show takes a cynical glance at the California tech business, with its misspelt company names and personal gurus. It splits US tech into the twin camps of haters and fans, and looks likely to do the same in the UK. Some will undoubtedly love the way it parodies the phenomenal and undeniably successful work coming out of northern California (in this world, everybody including your doctor and your off licence, has an app and they’re all seeking funding) – while others suggest it merely perpetuates the ‘geek’ stereotype and adds little that is truly new.
What struck me most about Silicon Valley however, was the glaring lack of female roles in the show. There is one recurring female character, and while she is the most relatable and the voice of reason, for the rest of the show women are shunted into roles as exhibition show models or background extras. However, rather than suggesting that the show is a sad representation of art mirroring life, I’d argue that this is an inaccurate misrepresentation. It is not just the emergence of women like Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Nicola Mendelsohn (Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!) that demonstrate that this is unrepresentative; you only have to attend networking groups such as DLD Woman to notice the high velocity of women now working in tech roles.
What I am noticing, however, is that there are now two generations of women in tech. The older generation of 40+ within which I sit, and the new guard of under 30s coming through. When I graduated in what seems now like the digital dark ages, technology simply wasn’t a career option for men or women.
My path has been organic, learning on the job, developing a passion and therefore skills and expertise for the web and its capabilities. The beginning of the web was at its core very practical; it was about selling and shifting more product and making things work better. Now, with the advent of ever more sophisticated social media platforms, the web has become personal, about emotional connections – and women have generally gravitated towards roles that involve the use of intersocial skills.
Today, women know the importance of equipping themselves with tech skills such as coding and building early on, and making web technology their career, proudly referring to themselves as “geeks”. The advancements in social media have created an even greater wealth of opportunities.
The reality of the glass ceiling of course is not yet smashed. Gartner research, earlier this year, found that the number of female CIOs has remained roughly stable over the last decade – and that, if anything the EU is less of a fertile environment for women in tech than other regions worldwide.
I have a theory on why this is, although you might not like it. Women, arguably, are often shown to be more natural communicators than men. I think this results in a lot of women combining their tech skills and experience with softer skills in roles such as client services, marketing and PR. Men, meanwhile, choose to remain in the pure tech roles such as web development.
Is this responsible for the apparent vacuum of female representation in tech? Maybe. There is still an education job needed within school and higher education about the opportunities around technology and how it can change lives.
However, while the numbers aren’t positive so far, I feel we’re on the cusp of change. As we enter the era of the “internet of things”, when we need people who understand both tech and the person buying it, women who have combined the technical expertise and softer skills such as empathy, will thrive. And finally the numbers of female CIOs, and the cast on Silicon Valley, will have to change.