Women in the IT Industry - Sending the Elevator Back Down

Baroness Shields addresses the 2016 Women in IT Awards, recognising the outstanding innovation achieved by women in the IT industry

Good evening ladies! I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to join you this evening and to celebrate the remarkable achievements of this year’s winners and all of the exceptional women gathered here tonight.

Nothing makes me happier than to salute you and to hear your inspiring success stories. I want congratulate all of you who are working day and night to achieve your dreams. Tonight’s celebration is for you and it is richly deserved.

My Father always told me that it’s not where you are now, it’s the distance you have travelled. And I am humbled to call myself a fellow traveller and to be part of this great industry at this moment in time.

Our lives are being transformed by technology and the pace of change is unprecedented. And you, the great women here tonight, are at the centre of that creative disruption.

There is no doubt that great promise lies ahead and your potential is unlimited. Never before in human history has it been possible to connect with anyone anywhere in the world in an instant. Nearly half of the world’s population is connected and almost everything you ever wanted to know is at the end of a search query. The possibilities are endless but some challenges still remain.

The talent we have in the room is just off the charts awesome and we have every reason to celebrate progress achieved and the goodwill engaged but we can’t rest on our laurels. We must keep working to ensure the dream is accessible to more and more women, especially working mums and carers. We need to support them and to ensure that great opportunities are available to everyone. That life’s obstacles don’t get in the way of women of any age or background achieving her dreams.

If I could ask about your journey, I am sure you would tell me that the conditions were not ideal at times. I remember walking into my first computer science class in 1980 and there were three women in a class of 400! That was a bit daunting to say the least. I nearly gave up and dropped the class! Can you imagine?

Well, I am happy to say that things have improved in 36 years … but not as much as I had hoped or frankly expected. Which is why I believe that those of us who have already arrived at the highest levels of our companies and industries must join hands to create the conditions for future enterprising women to thrive.

And maybe by doing so, we can make that journey a bit easier for the next generation. To ensure that they don’t have to endure many of the challenges and roadblocks that we faced.

Yes, the struggle is tough. We are top notch professionals but we are also daughters, mothers, wives, friends, and balancing life and the needs of others alongside of our careers, is incredibly challenging. But we have everything to gain. It’s worth fighting for and the rewards are great.

The great actor Kevin Spacey has said “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”. I could not agree more. I feel an immense personal responsibility to inspire the next generation to embrace technology and entrepreneurial culture and all the incredible experiences it has to offer.

My journey, like yours, was full of bumps and bruises. I was a single Mum for many years living 3500 miles from my family. There were many times when I questioned myself. I nearly packed it all in and took the next plane home. In those days, after paying for childcare and the cost of living in London, there wasn’t much left in the bank and I just couldn’t seem to get ahead. And I was missing out on so many precious moments with my son.
But somehow I knew that I was on the right path and that one day it would all be worth it.

I never really had a mentor but I really needed one. And perhaps that is why I feel compelled to support as many women as I possibly can to help them achieve their dreams. So that in those moments of doubt which inevitably happen, there is someone there to encourage us, to tell us to believe in ourselves or to lend us an amazing designer dress that gives us a confidence boost.

It has been said that technology is the great leveller. That the Internet represents opportunity on a mass scale and it empowers equally for all those who take advantage of it. And yet, when it comes to women and their place in the tech sector, we still come up a bit short. I have long wondered why.

Despite the fact that the digital revolution is a driver of equal opportunity, women currently fill less than 20 per cent of tech jobs in the UK. One explanation is that there are simply not enough women applying for these roles and even fewer young girls studying science, technology and programming in secondary school.

Looking at that potential pool of future talent in 2014, only 15% of GCSE computer science students in England were female. When it comes to the A-Levels, enrollment in tech related education was lower still, despite a 10 per cent rise in overall students taking computing – government statistics show that more than nine out of 10 A Level computing students in England were male.

Far more needs to be done to encourage young girls to equip themselves with the skills they need to thrive and succeed in technology careers. But that’s not all.

Let’s face it, our industry has a public relations problem. This is not just an issue we are facing here in the UK, but a global problem that needs tackling. Tech is for whatever reason, just not that appealing to enough young women.

Clearly this isn’t because tech is boring - some of the most interesting issues of our time are being solved through technology and digital innovation. But to get more young women interested in joining the digital revolution, I guess we need to debunk a few myths.

The fact is that to have a successful career in tech, you don’t have to be amazing at maths or love science. This might sound like heresy as indeed for some technical paths, top-notch skills in these disciplines are still essential, but for others, creativity and ideas are what differentiates good from great.

Another pervasive myth is that a career in tech means that you will be sitting in dark corners for endless hours debugging lifeless lines of code. That might have been true early in my day but in fact, with so much open source code available for use, the foundations of our digital landscape are becoming an increasingly accessible commodity.

The premium is placed on what value you can add to make those standard blocks of code come alive. And it’s much more likely that creating products will be done in collaborative environments, with teams of people. working together on everything from debugging yes, to the creation of the next breakthrough innovation.

It’s no longer merely the logic of pulling together lines of code. Inspiration and ideas play a more pivotal role than ever. And let’s face it; there is no shortage of women - like you - with great ideas and with the desire to make a dent in the universe.

It’s also a fact that the most productive and successful product development teams are gender balanced and include women in key leadership positions. We need millions of new recruits in digital roles within next decade, and women are vital to the UK’s economic success.

So, how do we make tech careers more appealing to women? How do we transform these attitudes that hold so many back and to speed up road to progress?

First, we need successful women sharing their experiences on a mass scale and we need to facilitate a better awareness of the great opportunities the tech sector offers and to counteract the negative perceptions.

We need top women championing the cause, taking on the mantle of role model, mentor and friend and sharing positive and encouraging narratives about their journeys. Think of the Girls in Tech mentorship scheme for example. I am proud to be their ambassador or Europe’s Inspiring 50 women in tech programme? And there are many many more.

I believe strongly that it is the responsibility of women across the globe that have achieved success in the digital and IT sector to give something back. Together we can capture the imagination of young women and give them the confidence to believe they can create the great tech innovations that will define our future.

We must challenge companies to do more too. To think about the language used in recruitment, to support employees in pursuing mentoring and outreach opportunities, encourage continuous training and to recognise the female talent they already have and actively look to bring in more.

And we need to build bridges back to the workforce for women who leave to become mothers, look after children or aging parents or simply want to join the digital revolution for the first time. Everyone deserves a chance to participate in this great industry that is changing the future.

Through increased mentorship and by intervening to change the conditions and circumstances women face, we can ensure that future generations of aspiring female tech executives, engineers and entrepreneurs have the support they need to achieve beyond their wildest dreams.

Quite simply, we must send the elevator back down.