How can we really get more women into tech?

This week, Martha Lane Fox, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, CBE gave the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture to an audience of the great and the good at the Science Museum. If you haven’t already watched it, then it’s available on the BBC iPlayer, or you can read a transcript on Lane Fox’s website.

Titled Dot Everyone – making Britain brilliant at the Internet, Lane Fox’s lecture contains many truths that the UK as a nation, the British Government and business leaders need to hear — and take to heart — about the state of technology in the UK. She is absolutely right that our infrastructure needs urgent upgrading, especially rural broadband which across much of the country is either woefully slow or absent. She is right that we need to “improve our understanding of the internet at all levels of our society”, to “get more women involved in technology”, and that we need to “tackle the genuinely new and thorny ethical and moral issues the internet has created”. I could not agree with her more on all three points.

Lane Fox pays particular attention to the issue of women in tech, saying:

The best predictor of an effective team is the presence of women. The kind of collaborative, team-based work that creates great software and great digital services has been proven to be vastly improved by the presence of women. So let’s show what can be done – starting in our schools, continuing all the way to the boardrooms.

Here’s a straightforward, achievable goal – let’s make the UK the best place to be a female technologist in the world. Now.

The Uk will need 1m people to fill the jobs created in the technology sector by 2020. So Let’s create an awesome new cohort of female coders, creators, designers – women to take on any and every digital role.

Why not launch a national challenge to find the best ideas to tackle this problem?

Why not offer every unemployed woman free education and training?

Surely there must be a couple of new Ada Lovelaces lurking in this land?

There are exciting projects happening in the UK such as Techmums, Stemettes and Codebar but there need to be more of them, with bigger impact, so we foster the maximum breadth and depth of digital talent.

Remember the next wave of women can come from all sorts of unlikely places – look at me – An ancient historian!

The answer, Lane Fox suggests, is to create a new institution, which she suggests be called Dot Everyone, which would tackle this problem head on, and “figure out how to put women at the heart of the technology sector.” And this is where I start to feel frustrated. Whilst I can see the potential benefit of a new institution, and particular how it could effect change at a policy level, it feels a bit removed, a bit remote from the work that people are doing right now.

Lane Fox says we need more grassroots projects like the ones she mentions in her talk, and that they need to have a bigger impact. I agree, but there’s only one way to achieve that, and it’s not by creating a new institution, it’s by giving these existing groups money and by funding new groups.

Money is the one thing that never gets discussed in the public conversation about women in tech or STEM. Money gets glossed over, as if grassroots groups magically survive on the smell of a Jane Austen £10 note, or as if all we need are volunteers.

Well, reality doesn’t work like that. In reality, good volunteers are hard to find and even harder to keep. In reality, hiring people achieves more than asking for volunteers, because lots of what needs to happen is either dull but time-sensitive or requires expertise that really ought to be paid for. And in reality, some things need actual cold hard cash, such as paying for food and drink, or train tickets, or hotel rooms, or insurance.

If Lane Fox wants Techmums, Stemettes, Codebar, Ada Lovelace Day, 300Seconds, Girl Geek Dinners, ScienceGrrl, LetToysBeToys, and the dozens and dozens of other groups working in this and adjoining areas to have a bigger impact, then she needs to find us the money to do so. Ultimately, these groups achieve more with less than big government projects, such as the Science, It’s a Girl Thing video, in which the EU spent a boatload of cash on a demeaning and insulting video. What could we, the grassroots, have done with that money?

Grassroots groups are out there, right now, supporting women in tech and in STEM. They’re getting up close and personal with the problems women face and they, more than anyone, know that a variety of tactics are needed to solve those problems. There is no single silver bullet, which is why we need — and why we have — a plurality of voices, a plurality of approaches, each of which tackles a slightly different aspect of the problem in a slightly different way.

If a new official body is needed, it is a funding body, one that brings together the tech millionaires and billionaires, the tech and STEM industry giants, the philanthropists, the British and EU governments to create a pool of money that can be given to grassroots organisations to support their work.

Such a body would need to adhere to a number of tenets in order to have a significant impact:

  1. No bureaucracy. Most grant-giving bodies have horrendous bureaucracy, with Byzantine applications processes that require you to be psychic in order to work out the answers they want. A simple application process is a must, because if we’re spending hours drafting a massive application document for you, we’re not doing the important work of supporting women in STEM.
  2. No strings. Another issues with existing grant-giving bodies is that they want you to service their mission, they aren’t always that interested in supporting your mission. The provisions they impose can make actually taking a grant from them detrimental to grassroots groups, imposing a burden that could ultimately destroy them. So grants would have to have no strings attached in order to have the biggest impact.
  3. Fund core costs. Related to point 2 is the issue that most grant giving bodies will not fund core costs, ie they won’t keep your lights on for you. For most grassroots organisations, core costs are all of their costs, and refusing to pay wages, travel, equipment, and other day-to-day expenses makes actually carrying out the funded project unduly onerous or even impossible.
  4. No reporting. The urge to demand that grant recipients prove the impact that they have had is another way to destroy a grant’s usefulness to a small organisation. If I’m a one or two person organisation and I need to gather a bunch of — usually meaningless — metrics to satisfy your reporting requirements, and then spend time writing that all up, I’m not actually doing my real job. And seriously, what’s the worst that could happen? Realistically, I’m not going to abscond with your money to South America. At the very worst, it’s going to keeping some people in work for a period of time, which even on its own in these straitened times is a good outcome. Best case scenario is that you’re working with me closely enough to see for yourself the impact your money is having.
  5. Access to expertise. Grassroots groups don’t just need money, we need access to reliable expertise, including in business development, marketing, governance, financial, legal, technological and many other areas. When you want to bring in an expert, volunteering won’t cut it, you need to pay for good knowledge. But often, grassroots groups don’t have the budget to hire a freelance, don’t have the need (or the budget) for a full time position, and sometimes don’t have the expertise themselves to know how to recruit the right person. An organisation which brought these professionals together to work with grassroots groups would really accelerate their growth and make them much more effective.
  6. Access to networks. Those of us working at the coal face get to know each other, but it can be hard to get to know people beyond our networks, not least because we’re really, really busy actually doing the work (and sometimes having a job whilst doing the work). It’s very, very difficult for us to form meaningful relationships with those in positions of power and influence. I was recently at an event that was attended mostly be ladies, dames, MBEs, CBEs, admirals, CEOs, chairwomen, MPs, and Pulitzer prizewinners. It was a very interesting event, but I was literally the only grassroots person there. It was great to be given a peek into this world, but ultimately I made but one significant connection. An organisation that can bring together these disparate worlds would be useful for both.

If supporting women in tech, or STEM, is the goal then money is what is needed to make that goal happen. We might be British, and thus feel a bit weird talking about financial things, but we have to. Chucking £50,000 or £25,000 to a couple of dozen grassroots organisations is going to provide a fantastic return on investment, with that money going straight to where it’s needed most. And, given support from a pool of experts and professionals, that return on investment can easily be increased.

So I would like to ask you to join me in calling on Martha Lane Fox, the Dimbleby family, the Government, the global tech giants, philanthropists and grant giving organisations to unite, to create a fund of at least £5 million to be given to organisations, whether they are general STEM orgs like Ada Lovelace Day industry-focused* organisations like the Women’s Engineering Society, according to the above tenets. Whether they are working on tech in particular or STEM in general, whether they focused on increasing the participation of women in STEM or encouraging girls to consider a STEM career, whether they are hyperlocal or global, whether they are formal charities or ad hoc organisations with a charitable purpose, they need financial support to excel and to truly serve and support women in tech and STEM.

Many of the women and men working in this area do so because they are passionate about helping others to excel. Passion drives activism, but passion fuelled by money is what drives real change.

* UPDATE: I originally used the word ‘professional’ to mean groups that focus on a particular profession, but it was pointed out to me that this might be interpreted as meaning ‘groups with salaried staff’, so have changed it to ‘industry-focused’.

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One Comment

  1. We recently experienced a stemettes hack with our 6 year old daughter. We cannot praise them enough… Not only for the experience and knowledge my daughter was introduced to but also for opening the eyes of her non techy parents into realising the importance STEM holds for our children’s futures. I hope these groups, which offer so much to so many on so little, are supported and enabled to thrive.

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