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Joanna Shields

Under-Secretary of State - Minister for Internet Safety & Security - Life Peer, House of Lords

London, UK

I'm used to being under pressure to win. My formula is to always come prepared. But I wasn't this time.

Send the Elevator Back Down: Encouraging More Young Women into Technology and Digital Careers

Kevin Spacey recently said, “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”. After working in the tech sector for a quarter of a century, this quote summed up perfectly why in October 2012, I left my executive job leading Facebook’s international expansion and operations in Europe, Middle East, Russia & Africa to serve in government. I felt then, as I do now, an immense personal responsibility to inspire the next generation of young people to embrace digital technology and entrepreneurial culture, with all the incredible experiences it has to offer.

Technology has the power to be a great leveller. The Internet represents opportunity on a mass scale and it empowers equally for all those who want to take advantage of it. And yet, when it comes to the question of women and their place in the sector, this rule does not seem to apply.  Indeed, oftentimes it is quite the opposite.

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.

In 2014, only 15 per cent of girls across the UK selected computer science for their GCSEs. When it comes to the A-Levels, enrollment in tech related education was lower still, despite an 11 per cent rise in overall students taking computing – research by Ukie found that nine out of 10 students were male. These figures show that far more needs to be done to encourage young girls to equip themselves with the skills they need to thrive and succeed. But that’s not all.

Let’s face it, when it comes to girls, our industry has a PR 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, not appealing to enough young women as a career opportunity. 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, we need to debunk a few myths. These myths are contributing to the exclusion of talented people who might otherwise be incredible assets for our industry.

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 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.  In fact, with so much open source code available for use, the foundations of our digital landscape are becoming an increasingly accessible commodity.  A premium is placed on what value you can add to standard blocks of code to make them come alive. It’s much more likely that this process, including developing new features and products, will be done in collaborative ‘hackathon’ environments, with teams of people working together on everything from debugging to the creation of breakthrough innovations.

It’s no longer merely the logic of pulling together lines of code. Inspiration and ideas play a much more pivotal role.  And let’s face it; there is no shortage of women with great ideas and with the desire to make a big impact.  It’s a fact that the most productive and successful product development teams are gender balanced and include women in key leadership positions but we need more.

So, how do we transform these attitudes ands start making real progress?  First and most importantly, we need to facilitate a better awareness of the great opportunities the tech sector offers.  Girls need more support and mentoring and we need successful women sharing their experiences on a mass scale.   We need to raise familiarity around tech careers and help counteract the negative perceptions. We should champion existing role models within the industry and set up initiatives that create positive and encouraging narratives around their journey.

Programmes such as the pan-European ‘Inspiring Fifty’ started by two wonderful female entrepreneurs, Janneke Niessen and Joelle Frijters from the Netherlands are a vital step forward in sharing the experiences we need to draw more young women into exciting tech roles. These organisations are identifying, encouraging and showcasing women in leadership positions in the tech industry.

I recently had the privilege of hosting the Inspiring Fifty at 10 Downing Street for a rare conversation and mentoring session during International Women’s Week.  It was truly moving.  The state dining room was full of Europe’s most accomplished and digitally savvy women tech stars; founders, entrepreneurs and business leaders representing over three decades of technology development and innovation.  They all had one thing in common: the genuine desire to share and to support one another.  Each participant delivered a truly unique perspective on our shared experiences as women in tech.

We also invited a group called Girls in Tech to join us and we matched the Inspiring Fifty with their aspiring younger counterparts in a speed mentoring session making sure that each mentee had at least four mentor sessions. The day culminated with a photo taken together in front of the famous No. 10 black door.  It was truly one of the most fantastic days I can remember.

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. 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.

Through increased mentorship and by actively trying to create the conditions in which enterprising women can thrive, we can ensure that future generations of aspiring female tech entrepreneurs have the support they need to achieve similar success – and most importantly, in greater numbers.

Quite simply, we must send the elevator back down.

Baroness Joanna Shields serves as Prime Minister David Cameron’s Digital Adviser and a conservative life peer in the House of Lords.  She is a dual American-British citizen, Chair of Tech City UK and non-executive director of the London Stock Exchange Group.