Women in Technology: Innovation and Girl Geek Dinners

An interview with Sarah Blow, founder of the London Girl Geek Dinners.

Claire Brooking, assistant editor on Simple-Talk, chatted to Sarah Blow about her experiences working in the IT industry. Sarah is a software engineer for a medical device manufacturer but is perhaps better known as the founder of the Girl Geek Dinners.

Claire: What do you think are the best and worst things about working in IT?

Sarah: Well, I have always enjoyed the challenges that technology has given me in terms of problem solving and designing systems. The sort of satisfaction I get from finding solutions to problems has also spurred me on when I’ve investigated different business opportunities. A lot of my inspiration for business ideas and communities comes from the people and situations around me. I love conversations with people who are both intelligent and challenging. I’m the sort of person who gets bored with hearing old news and the same dull ideas that others have already implemented and made successful. I like to search out new niches and I am constantly looking for the next thing on the horizon. Working in IT has given me the drive to innovate, to try new things. To date my ventures outside my day job have been purely not-for-profit (one day that will change I’m sure!).

If you look at what the technology industry has to offer then you could really start to ask why more people aren’t working in it. It is highly paid and challenging, varied, exciting work with all the latest gadgets and the biggest, most life-altering changes around the world occurring through it.

On the negative side, you will probably have to work some long and unsociable hours from time to time. You also need to have patience and you may be classed as a geek. But even the meaning behind the word ‘geek’ has changed. It is more of a lovable term for someone with a passion for a subject. Gone are the days where geek was a derogatory negative term. It is now cool to be a geek.

Claire: That’s good to know! So how do you find working in a mainly male dominated industry?

Sarah: I’m pretty much used to it by now! At UMIST (The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology), I was one of about fifteen females in the Computation department and there were somewhere around 150 students on the course in total.

The male and female students were not treated any differently but I did find a strong tendency for male and female students to stick to their own social groups. I tried to avoid that as much as I could. By mixing with people, both male and female, on my course I discovered that there are always many different approaches to the same technical issues and I learnt a lot about problem-solving through this.

I adopt the same attitude to working in IT. Yes, occasionally you find men that are surprised to see a female software engineer and are a little unsure about how to manage, work with and communicate with you, but on the whole it really isn’t an issue. So long as you have an interest in the subject matter then you have some common ground to share.

Claire: So, you don’t really encounter discrimination against women in IT?

Sarah: These days women have exactly the same opportunities as men – at least in theory. They are treated as equals in the workplace according to business law, and in my experience this holds true.

Claire: And yet the statistics aren’t that great. In 1997, women made up 27% of employees working in the IT sector. By 2003, this figure had dropped to 20%. Within the same sector, women make up 27% of database assistants and clerks, but only 7% of IT strategy and planning professionals. According to further statistics, this kind of imbalance between genders also persists from an early age. Women make up less than a quarter of computer science graduates in the UK. Girls also tend to become increasingly disinterested in IT subjects between the ages of 11 and 15 in British schools. Why do you think that is?

Sarah: There are so many issues with trying to recruit more females into the technology industry, ranging from getting more children playing with computers from a young age, through to ensuring that children (both boys and girls) are given the right advice and encouragement in the area of technology. Boys seem to be more encouraged than girls to move into technical, science and law style professions, whilst girls are often advised to move into marketing, human resource management, educational, nursing and administrative roles.

I think that the biggest reason, though, may be that these subject areas are still perceived as dull by many females. I remember playing computer games as a child and I wasn’t all that excited by the idea of programming at that age. I was more interested in problem-solving and reading books. The thing is that both of those skills can be used very well in a role such as software engineering. So why didn’t I consider that? Well, because I assumed the subject to be dry, boring and very mathematical. It wasn’t until one very good teacher proved to me that this wasn’t the case and that I had made incorrect assumptions.

From the ages of 11 to 15 girls have a lot of other things to occupy their time and everything is changing for them. They are learning about life through the media, the web and the people around them. We need to make technology fun for them! It is important for anyone with children to note the statistics above as children are influenced primarily by the people they know and trust the most at that age, and they look to their parents for guidance. If any readers know female students who are thinking about going into IT, please forward them this interview as reassurance that there is plenty of encouragement and support out there!

 

Claire: Do you think that it is realistic to expect that one day the gender imbalance in IT will be resolved?

 

Sarah: I don’t believe there is any good reason why the gender imbalance shouldn’t become a thing of the past. In other traditionally female-dominated industries like fashion and cooking, men have broken through and things have normalised. I believe that so long as history and tradition don’t stand in the way of progress then IT will be the same as any other profession and become well-balanced.

The IT industry is changing for the better at the moment, and I believe that it’s a great time for anyone – and especially women – to consider moving into it. We need a more diverse range of people in technology and we need women in technology to know that there are others out there. This is really what the Girl Geek Dinners are all about. They give women in the industry a voice, a chance to talk to other, and to offer each other advice and encouragement – and also to discuss ways to encourage new people into the industry.

Claire: So tell us a little more about these Girl Geek Dinners. What inspired you to start them?

Sarah: The London Girl Geek Dinners were created as a result of going to a Geek dinner in London and being one of very few females there. On the train home, a friend and I were discussing why so few women attended and how we could encourage more of them to come.

We came to the conclusion that they were put off by the sheer number of men that attended compared with the number of women. If you were a woman attending the event it was assumed that you were not technical since most of the women there were journalists and marketing types. If you were a female techie then you were very much the “odd one out”. Everyone wants to feel comfortable at an event and not feel too much like the odd one out, so the Girl Geek Dinners arose as an idea that might help to “normalise the gender gap”.

 

Claire: The London Girl Geek Dinners sound like they’re designed to be female-only events. Do you ever worry that the idea behind the events excludes men too strongly?

Sarah: Not at all. In fact, part of the goal of these events is to encourage women, but they are also for female and male participants. Our rules are: ‘Men may attend, but please bring a girl geek with you’ and ‘female attendees may invite a male’.

I was very much opposed to the idea of alienating one gender or another and creating a feminist attitude within the Girl Geek Dinners. Men make a valuable contribution to the events and it also helps the men get used to having an equal gender mix in a technology environment, which at the moment can still seem a little alien to many of them.

The events are designed to be friendly and informal and to allow anyone to talk to anyone. It is all about learning from each other and communicating, and giving each other the opportunities that otherwise may not have happened.

Claire: Now that the Girl Geek Dinners have been running for a while, do you feel the events have been a success?

Sarah: Well, the first one was on the 16th August 2005 and they have been going ever since. At the start, we’d get around 35 people but their popularity is growing. We now try to limit numbers to around 80 people to keep the event manageable and for people to be able to effectively network.

We have had speakers across many different topic areas, from Eileen Brown of Microsoft talking about her experience as a woman in the navy and moving from there into technology, through to Cory Doctorow and Adriana Cronin-Lukas discussing Web 2.0 technologies for business. Our largest event to date consisted of 150 people and was sponsored by Women in Technology. Helen Duguid spoke at the event about a research study that she carried out for Microsoft on women in technology.

London Girl Geek Dinners has taken off across the world. Events are turning up in New York, Barcelona, London, Brighton and Nottingham, and will hopefully continue to grow.

Claire: What do you see in the future for the London Girl Geek Dinners?

Sarah: I would love to take the concept out even further than it is today, but I don’t want it to become a profit-making organisation. The event is there purely to create opportunities for women in technology around the world. The community as it is at the moment will change the way the events run in the long term and I am hoping that they will evolve and stay fresh. The next London Girl Geek Dinner will be held on the 29th November and after that we will be doing another one in mid-January, so look out for information on these events.

 

Claire: What five pieces of advice would you give to anyone – but especially women – considering a career in IT?

Sarah: Wow, where do I start? Ok, here goes:

Get qualified

If you’re thinking of studying computing at university, my first piece of advice is that, from a practical point of view, it’s better to get a good maths qualification. While not a core competency required for a job in the technology industry, the fact remains that in the UK there are very few universities offering computing degrees without a requirement for A2 level maths. If you don’t have maths, then you will struggle, but don’t be put off by it. I would still apply, and hopefully a good university would give the benefit of the doubt and interview the candidate. This way, the university will get to see the passion for technology that exists and the reasoning behind the candidate applying for the place.

Have confidence in your abilities

My very first venture was the running of a swimming club at University. Armed only with a Business Studies A-level and a passion for the sport, I had the club up and running within a year with over 35 members, a coach and with sponsorship from Arena. The club continued to grow and soon we were competing at the BUSA nationals, won races and made a name for ourselves as a good university, supporting swimmers of all abilities including national level swimmers. I handed over responsibility to some of the other swimmers after a couple of years and then went on to become athletic union events and publicity officer. This took me on to become athletic union president before the end of my final year. It was an incredible journey and was full of experiences that I would never have gained if it hadn’t been for me being prepared to put my capabilities to the test.

You have to believe in yourself to achieve your goals

A good friend said that to me, and they really meant it when they said it. It’s such a great phrase and one that I always remind myself of when I start to question my ability to do things, or more importantly when others try to make me question my own ability to do things. I think of this as a fairly open and warm approach to things and I guess it is quite a good one to give people an idea of what is important. I don’t tend to worry so much about how others view me, more that I am happy in my own achievements.

Manage risks as best you can and learn from your failures

I often wonder what would happen if I put all my effort into just one thing for a period of time. I usually have a number of different little ventures and ideas that I follow up. Some of them are successful, some aren’t. I have learnt that success isn’t everything, and so long as you take educated risks and have a way of reducing or managing the risks without any large penalties, then you can pretty much give anything a try. Every venture is a series of lessons to be learnt. I don’t like to think of ventures that don’t turn out as I had expected as failures; I see them more as learning experiences. I analyse where things could have been gone better and see what else I can try. Sometimes I just let them go in their own natural direction. If they seem to be loss-making and there’s nothing else to try and no new ideas flowing, then I put the idea to one side; I don’t throw the concept away completely, because I know that one day something might change and let it fly.

Listen to other people

I have learnt a lot by getting advice from successful and innovative individuals. Also, I am not scared of asking for help from people when I need it. Knowing when you need help is as important and almost as hard to figure out as daring to ask for it sometimes. It’s amazing how often successful people enjoy teaching others how they got to where they are. However, you have to remember that what works for one person may not work for another. It’s all about finding the right mix for you!

I also surround myself with people who are honest, trustworthy and enigmatic. They are the people who I look up to and who often provide me with inspiration for the future. It was through people like this that the London Girl Geek Dinners were born.

Claire: Thank you very much for your time, Sarah. Any parting message?

Sarah: I hope that in the future people see technology as a really fun and interesting career option and that the gender of the person doesn’t come into the equation. Until then, I will continue to try and make things as exciting and fun as possible for those in the industry by continuing with the Girl Geek Dinners.

All in all, I see events and communities like the Girl Geek Dinners as a really positive way of effecting change and I hope that they continue to pop up around the world. Who knows where my next little venture will take me? Only time will tell and I can’t wait.