Where are all the women in tech?

By Michelle Dickinson 22/09/2014

My keynote at the Microsoft Teched Conference

My keynote at the Microsoft Teched Conference

I’m just winding down from the fantastic Microsoft TechEd conference last week and was lucky enough to be one of the keynote speakers in front of an audience of over 2500 at the Vector arena.

However, there was something startlingly different about me compared to the other keynote speakers. It wasn’t because I was the youngest or the shortest. It wasn’t because I was a hardware engineer rather than a software one. It wasn’t because I was the only non-Microsoft affiliate or the only academic. It was because I was a woman, the only woman on stage as even both of the MC’s were male which is something that we females who work as a minority gender in an industry really notice.

Photograph taken of audience members at TechEd conference

Photograph taken of audience members at TechEd conference as published in Computer World

The difference was obvious, as I stared out towards the huge audience, I saw a sea of males with a few of the 3% female attendees scattered through the crowd.

This was New Zealand’s largest tech conference, boasting its largest female attendee number ever, yet to me 3% was nowhere near enough. The organizing committee worked really hard and gave a huge positive push to encourage more women to attend and speak, but the numbers spoke for themselves, not just at the conference, but as the 2013 census data shows, in the industry as a whole.

So where are all the women, and why are they not in tech? The job market is booming, I’m constantly hearing from ICT CEO’s about their struggle to find talent in New Zealand as they move to recruiting from overseas to find skilled candidates.

However, our problem is twofold and not about just encouraging girls into the pipeline to study STEM subjects which the new ‘science in society‘ National Science challenge is aiming to do.  More importantly, we need to make sure we retain these women in the male dominated tech sector once they graduate.

So does having a female speaker at a conference make a difference, and if so how can we get more women to speak?

Based on the feedback I received from other female attendee’s it made a huge difference. Women came up to me throughout the week and thanked me for helping them to feel that they were welcome at the conference and emphasized that they were much more comfortable asking questions in sessions where the talk was given by a woman.

Conference organisers please take note, women like to feel welcome and when we are, we interact more and feel less intimidated. A recent study showed that the number of female speakers at a conference could be increased by simply adding a female to the conference organizing committee.  Our voice is just as important and we can often give a unique perspective based on our different experiences.

Dad’s often approach me asking how they can encourage their little girl to take more interest in science and technology and my answer is always the same.

Make it fun, make it creative and give your child the freedom to learn that failure is sometimes the best way to learn how to make things better.

It’s time to remove the stereotype and show our daughters (and sons) that there are women in tech, that they love what they do and there are a whole range of disciplines that are fun and exciting. Learning to code using angry birds or creating your own flappy bird game is easy through code.org, one of my favourite ways of combining coding with characters familiar to children. Visit your local library as many of them are being filled with 3D printers so your children can learn to draw in CAD and print out something unique. Go home and take apart an old device or computer to nurture a curiosity for how things work.

Also don’t forget that as a man you can really help the issue but taking a stand against speaking at events with only male panel members.

I’m grateful to TechEd for really making an effort to try and encourage more women to take part, but I think there is so much more that needs to be done to try and balance the gender diversity in the tech field.