A few weeks ago I became the first woman to tandem-skydive past Everest. Why, you might ask, would any sane person wish to subject themselves to a freefall at 140mph from higher than the world’s tallest peak in temperatures of minus 40C?
My life has taken a different path to most women: I am transexual, which means that during gestation my body differentiated into one gender (male) and my brain differentiated into the opposite (female).
One result of my condition was that I, a female, was brought up and socialised as a boy, and was actively encouraged to take part in stereotypically male activities. Many, such as football, I disliked but I did find a fondness for computing, and from the age of 12 started to learn to program my BBC Master microcomputer. There were not many computer games so I had to write my own, and I enjoyed the creative aspects of the hobby.
My sister, meanwhile, was, if anything, encouraged away from such activities, both at home and at school, even though I believe we are both equally capable. Today I see this same trend being repeated, perhaps unconsciously, by parents and teachers.
I am now a modestly successful IT entrepreneur, and with my brother Nick I have created Memset Ltd, an internet hosting company and I have a powerful conviction that I was advantaged at a young age when compared with my sister: I believe if I had been born in a female body then I would not have been given the same opportunities to develop a successful IT career. Moreover, I believe that a large part of Memset’s success is down to the good gender balance we have at the top.
I therefore think IT is a good career for girls and that girls are good for the IT industry – and that is partly why I jumped out of an aircraft at 29,500ft. I used the Everest skydive to raise money for Computer Clubs 4 Girls, a volunteer-run e-skills initiative which operates after-hours in 2,500 UK schools to encourage 10-14 year old girls to get involved with IT.
The IT industry’s gender balance is in dire shape. Only 18 per cent of technology workers are female, down from 22 per cent in just five years. The gender pay gap (23 per cent in IT compared with 17 per cent in other sectors) and a female-unfriendly culture in many companies are causing many women to leave their IT career, but my focus is on getting more women into IT. There, too, the situation is bad – during my last round of interviews for a technical post a mere 3 per cent of the applicants were female.
Last September, Tim Berners-Lee, known as “father of the web” said: “The IT profession needs more women, greater diversity and to be more inclusive.” I agree. There is a very sound business case for getting more women into the IT profession:
● Improved creativity and innovation. I fulfil, for example, the stereotypically female role of the inclusive/collaborative manager and communicator, which has helped maximise the innovation potential of our staff.
● Access to the widest talent pool. Recruiting girls can help address this shortfall.
● Improved financial performance. Companies with the most gender-balanced top management teams perform over 30 per cent better for both return on equity shareholder return. (Catalyst, 2005)
This matters because the IT sector will be more important to economic prosperity in the next decade.
First, IT is a key enabler of business process efficiency, which enhances national competitiveness. Second, the only way a developed nation such as the UK can compete in exports is to be smarter, and that is the domain of science & technology.
Finally, in the current crisis the previous tax cash-cows (retailing, property and financial services) have been crippled. The IT industry is one of the best hopes to replace those engines of economic growth, and to plug the hole in government tax revenues.
The UK needs a healthy IT industry and the sector needs more women, therefore we need parents and teachers to be telling their female charges that IT is an exciting and rewarding career that they should seriously consider.
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