TECH IT TO THE LIMIT
Computer programming has long been a maledominated realm. But a digital revolution is ripe for women to boost their presence.
A digital revolution is ripe for women to boost their presence in the technology realm.
In 2016, there are several statements that remain undisputed. The fashion industry is excited about Raf Simons’s debut at Calvin Klein, and in turn Maria Grazia Chiuri’s at Dior. Brexit still raises a question mark. And the Sydney property market is simultaneously the most tired conversation topic yet the one that everyone has something to say about. Here’s another one – we’re living in an age of a digital revolution. We’re touching our smartphones more than 85 times a day, which is of course higher than what we all estimate. About 83 per cent of Australia’s population accesses the internet, and technological literacy – while considered a bit of cultural cachet at the moment – will increasingly be required. We’re in an age when a modern supermodel like Karlie Kloss wants to extend her personal brand to go beyond the fashion runway, so sets up Kode With Klossy, a platform of coding camps and scholarships that encourages school-aged girls to learn computer coding. It was a classic smartest-girl-in-the-room move, chosen in lieu of the usual fashion line/beauty brand/memoir route, and it’s actually making a positive difference to the future of girls who look up to the multitasking model. Their involvement is also helping to shift the stigma of coding being something more suited to boys.
It’s about time. The STEM industries – that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics – have startlingly fewer women employed in them, or electing to study these subjects at university level. While there are even fewer people graduating with computer science degrees in the past decade overall, the drop in women graduating with them is even more severe at 50 per cent. There is a perception that STEM subjects are reserved for the boys, and that girls are better suited to rightside brain (artistic) subjects, a damaging stereotype. This untruth
is at odds with not only studies today but also the history of technology. Significant figures in tech history are female. Grace Hopper programmed one of the world’s first computers and was influential in the establishment of early computer programming language COBOL. The six all-female primary programmers (Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman) behind another of the world’s first generalpurpose computers, ENIAC, have gone down in computer history. And at the very beginning there was 19th-century mathematician Ada Lovelace, who worked on a machine considered to be the first computer, making her theoretically the world’s first computer programmer. And who said girls were bad at tech?
“We as Australian women need to be preparing ourselves for a digital future and the best way to prepare ourselves for that is to actually understand what digital skills we require,” says Anastasia Cammaroto, chief information officer of BT Financial Group, who is speaking at Vogue Codes, a summit held on October 14 in Sydney centred around women in technology and encouraging more females to become more technologically literate. Cammaroto grew up enjoying both the arts and the sciences in high school, interests that were combined in her engineering and later information technology career experiences, which has been both creative as well as closely people oriented. “It is so ingrained in us that boys are better in science and maths when the facts prove that girls are just as good at that, and these myths are playing out and they inf luence the way we inf luence our children,” she continues. “I’m fascinated now to see what the next generation of girls is going to be because we’re having conversations now that are saying, ‘You can be anything.’” And as Kloss said to Forbes about her passion for getting girls interested in computers: “I think women are currently an underutilised and poorly supported group of potential employees in an industry that has a widening gap of unfilled jobs. So I think the opportunity is just tremendous.”
The diminishing number of people graduating from STEM fields is incongruous in light of the prevalence of technology and digital in the world today. “The world has been changed by technology,” says Kathryn Parsons, co-CEO and co-founder of Decoded, one of the largest technology educators in the world and a keynote speaker of Vogue Codes. “Every single product we use is impacting our behaviour, our lives, and it’s predominantly been encoded in lines of code written by men,” she says. There is a slew of poorly designed products that miss-aim for women: health apps that ignore menstrual cycles, 48 per cent of role-playing video games that have a female character as an option (compared to 98 per cent offering male characters) – incidentally, this video game study was conducted by a 12-yearold girl, further proof that technological expertise need not have an age barrier, either. Men are more often the test subjects of medical trials, which makes medication less safe for women. And, alarmingly, most virtual assistants, like Siri, do not recognise the vocabulary associated with domestic abuse or rape, which will affect one in three women some time in their life. It is also a sad irony that they mostly defaulted to a female voice.
Amped-up technological literacy further improves cognisance of how things work around us and exposes one to different ways of thinking and learning. It’s even useful to brush up on terminology to better improve comprehension in techrelated situations, whether it’s being aware of the difference between coding and machine learning or a web-based app versus a native app. And as futurist Marc Goodman, who has consulted for the FBI and Interpol, says: “If you control the code, you control the world.”
There is also the obvious benefit of upskilling – but within the actual learning of the technology is the appeal that it is a space with room for creativity and innovation. We need to have the tools and understanding of it to build from it, whether it be web-based software like Canva – whose co-founder Melanie Perkins will also be speaking at Vogue Codes – or for social change.
“I want women to be a part of technology and create successful businesses from it,” adds Parsons, who is active within the tech entrepreneur space but concedes there is a long way to go. Currently in Australia, one in four start-ups are founded by women, and of those in the tech space, the number drops to less than four per cent.
And it can be a ticket out of the ordinary towards self-made success; the #startuplife is skewed towards comedy, but ultimately portrayed to be something that many are striving towards. High-profile tech stars like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal are considered role models for a life better worked – and lived.
So what are you waiting for? Get with the program.