Technology and equality – an impossible synergy?

Ros Trinick

The news that Adria Richards, the woman who tweeted a photo of two men making what she felt were sexist jokes at a tech conference, was fired last week has provoked mixed reactions.

This is just the latest in a long line of articles suggesting the tech sector has some work to do in the field of gender equality.

Ms Richards was attending a US PyCon when she overheard two delegates joking about “big dongles” and using a technical term – forking repos – in what she felt was a very sexual way. As a result of Ms Richards’ tweets and a complaint to the conference organisers, one of the two was dismissed by his company – an event sponsor.

Ms Richards herself worked for SendGrid, whose CEO responded to the situation with a blog stating that Ms Richards’ actions have “strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role -”

Many women who work in tech would argue the community was divided long before Adria Richards tweeted her complaint.  One of the most successful industries within the technology sector – gaming – has a long and troubled relationship with women both as consumers and employees.  Games conferences are infamous for being testosterone-heavy events where women have felt either excluded or objectified.  Women developers, journalists and gamers have been subjected to harassment and outright vitriol, particularly online, that is shocking in its extent.  A lot of work has been done in recent years to improve the lot of women in gaming and progress is being made, with many conference organisers adopting a zero-tolerance approach.

But, more broadly speaking, the current problem is all about the numbers.  In a sector the UK Government has cited as a priority, and a key area of growth, there is a stark lack of gender balance. Sarah Fink, from the leading UK thinktank Policy Exchange, notes some truly shocking statistics in a recent blog. In the UK, women make up just 15 per cent of IT professionals, and with Computer Studies A-level comprising 93% male students, this problem does not look set to decline.

The tech sector is, without doubt, one of the most important and exciting sectors in the UK economy today.  The emergence of Silicon Roundabout and the government’s much vaunted commitment to Tech City are fantastic news, but real success can only be achieved if 50 per cent of the population does not feel excluded from participation.  More women need to be working in tech and the tech community needs to be more welcoming to women, in order to encourage this to happen.

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