Absolute Radio recently hosted a Sound Women event to discuss why there are so few women involved in digital media production.

Its chief operating officer Clive Dickens began the evening by highlighting the company’s investment in digital media but said that if more efforts were not made to improve diversity in front end and back end development, the good work being done in broadcasting to expand the talent base could become undone in the next five years.

The speakers

Host: Maggie Philbin, broadcaster (MP)

Claire Sutcliffe (CS), founder, Code Club                        

Belinda Parmar (BP), chief executive officer, Lady Geek                                                                              

Andrew Caspari (AC), head of speech radio and classical music interactive, BBC

CP:    I run an organisation called Code Club. We teach 9 to 11 year-old children how to program computers. We have a network of almost 360 after-school coding clubs that are run by volunteers across the UK. We started in April and it’s grown very quickly. Around 40% of our students are female and I think that’s why I am here.

BP:    I run a company called Lady Geek and I have just written a book called Little Miss Geek about how we get more women into technology.

AC:    The BBC is the greatest broadcasting organisation on earth and the best bit of it is the radio and the future of the radio is digital. So why would we not want to get the very best and most enthusiastic people and the most diverse group of people working in that bit of radio?

MP: Why don’t have enough women working in the whole digital space?  Are women not doing the right kind of courses so not getting the jobs?

AC:    I think the problem is that people tend to employ in their own image and this is something that quite a lot of the men who are quite senior in digital areas need to get a grip on. It isn’t necessarily anybody’s fault, it’s about human behaviour and it is something which can possibly be broken.

And we need to change the whole image. It’s not necessarily the thing that geeky people do, it’s the thing that creative people do. It’s the thing that people who are interested in communicating do. Those of us who are in it, we don’t talk about it in a way that is as attractive as in fact it is.

CS: My vision is to bridge the gap between girls dreaming of owning iPads and smartphones, but not dreaming of creating for them. What we found when we spoke to girls was that image is the biggest problem. The image of people who work in the digital and tech space are pizza-loving, pizza-guzzling nerds who can’t get a girlfriend and sit in their bedroom all day. When I spoke to one ten year old girl she said to me she would rather be a dustman than work in technology.

The second biggest problem is that girls don’t see technology as a creative career. They see it that you are isolated, you are in a room. But it’s about creativity and it’s a very social thing. So we really need to change the perception because fewer girls want to work in technology now, even though the consumption of technology is much higher. Just 17% of the technology workforce is female and that is going down by 0.5% each year.

MP: It’s strange because in my view, technology is so cool and also in their view they want technology, but they don’t see that they can make that next step…

 CS:    They want to use it, but they don’t want to create it and that’s what you need to change.

And the curriculum at school is so dull that kids just don’t want to do it. The number of kids choosing to do GCSE ICT has dropped year on year and they are now finally scrapping it and replacing it with a computing GCSE, which is fantastic, but I fear won’t go far enough. We need to get them before they go to secondary school. Before they have to learn anything too boring that will make them run away.

I’ve run a Code Club at a secondary school, and the difference is absolutely phenomenal. It’s an absolute nightmare. We try to make the gender difference disappear so by the time they get to secondary school they say, “Oh, no, it’s fine for me to do this too, even though I am a girl”.

MP:  I think some of it is leading by example. Just by having young women doing cool stuff with technology would be really encouraging and very powerful. You don’t have to go “Look, it’s a girl doing it” but just let them see it..

 AC:    I think across the industry having a bit more interchange between the people who do digital stuff and the people who are programme makers will also help. We need to demystify it. Yes, there are some things that are very specialist, very technical but quite a lot of what we do is content production and presenting content in interesting ways. We sort of create this mystique and at times we don’t create digital heroes within radio stations. And if someone doesn’t see themselves as a technical type of person, they just stay in production and I just don’t think that that is the way that radio can continue really.

BP:    One thing we really noticed, is that if a man wants to go for a job, as long as he has got 50% of the criteria and skillset match he will go for that job. Whereas women, in their mind, need to have a 90% skills match in order to go for it. So there lies part of the problem why the pool is so small and I think it’s a really, really important point. How do we encourage women to be more confident and just go for stuff because men are going for these jobs and they are not necessarily better qualified?

AC:     If you genuinely want 51% of the population to engage in your product then how about using that 51% to build it in the first place? Sometimes in the male dominated executive world that point alone is lost. There are so many other industries from motoring to fashion that wouldn’t dream of creating in that way.

I am absolutely confident that we can change behaviour with the great work that Claire is doing with Code Club, but it’s going now to take many years before events like this will hopefully have been made redundant.

BP:    I do think it’s up to women to know a bit more as well. We all need to know what’s under the bonnet and what’s in the computer. It is up to us to really engage with that so we don’t have to default to a man and that would take a lot of the fear away.

CD:    What is it that is going to change behaviour? You can actually earn a lot of money in the space and that’s not something we should be embarrassed about.

AC:    And it can be a flexible-working world. But at the moment, because there aren’t as many of us there, we are not really doing it because it looks a bit odd. One of the problems, certainly at senior levels, of it being quite male dominated is that in some areas it becomes quite a long hours culture.

CS:    And technology doesn’t have a status in this country like it does in the ‘Geek Nations’. If you take Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia the amount of women working in the digital space is about 35/40% - much better than the 17% in this country. So we have to make technology valued in the classroom, and at home and therefore that will then lead into the industry.

Audience member:   
My name is Gina Jackson I am the Chief Executive of Women & Games.

We pushed very hard to change ICT into computer programming but we’ve seen the number of women working in games drop from 16% to 6% over the last 10 years. One of the big problems facing us is getting women to stand up as role models. Women don’t seem to think that what they do is important. They don’t seem to think they know very much. I think nobody wants to be labelled as ‘the woman’ in an industry so unless we stand up as a whole group and say “We all do this and we do it really well and we are really passionate about what we do, and we are not talking about being a woman and the difficulty with childcare, but amazing things we create.”

AC:    It is actually quite important that we think about how can we make some of those changes in culture that will help other women to join and feel comfortable in that space.

CD:    On the recruitment point, a paid apprenticeship here at Absolute Radio had 650 applicants.The team chose to review all of the applications without any knowledge of gender which was absolutely fantastic .

We have 74 people, quite a young staff, but we have a lot of long serving staff members. We’ve had people come back having taken career breaks and what’s interesting is that I think that stems back to the culture you create.

I suspect the BBC has a strong culture, I am not sure that in other areas of broadcast media enough attention is placed on culture.

AC:    I think the awards thing is really interesting. We troop along to the annual Sony awards and we sit through them and there are far too many and then suddenly we get the multiplatform award. And the multiplatform award quite often goes to something which was a very good program idea that did a bit of digital. But we don’t have digital heroes within our own industry and so these people are not feted.

We haven’t quite figured out how to credit agencies so a brilliant agency called Magnetic North built the Desert Island Discs website, but you’d struggle to find that they were the people who built that.

CS:    Most kids don’t even know it’s an option and that’s something that I found really worrying and then really exciting. When you explain that computer programming tells an iPhone what to do and that we can do something very similar with Scratch, their minds explode and it’s amazing to watch. That is why most of our Code Clubs are completely oversubscribed, because once you have explained it they just want to make things and that’s all they want to do.

Now, I am going to try my best to get Code Club into every school in the country and I am going to be very vocal about it, but the fact is, it does cost money to do that kind of thing and the only person that can really throw the amount of money that we need at it per year is the government.

BP:    I believe that industry created a lot of these problems therefore it is up to industry to solve them. It has the funds to solve this problem, the government doesn’t. I’ve seen a shift in the last six months and industry is waking up to the fact that they need a pipeline of brilliant women.