Supporting and showcasing women in technology

Posted by s.hettrick on 26 March 2014 - 10:00am

In this image: Two women wiring the right side of the ENIAC with a new program, in the "pre- von Neumann" days. "U.S. Army Photo" from the archives of the ARL Technical Library. Standing: Marlyn Wescoff Crouching: Ruth Lichterman By Catherine Breslin, Cam Women in Tech@CamTechWomen.

This article is part of our series Women in Software, in which we hear perspectives on a range of issues related to women who study and work with computers and software.

Just 17% of the UK’s technical workforce is female, and in many tech companies it’s still worthy of comment when there’s more than one woman in the room. That’s why we set up Cam Women in Tech, to showcase and support women who work in Cambridge’s tech industry.

The lack of diversity in the tech workforce has received increasing amounts of media attention in recent years. The general consensus is that there’s no one cause for the lack of diversity, but that a combination of factors work to steer girls away from the industry long before they leave school. Great initiatives like Lady Geek and Stemettes are working to address the gender imbalance by breaking down stereotypes, and are increasing future numbers by encouraging more girls to consider science and engineering careers.

Yet, whatever the reasons behind the skewed workforce, the result is that women who already work in technical roles can feel isolated, have difficulty keeping up with skills, lack role models and mentors, and lose confidence over time. This leads to women leaving the industry in greater proportions than men, resulting in a far lower percentage of women at the top than at the bottom. It’s clear that, despite increased participation from women at junior levels in recent decades, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase at senior levels. Improving diversity in the tech industry not only needs more girls to enter the field in the first place, but also requires improving the experience for women who are already there.

Cam Women in Tech was set up in January 2014 by Jessica Leach and Catherine Breslin, with the aim of supporting and showcasing Cambridge’s women in technology. Jessica is marketing and communiations director at an education tech company, and Catherine is a research engineer working on speech and language technology.

A women’s network can help overcome some of the hurdles that women face in the workplace by fostering informal peer networks, promoting senior role models, and allowing women to learn new technical skills in a friendly supportive environment. The latter is especially important in an industry which values side projects and expects its members to be proactive about keeping up with new developments. Finding the time to commit to career development outside of working hours is a luxury for many women, particularly those with children or other responsibilities. Our events can kickstart that learning by pointing women in the right direction for gaining new skills.

We know that women often have caring responsibilities and aim to make our events open to babies and children wherever possible; our first event had two babies attending! And, once established, events will run at different times through the week, allowing different people to attend. We also plan to make use of software solutions like those built by Citrix to stream events online for those who can’t attend in person.  While our events are focused on women, we are not exclusive, and men are very welcome to attend if they’re interested in an event.

Since beginning in January, we’ve run workshop events on data visualisation and data science. Our workshops typically begin with a short talk, and then people have the chance to work through online resources with others at a similar level. With different people attending, there’s always someone to answer questions or suggest new ideas. Additionally, we run a bi-weekly informal meetup at a local café, which is a chance to catch up and chat in a more relaxed atmosphere. Our events have attracted a wide range of people, including complete beginners and expert programmers, those from industry and from academia, and those who work in technical roles to those who have non-technical roles in tech companies. Feedback has been really positive so far, and we’re looking forward to growing as the year goes on.

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