The un-nerving lack of women in the web industry and how we can fix it

There is an un-nerving lack of women in our industry but I do believe there is a way to fix it.

15 years ago I was walking to school with an A3 binder tucked under my arm filled with sheets of paper. That A3 binder was me, it enclosed pieces of paper containing my heart and soul. On the outside in my tiny hand writing was my name, my school year group and the subject. That subject was ‘Graphic Products’.

The course covered creative design but nothing to do with web as at that time the internet had only been mainstream for a year or two. At that time, 15 years ago, I was one of three boys in a class of 25-30 studying ‘Graphic Products’. Back then I didn’t know what the industry was like or the way it would turn out, nor did I know the reason why boys were in such a minority. What I did pick up was, Graphic Products was for girls. The Art course at the time had a relatively even number of boys and girls yet the Graphic Products course which could have sent the students down a Graphic Design path was very low with girls far out-weighing the boys.

I rebelled. Metalwork, woodwork and electronics were not for me. My brain was far too creative to be told how things ‘should’ work rather than how they ‘could’ work. Those practical courses were jam-packed and since you had to choose which course you wanted to go on before the school year started there was always waiting list for those courses in particular. The metalwork courses would sometimes see twice the class size as the Graphic Products class.

It troubles me that things have changed since that point, and after missing the opportunity to openly discuss this on stage at a conference months ago I’m now sat writing once again on a subject that I believe needs to gain awareness so we as an industry can recognise the need to evaluate what the problem is and how to fix it.

It’s now 2011, 13 years since I finished the course. In that 13 years the situation has flipped and we have a new challenge, the entire lack of women in the tech industry. The tech industry is quite a broad world in itself so let’s define it in to something smaller, something that I know. Let’s talk about the web industry specifically but decide on discussing all sides of it, from mobile to web, from design to development.

Sexism, really?

Weeks before I traveled to Vancouver for Interlink Conference in June, a wild opinionated discussion bounced in to my twitter feed due to me following a great guy that I’d now like to call a friend. Faruk  has written extensively on this subject in recent months, and whilst at first I thought his arguments and said defence of something that he truly believes in were being exagerated it took til now for me to realise that even if they are slightly exagerated and blown out of proportion that there is indeed a problem. The original ‘argument’ was surrounding sexism in the industry which has since spread to discussions about conference line-ups being all white males.

I certainly would not deem myself sexist or discriminatory in anyway. I would like to think I’m a very moral person and hold the thought of giving and recieving respect quite dear to my heart. I mean surely, our industry, a very forward thinking and friendly industry being linked with sexism is shocking and chills me to my very bones. But, alas I’ve seen it spring up a couple of times and I think it’s more to do with jealousy but that is certainly not justification for it taking place.

I’m not attempting to say that sexism is rife and that we’re becoming a bigoted industry that needs a good telling off, but if these discussions have started then something needs to happen to nip them in the bud.

Why is it happening?

If we don’t have the answers let us start with questions. I don’t have an answer as to how we have fallen in to a trap of having such low numbers of women in our industry. Especially when 15 years ago the numbers were so vastly different in my school class. So let’s ask some questions?

Why are there not as many women as men in our industry?

Personally, I believe part of the problem starts well before college and university courses. My opinion is that the web industry isn’t talked about enough within a school setting. Our industry is in one of the most exciting times of its life, yet I don’t believe this is being presented to the students. We could say as a whole that the web industry isn’t pushed enough in schools, especially if course sizes are so low in colleges/universities.

What has happened in recent years for this to happen? 

After speaking with many course leaders it would seem that upper management are forcing the courses down a very diluted path and it’s all about numbers of people on the courses for them. The course leaders have very little say. In schools I simply think that they just don’t know enough about our industry to dicuss it openly with the students. I enquired with my old school where I took my graphic products course about this and whilst they said they would answer any questions I had in the first email, I never heard from them again. (What a great start.)

Is the industry more appealable to men as it is to women and why is this?

How has the industry been portrayed in recent years? If we take movies and tv for instance, as far back as I can remember is ‘War Games’ and the main character was male. Then bringing us forward in time the ‘Hackers’ movie and yes, another male lead role with a sprinkling of Angelina Jolie. ‘The Net’ was led by Sandra Bullock, that was a good start but then the phenomenon of Facebook took over and the Social Network came out protraying the tech world to be mainly male led with women clambering over them because they were ‘so cool!’. You do see some great entrepreneurial females doing TED talks but these to the general world are just not seen. Jeffrey Zeldman and Dan Benjamin have done great at getting female members of our industry to join them on the Big Web Show but again, if you’re not already in the tech/web world you’re probably not going to watch the show.

Does the answer to the above question even matter?

Definitely. In my opinion anyway. I think that other than the products we create, we’re very bad at marketing our industry to the outside world. The gross majority of people think the things we create just ‘happen’. It goes back to an earlier point that if school-goers are not aware of how great our industry is and how open we are to any creed, sex or culture joining us then why would they want to join in?

Are there more men than women leading web related courses at school/university?

Within the UK the answer is yes, the US is diverse but I’m looking to chat with some educators from the US soon to find out the differences of what happens there against the UK.

Are there enough female role models in the industry?

Certainly not as many as men for obvious reasons. The other irritating point to this is when the female role models do present themselves the sexist minority jump on them like lions on raw meat. It’s wrong and most of the female role models have spent way longer in the industry than the people who are trying to shout them down. I’d love to see more female role models and have a number of friends who I think could be that ‘figure’ in our industry.

Where are the role models in the industry?

Spread out, multi-national as they should be. This is great as it is a great starting point. We’re never going to be a one place industry, not in todays world. With tech hubs springing up in most major towns and cities we’re absolutely in the right position to move forwards and present more role models to the outside world.

What can people in the industry do to raise the awareness of what we do and engage with more women to join us in what we’re doing?

Remember that everyone is equal. Sex is not a differentiator. If you’re asked to go and speak to college or school kids don’t shy away. Get yourself in there, whether its design, development or an entrepreneurial/careers type talk we need to start promoting ourselves more. And by that I mean, tell them that we’re an open industry and anyone can turn their hand to the many different areas and roles within the industry.

Is your company one which can offer an internship or a summer program? This could help immensley with showing what we actually do on a day to day basis.

In Closing

I’d like to think that in 3 years from now the numbers of men and women in the industry would be on track to righting themselves close to the 50/50 mark. However, realistically I don’t think this will happen but I’m confident we can move away from the 80/20 mark and make our industry far more welcoming to anyone who wishes to join it.

It’s not about who we are or where we are from, nor is it about what sex we are or culture we are a part of. It is everything about the future of our industry.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

By the way, I’m organising the Industry Web Conference in 2012 and I’m accepting talk submissions from anyone. If you’d like to attend sign up to the mailing list and you’ll be the first to know anything.

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Lead Interaction Designer at DigitalDWP. Organiser of Industry, The Practical Web Conference..

21 thoughts on “The un-nerving lack of women in the web industry and how we can fix it”

  1. I’m not really sure what your main point is, but the lack of females is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, being a girl in the web industry.

    For me, it is sometimes a good thing to be a minority– if I’m good, I REALLY stand out. The problem is, the percentage of good versus bad female web people is the same as there is the guy population. So, from a purely numbers standpoint, if 1% of guy designers are amazing, and 1% of girl designers are amazing, and girls constitute 10% of the sample, then in 1000, there’s going to be 9 really great guy designers and 1 really great girl designers (and most people agree that it’s probably less than 1%).

    At the same time, the industry as a whole is quite accepting of girls and gives them more limelight than they may deserve, which pisses me off to no end. Merit is so important.

    I’d rather an all male line-up at a conference than a token female speaker because people feel bad about this. Sexism isn’t fixed this way.

    Why girls don’t go into web design in high school? I wonder if it’s because it’s an industry that suits people that are more comfortable with making things up and figuring them out themselves, and while this may sound sexist, you only have to spend 10 minutes on a computer with an 8 year old girl versus a boy to see the difference in the way they approach things. I was a nerd in highschool, which meant I spent time in classes of all males. So, maybe it’s all down to how it’s taught. I’m not sure.

    1. Merit is very important, you’re right. I think this goes for anyone in our industry to be honest. I think when people who are given a chance because they’re a minority just to be non-discriminatory is in effect damaging the industry. I guess we need to find the shining stars from any walks of life and give them the credit they deserve rather than focusing solely on those people in the ‘limelight’. Something which I’ll be trying to do as much as possible with Industry Conf.

      Do you think that it’s purely an educational thing in high school than anything else? You don’t have to be a designer or developer in our industry, you could go in to a product type role or anything for that matter. However if these roles are discussed and put forward they’re never going to be recognised.

  2. Honesty Gavin, you write a lot but you frequently frustrate me with how rarely you actually reach a point. Are you saying that men being in the minority in graphic products is just fine, but women being in the minority in tech is “troubling” ? Where’s the line?

    I can’t really believe you dredged up this subject linking to Faruq’s original article without bothering to mention, let alone link to his far-better-thought-out follow up…

    A real dick-move when it comes to dragging my name through the mud, too. Thanks mate!

    As Faruq himself has said, that original post was deliberately confrontational. He had a point, but lots of things were taken completely out of context and blown out of proportion for the sake of controversy and drama. The follow-up post actually addresses the issues, and that’s the only thing worth linking to.

    If you want to get into a subject like this, then it’d actually stating your opinion rather than just dancing around it. Oh, and if you could avoid slapping me in the face with it – that’d be awesome.

  3. I’m unsure about what is so ‘troubling’ about the lack of women in the industry – I know a lot of fantastic female web designers, and I’m inspired daily by female AND male designers and have plenty of female AND male role models. Molly Holzschlag has done fantastic work with web standards and I really look up to her, as I do with a lot of other designers and developers out there, but it’s not the fact that they are female that inspires me, it’s the fact that they’re great at what they do, and that’s how people should be judged – by merit and skill, rather than what gender they are.

    I did Graphic Products at GCSE and there was a somewhat equal gender split, but there were only a few people in that class that stood out because they really cared and loved what they did, and that’s lead them into careers in the design industry, not because some of us were girls, and some of us were boys. It’s down to what makes you happy.

    Obviously, you can’t avoid the fact that there appears to be a lot more men than women in the web industry, but again – this isn’t necessarily down to women not having anyone to look up to, or getting herded away from doing web design during college and university, it’s down to what the individual want to do for their careers.

    I guess I’m just not understanding the concern. As a women in the web industry, I’ve never once been worried about the fact I’m in the minority, nor would do I think it needs to be ‘fixed’ – if more girls want to be web designers, that’s fantastic, same as I feel it would be fantastic that more boys want to be web designers. I welcome new talent and role models in any shape or form.

    1. Hey Lauren, thanks for stopping by. It’s great to get your thoughts on the subject.

      The un-nerving thing for me is that there is a minority in the first place. When I was 16 the tables were the other way round and in answer to John’s comment it wasn’t right that men joining the course was frowned upon. It was frowned upon because it wasn’t the ‘manly’ thing to do.

      I personally expect to see design / web courses chock full of people, a real mixture. If there is a lack of women looking to get in to the industry, is there a reason for it than what I’m thinking. If my point wasn’t taken from the article, I’m in a sense asking the question “Is our industry perceived as a male industry and thus stopping certain career moves?”

  4. God damnit posts like this piss me off!

    True sexist and racist behaviour is appalling – but people twist equality around to utter nonsense these days – just as you have done with your post

    If you have a job opening and two people apply – a woman and a man – they take a test and the woman gets a slightly higher score but you offer the job to the bloke – you are a dick.
    Similarly if you employ two people to do the same job and they equally perform but you pay the woman less – you are scum.

    HOWEVER people continuously winging about how certain areas/careers are biased towards women or men is insane. Women are better at some things and men are better at others. The way we develop from children into adults and the way our brains are orientated is different. There’s obviously exceptions but it’s still a fact.

    There are virtually no women in development – but I don’t think it’s because developers are all sexist. I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t give a developer a job just because they are female and I’ve never met anyone who thinks it’s a male only career.
    I’ve just found in my experience that men are better at concentrating on a single task for a long time, and better at problem solving, where as women are much better at multi tasking than men.

    However skipping past this insane “every career and area must have a 50/50 split of race/gender, otherwise everything is wrong and we must fix it” attitude I also think the core argument of your post is fundamentally wrong

    I’ve been working in the “tech” industry for over 15 years and I’ve met plenty of very talented female designers. In fact I’d probably say more women than men.

    You can’t “fix” what isn’t broken – let people do what they enjoy and let people do what they are naturally talented at and then maybe, just maybe we might all get to live in a world where we don’t have to work with completely unskilled people on an equal wage just because they have a different skin colour or sexual organs and the company is being pushed to fill an “equality” quota!

    1. For the very very minor part of that article that I even slightly mentioned sexism you’ve focused on it too literally.

      It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on an open question I just asked @johnonolan on twitter. “Why do you think there are more men than women in our industry?” as, I stated, I don’t believe our industry is sexist.

      1. Define: “industry”

        If you’re talking about web design – I just plainly think you’re wrong. I’ve met more female designers than men. Maybe the way you socialise with other designers (ie. online) means you meet more men than women – that doesn’t mean there are more men than women in web design.

        If you’re talking about the “tech” industry then maybe it just simply comes down to tastes. I don’t know many women that would want to design a website for network routers – but on the flip side I don’t know many men that would want to design a website for beauty products.

        Don’t tarnish an entire industry with your own narrow viewpoint of it.

        1. I have a very open viewpoint, Phil. From college courses to conference go’ers I consistently see more men than women. I was pleasantly surprised that in June at Interlink Conf there were a lot of women in the audience.

          Definition of Industry: The Web Industry, as a whole.

          1. That’s entirely my point though!

            If you are talking about the web industry as a whole there are undeniably less female developers than men. It’s not a sexist industry – it’s just a role that requires certain traits that are more common in men than women.

            So if you take the “web industry” as a whole and attend conferences you will undoubtedly see more men than women.

            This didn’t used to be the case because nearly all designers were women – as you said 15 years ago it was viewed as a “girly career” and peer pressure in schools and colleges prevented most men from going into design roles. This isn’t the case now and there are lots more men in design. Combine this with the male biased development career and you will always see more men at conferences.

            I also find that when I talk to men in the industry a lot of them attend meetups and conferences in order to network and make like-minded friends. Most women I know in the industry still have friends from school, college, or from a hobby and spend their time going out with them rather than attending tech conferences.

            Meh – I don’t really want to get into a huge discussion about it all as I have done too many times in the past – I just hate the fact that your point was probably meant to try to fight against an industry that doesn’t welcome women – but has actually just gone to document a sexist attitude that doesn’t exist.

          2. I might just take your first 4 paragraphs and replace my entire article as you’ve clearly articulated my point.

            I never said we’re a sexist industry, and said I’d only spotted a glimpse of it once or twice and that’s in 7 years+.

    2. I’m a woman developer with a BS CS degree from Asia and I know several other women who are equally or even more talented than I am. I normally head a team of men developers and I code as well as any of them can. The difference between myself and my male developer friends is they can code, while I can code AND design. And don’t start telling me that I must look like a horse to get to where I am or I must be some kind of ‘mannish creature’ – I look feminine enough to have done a double page spread in a national magazine, thank you very much.

      I find a lot of these comments silly. The idea that one type of gender is better suited to to one task does not disconnect women from code nor men from design. Rather the distinction should be between women who biologically have an inkling towards seeing the collective idea, and men who focus more single mindedly on executing a task. Assuming they are incapable of doing something because of these traits is rather reminiscent of someone with a flat-earth idea of the world. Just because that’s what you see, you assume it must be true.

      There are women in IT, and some of us face a lot of discrimination because people assume we only do design or are some kind of souped up secretary. The female coders of the world are collectively cringing at the discrimination rampant in this article. This is probably why you haven’t met us – it’s just too damn difficult to talk to someone who has already boxed you in. We need some breathing space.

      1. Hey Andrea,

        Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Which part of the article above are you describing as discriminatory?



  5. I think the elephant in the room is that it’s not an industry-specific fault. It’s socioeconomical for women themselves; and basically, our parent’s generation needs to die off for it to change. Our parent’s generation puts forth the socioeconomic constraints on women and our education doesn’t escape that nurturing.

  6. I don’t think this is as big an issue as people are making out. Speaking purely from my own experience there are plenty of female designers and developers in the industry, they may not be well-known but then neither are any of the male developers I work with.

  7. Just commenting from a general viewpoint, rather specifically about your post above.
    I find it slightly annoying people only talking about women, when it is a matter of ‘concern’ about how many are in the industry; from my experience, it is only men who bring this up.

    Unfortunately I do feel there is some discrimination and judgement going on when it comes to hiring women (e.g. less pay, worry of maternity leave, the old “oh my god I didn’t think you could code” comments) but, I think just because women don’t particularly feel the need to voice their opinions all the time (like a lot of men do), maybe they ‘appear’ to not be there.

    But to be fair, I can code just as good (if not better) than some of the lads in the area, so all I can say is “meh, get on with it” lol.

  8. Phil barker you made me laugh quite loudly. Agreed with your post, but you killed it when you said, Women in your opinion/experience are better at multitasking! What a load of tosh! The fact is web culture is male dominated, nothing to do with multitasking crap, or concentration levels. In my opinion most creative males have the attention span of a chocolate hobnob. Its a fact that women find web orientated topics geeky and the general consensus is that the developing side of web is left to pale lads who spend too much time alone at their pc’s in their room. There is no denying it, same goes for other vocations, it’s just one of those things… It’s a guy thing, how many times have you heard, ‘I’ll call the IT guy’? hopefully it will change. Just saying

    1. What an offensive and poorly written piece of crap

      Development is left to pale lads who spend too much time alone at their pc’s in their room?

      I’m 32, not pale, have a macbook that I generally use in coffee shops and I drive a race car whenever possible.

      Keep stereotyping – it does absolute wonders for the industry *sigh*

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