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.