November 29, 2018

Celebrating #womenintech

Cath Askam

It has been a few years now since I last attended a Women in Technology event and the WeAreWomeninTech event caught my attention as it was all about disruptive Innovation, AI and FINTECH. Armed with my trusty umbrella and Google map app I arrived (weathered by the torrential Monday morning rain and rail disruptions) and was pleasantly surprised by the breadth and quality of the speakers

  • Baroness Joanne Shields – CEO of Benevoltant AI
  • Dame Stephanie Shirley – Founder of what became Xansa plc at her dining room table with £6 in 1962
  • Dr Ian Levy – National Cyber Security Centre

They even had Eva the Sanbot so I felt quite at home.

There was a real buzz around the conference which opened with Baroness Shields sharing why we need to disrupt the tech industry.

There was plenty of debate around the future of AI, reportedly China and North America being those set to make the biggest gains. The debate concluded that it’s not about protecting jobs because jobs will change; it’s all about protecting people. Mudano, a Data and Machine Learning company, we need to make sure our workforce stays ahead in terms of skills and knowledge and we consciously adapt. Complacency is not and will not be our friend. We need to continue to own the automation and autonomous debate and continue to challenge and disrupt.

What I hadn’t appreciated about AI was the ethical dilemmas it poses for us as an IT industry. How do we manage our natural biases in the development of algorithms? How do we make sure that AI solutions are fair, moral and/ethical? Is it through Governance? Controls? Ethical Testing? Regulations? Or will these stifle innovation and technology advancement? To quote one of the panel “Every algorithm has or needs a parent or morale compass”.

As we moved into the afternoon, the topic changed to cultivating diversity and the keys to unlocking innovation. Our own values and behaviours resonated here, not dissimilar to Amazon characteristics:

  • Be curious
  • Disconfirm your beliefs – get other peoples perspectives
  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable
  • Experiment and embrace failure
  • Autonomy
  • Send and receive feedback
  • Amplification – restate an idea made by someone who isn’t getting heard.
  • Create an inclusive environment

Towards the end of the afternoon, my heart did start to sink and I felt a feeling of despair. I joined the IT industry in 1996, having studied STEM subjects and earned myself a master’s degree in Electrical & Electronic Engineering…..I was one of 4 women on my course and by the end, one of 2. Over 20 years on, 2018 the height of the data and digital era and we are still talking about the same topics.

How do we get our schools encouraging girls, and boys, to get into technology? Only 19% of students say they learned about career opportunities in technology at school. How do we banish the “manel” – male only panels. There are NO excuses for all-male panels anymore…. banish the #manel it’s not hard folks, there are so many smart women, just ask them to join.

As a new parent, maybe it’s my responsibility to get out there and educate our teachers, career advisors and teenagers about the exciting jobs and opportunities our industry offers…creativity, strategic thinking, problem solving, teamwork…..it’s not just about coding. I am now going to make it my mission to reiterate the message “if girls and boys want to change the world, then technology is where it’s at”.

 The star of the day was the inspirational Dame Stephanie Shirley. The original pioneer of flexible working for women, the founder of a software company from her dining room table in 1962, now aged 85, she is still starting up new businesses. An inspiration to us all.  In her words, “Find something that you are really interested in, scares you a bit and go for it !!!

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