Women in Science,Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Having asked several, successful female technologists to share their views on the state of women in STEM industries, it seemed only fair that I should do the same.
I started with a degree in Zoology and my first job was as a medical microbiologist. From there I moved into marketing roles, though still with technology based companies, firstly promoting water treatment chemicals and later dialysis machines and CAPD equipment. I later became the delightfully titled Director General of the Scottish Biotechnology Industry Association. On leaving there I stayed in technology, founding one of the very first eCommerce companies, which became one of Scotland’s leading internet retailer. I now run the3rdimagazine, on-line publication looking at business issues from a woman’s perspective.

Company Profile
When starting the magazine myself and founding members Phil Birch and Annie Casey were keen to avoid creating lots and lots of paper for landfill so decided to publish on-line rather than in conventional print. I think it is fair to say that, of the three of us, I am the technologist (though they both can type on a laptop and one can almost use an ipad :0) )

How did you decide upon a career in technology? Did you study science subjects at school/college?
I was unusual in that I had a place at Art College as well as place at University to study Zoology. I chose the later because, as my Dad explained at the time, ” it’s better to get a science degree and a proper job. You can always go back to art later.” He had trained as an industrial chemist so wasn’t unbiased and he was right, I did go back to art – but it was to take a further 30 years before I became a sculptor!

What was the attitude towards technology as a career choice for women from school/college careers advisors?
At my first school, a failing secondary modern turned comprehensive, the staff thought they had achieved a success if they kept you out of borstal. My second school, a girls grammar, was heavily biased towards arts and humanities – but at least I can say that my “A” Level Physics class was 100% female. The fact that there were just three of us in the class out of a 6th form of about 30 isn’t so good.

Have you experienced any discrimination/barriers to progress or would you consider being a woman in a male dominated environment to be an advantage?
No, I don’t think that I have experienced discrimination or advantage. For a while early on in my career I was a water treatment engineer, the only woman doing the job in the whole of the UK. Part of the job involved making appointments to meet with the chief engineers (always a man) of industrial companies. I was far more successful at getting to see these men than were my male colleagues, which I strongly suspect was down to my novelty value rather than my skill as a technologist. Having said that, they only ever signed over to a new contract when they were certain of my technical competence.

Do you think that there are any differences in attitudes/opportunity for girls choosing a career in technology now compared to when you made your career choices?
I hope so. My biggest concern is the lack of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists in general, particularly at senior levels within our large organisations, companies and institutions. There are pitifully few MPs and MSPs with a background in, or understanding of, technology. It is still acceptable for presenters on prestigious BBC current affairs programmes like Today to wear their ignorance of science like a badge of honour. When you consider the bias towards the arts for those in positions of authority and the general under representation of women at senior levels, it is hardly surprising that there are so few senior women in technology.

v)What, if anything, does your organisation do to encourage more women into the sector?
This! We regularly ask the question, garner answers and lobby for change.

What do you think could be/needs to be done to increase the number of women entering technology businesses?
Don’t call us geeks! That goes for boys too. Being a geek, despite the recent biopic of Mark Zuckerberg and deification of Steve Jobs, is not cool! Rather than admiring the geek why not try to create a society where the understanding of science is seen as a usual and interesting, indeed vital skill?

What do you think can be done to encourage women to stay in technology businesses and to advance to senior/board level positions?
It’s a numbers game I’m afraid. While there are so few technologists in top jobs and so few women in top jobs the combination of being a woman and a technologist, is a challenging one. Using my own career path: there were more women than men in my degree course; as a medical microbiologist, all the lab workers, bar one, was a woman, whereas all of the management and supervisory roles were held by men (any guesses which of the lab staff was promoted next?); as a water treatment engineer it was just me; as a marketing director with a renal dialysis company there was just me at a senior level and two female nurses supporting the all male sales team; as director general of the SBA it was just me on the board in a sea of middle aged men. Am I painting a clear enough picture? Many women start of in science and as time passes fewer and fewer remain at senior level but it is also true that many women start out on a career and few make it to senior levels. We need to address equality across the piece as well as in STEM careers.

Do you think that the increased use of social media/internet technologies make technology in general more acceptable to women/girls?
I hope so. I hope that girls do realise that since they are the major consumers of facebook and twitter that they should be best placed to create the next generation of social technologies. When I ran the internet business the web developers were all guys, not only in my company but in the others that we networked with. These men were developing shopping cart software. The customers were largely women! We need to make sure that women are the creators of the platforms we use on-line and not just the consumers.

1 Comment on Women in Science,Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

  1. We read so many statistics Karen, about women being not being fully represented in these industries and also struggling to be promoted. You sound like a case study in the way you personalise the figures.

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