Interview: Building a future with women in tech

After speaking at a PwC event, we caught up with Ally Watson, entrepreneur, CEO and former software developer. Her organisation Code Like A Girl is pushing to change the status quo of the tech industry by teaching women from all backgrounds to code.

As technology becomes more integrated into our everyday lives, people expect that these capabilities will intuitively understand their wants and needs, and provide solutions for their problems.

To achieve this, all individuals need to be considered in the design of our digital future. To be considered, however, they must be represented.

This is where we hit a stumbling block. Women make up only 29% of the US technology industry, with an even lower percentage who actually work in developer roles, and represent only 5% of startup owners. Racial diversity is even further neglected in tech: 95% of Silicon Valley’s workforce is white.1

Ally Watson knows first-hand that current levels of diversity in technology are insufficient to build a fair future for all. Social enterprise Code Like A Girl, which she founded in Melbourne in 2015, offers workshops and camps on coding for girls as young as six, as well as events and classes for women who are interested in meeting fellow developers or beginning their education in coding. Here, we discuss the impetus behind organisations like Code Like A Girl.

There are many industries where women are underrepresented, such as trades, engineering and mining. Why the big push to make a change in technology?

AW: The focus is because technology isn’t an industry in itself any more – it is every industry. Technology is the foundation, it is the medium and materials and solutions that make up every single business. It’s so widespread. It’s also our future. It’s the systems that inform us and that we inform.

Your organisation, Code Like A Girl, says it’s not just about women in tech, but about women building tech. Why is that important?

AW: If the only coders and the only technologists are one gender and even of one race, that’s terrifying. That means that biases will seep in.

We’re already seeing biases in image recognition technology where data sets are bias, because technologists are dominated by one gender or one race. Tech companies are boasting their image recognition technology has a 90% success rate but, when it’s tested on a woman with darker skin, that drops to 50%. If we’re using this technology in cars, and a pedestrian on the road is a black woman… I don’t even want to think about those implications.

We already went through a very long period of time where women and children were more susceptible to deaths in cars because of airbag technology. [Early crash test dummies represented the body shape of the average man; in the US, women who wore seat belts were 47% more likely to be seriously injured than men in similar accidents and it wasn’t until 2011 that the law required dummies to also represent petite women.2]

Then there’s the Apple Watch. They launched that in 2015 – and this is a watch that will track your calories, your footsteps, your sleep patterns, you name it – but it didn’t have a menstruation tracker. Certainly, not in the first release. They eventually fixed it, but I don’t want to be continuously forgotten.

We are still not fixing this problem because we’re not diversifying the engineers who create our world, and it’s only going to get worse as we integrate more and more technology.

More than 80% of men think organisations spend too much time addressing the issue of diversity, while 40% of women believe organisations don’t spend enough.3 What are the main incentives for businesses to invest in diversifying their workforces?

AW: The upsell is obviously the shortage of technologists. It’s an untapped market. Also, there’s a huge amount of evidence that diversity on a team makes the collective intelligence of that team better, it improves the dynamics and culture, and creates a more balanced place to work. There is also a lot of evidence around the financial gains that even the presence of one woman can make to a company.

The 22nd PwC CEO Survey revealed that skills shortages are a main threat facing businesses in 2019. Leaders saw three main strategies to address the skills shortage: retraining or upskilling employees, hiring from outside their industry, and establishing a strong pipeline from education. What do you think about the skills shortage in business?

AW: We need to keep this talent local, we need to grow – there are countries out there who are farming technologists. The problem is so much bigger than just ‘we need more girls’. There is a shortage. If we cannot pioneer the technology industry in Australia then other countries will, and we’ll have to outsource and constantly put money elsewhere. We should be investing in Australia’s next generation in technology skills.

Also, look in your own departments and your own staff. There’s so much desire there. It’s not easy because [when reskilling] you have to go back to not knowing again. That’s an old familiar feeling that no one really likes, it’s difficult being the dumbest person in the room. But you have to embrace it and, with technology, once you get that mindset it never leaves you because tech moves so fast, no one is an expert, no one is a master.

How does a woman beat the odds and achieve success in the tech industry?

AW: With most women who we’re finding in technology, there’s definitely commonalities of grit and perseverance. I think being a minority currently in that industry it’s fairly easy for people to drop out because it’s just unenjoyable or because it’s tough to not have that support. So I think what you’ll find is this commonality between the women who do keep persisting and make it through: they’ll have a bit of grit, a bit of perseverance in them, a bit of resistance.

I’m reading a really good book at the moment called Mindset by Carol Dweck. It’s about fostering a culture where at the dinner table you ask, ‘What did you learn this week? What mistakes did you make?’, about making it a conversation and totally acceptable. Almost like it’s a goal to make a mistake, it’s a goal to learn from something, it’s a goal to be continuously improving and growing. If you’re just good at everything and you’re always ticking the boxes and you’re facing no adversity in life is that really the right path?

Read more about gender diversity in the workplace. Visit PwC’s International Women’s Day content hub here.