The issue of equality for women in the European Union, their access and involvement into digital technologies has become an imperative and topical debate which has come up regularly throughout the Robots and Avatars activities (artworks selection, learning activities and debates). As we become more deeply engaged in the digital world of virtual physical communications, collaborations and connections across the EU, we considered it essential to examine some of the issues for women and girls in relationship to digital access and creation:

How do we approach skills sets which are still seen as
a “boys domain” by many girls of school age?

 

Can we find ways to involve young women in digital skills
development through finding solutions for
the issues they are interested in?

 

How do we ensure a feminine viewpoint will emerge in the
next generations of arts, software development,
web, social media and other digital businesses?

Our vision is that, equally to men, women need to be able to take up the opportunities and knowledge offered by the tech revolution. The future of design and creativity through software and hardware needs equally to be influenced and created by women to enable a balanced perspective which will be fully integrated at the base of all new tools. We need to encourage women and girls to become tomorrow’s successful digital producers, communicators, educators, coders, artists, designers, curators, writers and creatives.

In Maribor in May 2013, the Robots and Avatars co-organisers, associate partners, guest experts and participants have discussed in depth these challenges and looked for ways to encourage more girls and women across the EU  through an open debate, a vision workshop and a series of presentations and working groups.

Professional women and men involved in the fields of arts, digital and creative industries from Slovenia, Romania, United Kingdom and France gathered together to input on their experiences and visions for the deeper engagement and progress of women across all sectors of arts, business and technology in Europe today.

Priority was given to experience sharing and case studies, both from recognised and/or emerging women developing their careers.

Participants included:

From Slovenia:

Ida Hirsenfelder (CIPKE Collective, Art Critic, Slovenia), Aleksandra Kostic (KIBLA, Slovenia), Lidija Pajnik Awais (KIBLA, Slovenia), Dejan Pestotnik (KIBLA, Slovenia), Monika Pocrnjic (CIPKE Collective, Art Educator, Slovenia), Robertina Šebjanij ( CIPKE Collective, Artist and Cultural Facilitator, Slovenia), Maja Smrekar (CIPKE Collective, Artist, Slovenia), Sasa Spacal (CIPKE Collective, Artist, Slovenia)

From Romania:

Laura Codreanu (Independent dancer, Romania), Larisa Sitar (AltArt, Romania), Reka Szabo (AltArt, Romania), Istvan Szakats (AltArt, Romania), Rarita Zbranca (AltArt, Romania)

From the UK:

Ghislaine Boddington (body>data>space, UK), Leanne Hammacott (body>data>space, UK), Anna Kronenburg (FACT, UK),Marie Proffit (body>data>space, UK), Michael Takeo Magruder (Artist, UK), Lesley Taker (FACT, UK)

The output of these debates and discussions was shared in real time on Twitter (@robotsavatars #womenintech) and forms part of the Robots and Avatars e-publication.

 

A Case Study Revealing an Alarming Situation

‘LONDON — At 16, Isabelle Aleksander spends hours writing computer codes and plans a career in engineering. Her latest passion is the Raspberry Pi, a low-cost, credit-card-size computer developed to help teach programming.

But when she told her best friend — “he’s male, also into programming” — his response was not what she had expected. “He was like, ‘Wait, how do you know about them? You’re a girl and you shouldn’t be doing that,” Ms. Aleksander said incredulously. (…)

Both sexes love gadgets — but while girls may enjoy owning the latest devices, parents and teachers do not point out that they also have the brains to build them, Ms. Parmar (founder of Little Miss Geek) says.

They’re dreaming of using the iPad mini and the latest smartphone, but they’re not dreaming of creating it,” she said. (…) In the developing world, the problem is more severe, said Nigel Chapman, chief executive of the development group Plan International. In many countries, girls lack access to technology after they quit school because of discrimination, poverty or early marriage. Without computer skills, “they are shut out from one of the weapons to fight poverty,” Mr. Chapman said.’

This article ‘Computer Coding: It’s Not Just for Boys’ from the New York Times perfectly highlights the difficulty for young women all around the world to feel confident about digital access and careers.

 

Let’s Look at the Facts…

In the USA:

Women Dominate the professional workforce among individuals holding professional jobs in the US 56% are women. And yet…

The Tech World is still a “boys club” in many ways proprietary software jobs held by women 28 %

IT jobs held by women 25%

Women executives at Fortune 500 companies 11%

Tech start-ups owned by women 5%

In the UK:

The number of UK technology jobs held by women has dropped from 22% in 2001 to 17% by 2011 (The EU average is 21.8%.) and the number of women applying for computing A-level in the UK dropped from 12% in 2004 to 8% by 2011

The number of women applying for tech jobs and applying to do tech subjects at A-level have dropped between 2010 – 2011 to 17%

There is still a 20% pay gap between men and women

Some positive evolutions

Central and Northern Europe: Some Eastern European and Baltic countries do better than the West. Latvia has the highest proportion of women in programming in Europe, at 33 %, while Romania has 30.6 %, according to Eurostat.

Some recent encouraging figures show that “Women are increasingly involved in the tech field, both as consumers and as practitioners, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since over half of social media users are women and the average social gamer is a woman in her 40s. This trend is also reflected in education. Of the computer science majors graduating in 2013 from Harvard, women make up 41%. And although only 25% of science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) jobs are currently held by women, the numbers are beginning to shift. Between January of 2011 and 2012, the number of women in the IT field jumped by more than 28%.”

(Figures from She ++, the New York Times, Women Who Techthe Guardian, Online MBA)

 

How to encourage More Women to Join Technologies: Recommendations and Visions

Constantly referring to these initial key facts, the Robots and Avatars partners, experts and guests identified different fields in which actions have to be taken on individual and collective levels to empower women of all ages and backgrounds with digital skills in their daily, family and professional life.

Skills and Education for Young Women to join Technologies

From our discussion, it emerged that young women are more receptive to problem-solving, goal-oriented education methodologies. Therefore, technologies should be used and taught as a tool to deal with issues that are important and meaningful for young women in their daily life, rather than a “separate widget” with no other final aim than the technology itself.

Technology is and will be more and more an imbricated part of our everyday life (communication, work, health and well-being etc) and this reality has to reflected into education, linking different sectors and disciplines with fluidity.

We need to find creative ways to help teachers to use tech-based educational resources and encourage diverse, pressure-free training. Also, artists and digital makers can come in supported by joint ventures (Arts Organisations/Educational Centres) to facilitate creative and everyday applicable, use of technology.

More informal and local opportunities could be created: skill-sharing and sign-posting for teachers about events in their locality where the young women in their class can experience  technology workshops in their free time.

Intergenerational learning (and two-way lifelong learning) does and could happen more between women from different ages, in school and at home, using domestic education and also as “informal learning”. Examples of young women in technologies here in Slovenia show that family influence is determining as most of them had a “geeky” education thanks to their dads and mums.

It was suggested that individual women and women-led collectives should be encouraged to  enter school environment, to inspire not only the students, but also the teachers and families to understand the potentials of using tech for all areas of learning, working and communicating. Early mentorship by other women proves to be beneficial for young women and girls, to improve their confidence and open their visions about future careers.

Education through entertainment in gaming and creativity would lead to more female programmers and designers as they are increasingly exposed to the creative end product of technological design. This will encourage a large number of young women to consider tech sector a legitimate choice for their career/future interests. Lack of female designers/digital makers is indeed a vicious circle: male-designed technology is not as likely to appeal to as many women.

Digital technology has emerged from mainly male-occupied areas, such as engineering, industry, military; leading to the generally male, “boys toys” association many cultures have for technology. A deep shift in perceptions is needed, through female role models’ promotion for instance, to encourage and support women to take up technologies.

 

Health and Well Being / Future World of Living

Inter-generational learning and development at home between daughters, mothers and grand-mothers is crucial to empower women of all ages with technology in their domestic and health environment:  it enables collaboration and soft/hard skills sharing to happen between women. In that way, technological jargon will become less of a barrier as more people are familiarised with technology from multiple fronts and it becomes more widely used.

Many examples of senior citizens having to use iPads and Skype to communicate with their children after an operation, due to age and/or disability have proven that such technologies can reconnect elderlies to their families and environments, when living in remote or rural locations.

A 2009 study published by The University of Hertfordshire, has demonstrated than in the UK women are now using technologies (communication, Skype, internet, gaming, iPads) in their domestic environment more than men, and claiming “that mothers are more likely to lend a helping hand than fathers when these technologies fail”.

During our break-out group, we looked at future domestic environments and their impact on the usage of technologies by women. We envisioned together the house of the future as an immersive, tactile interface in which telepresence walls are connecting us to our beloved ones all around the globe, filled with intelligent and reactive objects. Women are well-represented in product and interior design, designing our interior and living environments, a sector in which the use of technologies (tactile, sensory, interactive etc) is booming. We need to encourage more women to be at the baseline of this creation/design process by making these careers more visible and attractive to young women.

Similarly, there is a majority of women working in care, health and well-being and due to the very fast evolution of medical technologies towards robotics, sensory interfaces and telepresence, we can expect a new generation of young women to be fully tech-savvy in the coming years.  The point was made that middle-aged women, already in their careers, should be able to access their skills within their professional environment.

 

 

Women in Tech, Business and Creative Industries

It is clear that traditional management culture has to evolve as a whole to a much more collaborative share space that enables women to truly flourish as successful professionals, being simultaneously leaders and colleagues. Many websites such as UK based Everyday Sexism gives a glimpse into the shocking reality that women are facing in their everyday lives at work. Since our debates in Slovenia and during the writing of this report, the shocking and abusive threats received on Twitter received by women campaigning for Jane Austen on a  £10 banknote proved us  that there was still a long way to go to truly overcome offline and online sexist prejudice.

It should become more natural for women to take part in management roles without having to be disingenuous or over-assertive. This has to be assisted by the creation of mixed gender-balanced senior management teams in all sectors, allowing women to function as respected and fulfilled managers without creating a “typically masculine” identity or over-feminising themselves.

The rise in women hired in corporate management noticed at Facebook, Google and other companies is a true encouragement, but we now have to make sure that this affirmative action will then give way to the hiring of more  women who are genuine, capable and confident in their capabilities.

We believe that proclamation of ability and confidence will rise for women who begin to work with technology in all the manners previously described, as well as in educational and domestic settings. This should lead to the demystification of technology and removal of the fear and idealisation of tech as it becomes more a part of everyday life, i.e. food, health, shopping, exercise, gaming.

 

Communication, advocacy and access

Looking at #Womenintech groups on Twitter and sharing references about national, European and international Women in Tech groups and collectives,  we were  pleasantly surprised by the high rise in community and support groups that allow women to develop confidence and network without over-competitiveness, and this all around the world.

Here in Slovenia we were very pleased to hear about the experience of 5 young women,  Robertina Šebjanij, Sasa Spacal, Monika Pocrnjic, Maja Smrekar, Ida Hirsenfelder  who brought together their visions, skills and passion for technologies to form a collective CIPKE, for “feminism in action” towards equal access to creative technology.

 

It is crucial that inspiring and successful women in technologies appear at the top line of gender equality campaigns, share their experience with other women and inspire them to follow their way. Living women and models from the past are equally important for young women and society overall to shift perceptions.

We need collective platforms and campaign where women and men of all ages share their successes and difficulties, discuss and exchange tips and advice. Lean In is a great example of a virtual/physical platform designed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.

 

 

This report  is a snapshot from our discussions in Slovenia and we are not setting these conclusions as absolute or definite. On the contrary, we consider these recommendations as an excellent basis for the involved partners to develop discussion and take action on the topic at national, European and international levels. For instance, you can read more on body>data>space latest initiatives on the topic here.

 

> Watch the videos and interviews from different women involved in technology in Europe

> Pictures from the activities

 

Image Credits:
-Visions of Our Communal Dreams, Michael Takeo Magruder With Drew Baker, Erik Fleming and David Steele, Robots and Avatars Commission 2012

-Interview of Izabella, Romanian Webmaster by Altart

-’Visions of Our Communal Dreams’ workshop: Weatherhead Female Students / FACT / Visions of Our Communal Dreams, Michael Takeo Magruder With Drew Baker, Erik Fleming and David Steele, Robots and Avatars Commission 2012

-Learning Experiences at KIBLA, Robots and Avatars Exhibition 2012

-Robot and Avatars Virtual World Workshop as part of idiscover programme/ body>data>space and Michael Takeo Magruder / NESTA / 2010

-Ghislaine Boddington drawing the final conclusions from the debates at KIBLA, May 2013