So, first up, I’m not intending to call anyone out here for not doing the right thing or even for doing the right thing – it’s just something happened recently that I feel I want to share and perhaps get some feedback about. That’s why I started writing here after all!
So, last year, my daughter decided that she’d put herself forward for part of the primary school technology leadership team. This group helps work with the school on stuff like spreading the messages about being safe online, how to use tech responsibly, teaching kids about cyber bullying and other really important things. I think they do some other things too, but with the limited budget the school has for tech, it limits what they can influence. I was proud that she was willing to put her hand up for what, even in our fairly affluent and well educated school, is a group which is still overwhelmingly male dominated.
Fast forward to this year (school years run to calendar years here in Australia, with summer holidays over end December to end of January.) She had been preparing with me a speech on why she would be an excellent choice to lead this group. Last Friday evening I found out that she had not been chosen as the lead for the group, but also had not had a chance to give her speech.
“Why?” I asked.
So the teacher had sat down with the technology leadership group, 8 boys and 2 girls. He asked them if they wanted to makes speeches to decided who should be appointed to lead the team (two leaders). The majority didn’t want to do speeches, so they decided not to do them. So then he asked them if they thought that it would be a good idea to have one girl and one boy as leaders. The majority didn’t think this fair given only two girls in the group. The teacher then went back to the girls and asked them what they thought. Unsurprisingly, the girls did not deviate from the majority position. So then they went around the group and each person nominated another person for the leadership role, explaining why they thought that person would be a good leader. The two people with most nominations were then “elected” as the leaders of the group. Two boys as the official leads of the technology leadership team.
Now, I took exception to this process.
Firstly, it’s not right to ask an unrepresentative group to elect leaders/representatives on behalf of a much larger group. In this case a heavily male dominated group made decisions about who should be leading and representing for the whole school population (gender ratio about 50/50). We can see what such a process has done to our political parties – but that’s another conversation…
Secondly, it’s not fair to ask a group of girls that are already in the minority to go against the wishes of their peers, especially when those wishes have just been publicly voiced.
Thirdly (and perhaps most controversially) this shouldn’t have been a choice made by the students at all.
I am very much aware that there is a real lack of upcoming talent in the IT industry here in Australia, and even more so a lack of female talent. I make special efforts to recruit those females that I see working in IT into my team. (If you’re a female in Melbourne Australia, working with cloud tech and interested in SAP cloud technology and building cool stuff, send me a CV, I will very likely find an opening for you!) My experience has been that given all the hassle most women have gone through to get into a tech career that they are far more capable and resilient than their male counterparts (sorry guys, but you just don’t have to work as hard as the girls do to get the same level of respect.)
I feel that we need to promote tech at the earliest possible stage of schooling and we need to make sure that it’s not seen as “something for the boys”. Given the unrepresentative numbers in the group, it looks like this hasn’t been happening well enough at my local school. So we need to give it a push. It needed to be shown to the younger girls that tech was something that girls could do, they needed their own leader, it should have been a girl.
So, I’ve had a conversation about this with the teacher concerned and in hindsight he can absolutely see the problems and the issues. He’s going to try to figure out what can be done. (He comes across to me as an excellent teacher who perhaps wasn’t considering the gender issues as much as I think we both think he might have done. I’m very glad that someone as willing to take feedback as he is teaching my child. I feel very lucky.) I’d hope that we end up with three leaders in the group at least one of them female – will be hard to take away that “elected” role from one of the boys. But closing the stable door when the horse is out already is hard.
So, I’ll wait and see what happens next. My daughter is giving me the cold shoulder for being “mean” to her favourite teacher, but I just couldn’t stand back and act like this didn’t involve me.
Bringing “balance” to an industry so heavily dominated by males will mean that sometimes we will have to make decisions that many will regard as unfair. Diversity means so much more than just gender diversity, but it’s probably one of the most obvious areas that we can address and should actively address. I’m loving that SuccessFactors is bringing “business beyond bias” to the workplace. But I think we need to proactively address this well before we hit the workplace. Wouldn’t it be cool if the same data analysis tools that we’re deploying into our work could also be used in our schools to help pick up bias and remove it?
Ok – that’s all, if you have any comments, please hit me up on twitter – @wombling would love to hear if you think there should have been a different way I could have handled this, or any suggestions on how to help promote WIT at the local school.