“We cannot wait another 25 years for change to happen” Chi Onwurah, MP

Chi Onwurah is a British Member of Parliament representing Newcastle upon Tyne Central and is also a Shadow Cabinet Office Minister leading on cyber security, social entrepreneurship, civil contingency, open government and transparency. She was invited as a keynote speaker at Women Shift Digital Conference at Level39 on 26 November 2013.

 

Chi started her keynote ‘Reclaim the byte!’ by stating that unfortunately, there is no such cultural and gender diversity at Westminster to engage with like at this event.

A former female telecom engineer, Chi felt she has always been an exception, wherever she has worked, from Washington DC to the UK, Paris, Nigeria. As part of her career in engineering, she felt especially proud to have been part of the team that put in a wireless backbone in Nigeria in 18 months, as it made a huge difference to the community.

In the ICT sector women make up 30% of operation technicians, 15% of managers, 11% of strategy and planning professionals, 6% of professional engineers, 15% of those applying for computer science degree and just 6% of video games developers, Chi stated.

Chi challenged the audience, reminding us that most of these figures haven’t really progressed in the last quarter of century. In particular, there are around 12% women studying engineering in HE and that figure that hasn’t changed in 30 years!

“We have to make a difference!”

Asking how we can make this shift happen, Chi questioned herself on how and why she joined the tech engineering pathway as a young woman who grew up in a Newcastle council estate with none of her family members being directly involved in technologies and sciences. Recognising the influence of great teachers and films, she pointed out that there is no single solution and that the gender stereotypes faced by young women are highly complex.

“Women have so much to offer to ICT” Chi said. Based on her own experience, she asked how would technology and therefore our everyday life would be different if more women and diverse communities in general had been involved at the baseline level of design. She gave the example of Middle East based Eurostar Group’s ePad Femme – a tablet designed for women which comes pre-loaded with yoga and recipe apps…  designed by men for what they perceive as being women’s expectations and needs!

“What kind of society do we want?”

Chi related a story of how she wrote a letter to the 10 top technology companies in the UK to address this issue and ask for the percentage of women employed in top management in those companies, but it appeared that companies like Microsoft and Google would not disclose the number. Nearly every firm answered they were hiring women above the national average, including  ARM Holdings which has a higher percentage of women in its divisions outside the UK, especially in India. Most of the companies hinted that the main problem was to find qualified female engineers but that getting more women was a corporate priority.

Digital skills are a great catalyst to women’s empowerment, especially in the developing countries to get access to health care, education etc. Chi made the point that “this is not only about women and technology but about the kind of society we want to shape in the future”.

The financial crisis has left us with the necessity to rebalance our economy and to truly recognise the contributions women are making into the global economy.

There is a real opportunity to shift gender balance in the tech industry and Chi gaved us some of key recommendations in that sense:

  • Organise (like Girls in ICT Day)
  • Enable (STEM ambassadors at schools)
  • Celebrate (Role Models)
  • Make alliances
  • Increase voice
  • Mentor
  • Promote successful women in technology in the media

“We cannot wait another 25 years for change to happen,”

“We have been waiting too long for gender balance to emerge in the tech sector naturally and that we now need to observe quantifiable change as soon as possible”. (…) Gender balance in ICT has to improve,and it is now time for the Government to show leadership in concrete ways, as we need to do better than the merely warm words of support. We cannot wait another 25 years for change to happen” she concluded.