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Women in region’s tech sector share optimism for change on International Women’s Day

PUBLISHED: 18:30 07 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:53 08 March 2017

Barclays Eagle Labs at Whitespace. Left, lab manager Sarah Mitchell and Barclays relationship director Laura Davies using one of the 3D printers. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Barclays Eagle Labs at Whitespace. Left, lab manager Sarah Mitchell and Barclays relationship director Laura Davies using one of the 3D printers. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2016

As the world marks female achievements on International Women’s Day, BETHANY WHYMARK spoke to leading female lights in the region’s tech sector.

The second annual DevelopHER Awards in 2016 at Ipswich Corn Exchange. Picture: Tim Stephenson The second annual DevelopHER Awards in 2016 at Ipswich Corn Exchange. Picture: Tim Stephenson

A step change has begun for women in the region’s technology sector – but a senior female lawyer believes management attitudes will have to change before real progress is made.

For women wanting to break into the traditionally male dominated industry there are positive signs, with a higher female uptake of tech degree courses and networks such as DeveloperHER celebrating female achievements.

However, a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found only 27% of female students would consider a career in technology with only 3% saying it is a first choice, compared to 62% of males considering the career and 15% labelling it as first choice.

The Norwich University of the Arts seems to be bucking this trend. Of the 20 start-ups in its business incubator, the Ideas Factory, nine are run by women.

Millie Woodcock, an animator at Lambda Films in Norwich and NUA graduate. Picture: Lambda Films Millie Woodcock, an animator at Lambda Films in Norwich and NUA graduate. Picture: Lambda Films

NUA business director Sarah Steed said in her four years at the university, she has noticed an increase in the number of women on traditionally male dominated courses such as games design and animation.

She added: “Women are starting to take some of the most interesting jobs in the gaming industry.”

Meanwhile across the city at tech and digital incubator Whitespace – which has two women in its four-strong management team – just one of the 15 current occupants is a female-led company.

Jeanette Wheeler, a partner at Birketts and employment law specialist, believes there is “a huge amount of unconscious bias” against women among Norfolk’s businesses, adding that it would be “interesting to see how it bears in the tech industry”.

Vickie Allen, organiser of the East Anglian DeveloperHER Awards. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Vickie Allen, organiser of the East Anglian DeveloperHER Awards. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“I think it is going to be a generational change”, she said.

As chairwoman of the Norwich Women’s Business Network – a position she held for four years – Ms Wheeler gave a speech to members on International Women’s Day last year about gender diversity.

She said: “We need still to win the argument about why gender diversity is important, not just from a moral perspective but a business perspective.

“There is a certain level of chief executive apathy – the feeling that they cannot get anywhere with it because they still have to persuade their senior management teams and their directors to do something about it.”

PwC said in its report Women in tech: Time to close the gender gap, that 30% of women were studying a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subject at university, compared to 52% of men.

The group also found women are less likely to have a career in technology suggested to them by teachers or careers advisers.

The tech trailblazer

After noticing a gender imbalance at tech industry meet-ups in Norfolk, Vickie Allen decided to create her own tech group.

Named Sync-Develop-Her, the meetings attracted up to 50 people, around 30% of whom were women – more than double the average percentage at other meets she had attended.

This was still not quite enough for the 23-year-old, and in 2015 she set up the DevelopHER Awards. Following the inaugural awards in Norwich, the second ceremony in Ipswich last year attracted more than 170 nominations.

Developer Ms Allen, who studied applied IT at school and went straight into work at 18, said: “In school I had never seen any kind of gender divide in tech so it came as a bit of a shock.

“There are some courses where the gender divide is bad. I think it can still be an issue, and the more technological the courses get the worse it becomes.

“I did applied IT at school, which is not as hardcore as coding. I think there is still a stereotype around it. But there are a lot of jobs in tech where you do not have to learn to code and that is something people miss.”

She said the idea behind the DevelopHER Awards was “to make female role models”. “It shows there really are people out there. I want to create a community to make people feel less alone.”

The ambitious animator

Millie Woodcock, an animator at Lambda Films in Norwich, feels industries like hers are becoming “more balanced”.

The Norwich University of the Arts animation graduate was nominated for an award in her chosen field at the second DeveloperHER Awards last year and now teaches workshops at the university.

She said: “I always wanted to be an animator, but growing up I assumed it would be quite a male dominated area of work. At university I was quite surprised how balanced it was.

“At the time I was also surprised how many of the tutors were female. There were male and female industry professionals and I liked that because it made you think it was pretty 50/50 out there.

“I feel like the digital creative industry is a really popular area for bright women. I am meeting so many young girls that want to animate or go into design.”

The 25-year-old is confident of her career prospects at Future50 company Lambda – a 10-strong team which has doubled in size in the last three years.

“I want to help the company grow and I know that they want to do the same for me in return,” she said.

“We have discussed that as the animation side grows I would become the director of animation. I feel like I have that option as long as I am keeping the company up to date with what is going on in the industry.

“The thing I like about a smaller studio is, we as animators direct the whole project whereas in a big studio you only do one part of the process. It give you a lot of experience.”

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