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Many routes to a satisfying career

The Independent
Technology is such a big part of our lives that those who work in the industry can come from all sorts of backgrounds

When she’s not developing technology to look at babies’ brains or the muscles of Olympic athletes, Professor Clare Elwell, a medical physicist, is unashamedly enthusiastic about the benefits women can bring to the technology sector. Until recently the only woman in her department, she wants to see more of them at more senior levels. “Bright women I’ve spoken to just see the barriers to an academic technology career. But in this field, you need to work in interdisciplinary teams, understand each others’ language and communicate your own discipline in simple terms. Women are naturally good at this. And they’re good at putting their ego to one side and asking the right questions about how this technology will actually be used in real life.”

Before technology seeped into every aspect of our lives, an ability in maths and physics was enough to launch a career. Now that the industry has reinvented itself as fast-moving and informal, a good technologist is an agile, creative, multi-tasking, idea-generating problem solver – who’s still good at maths and physics. “IT and engineering firms are actively looking to increase their numbers of female graduates – it’s one of the most dynamic and exciting sectors of the economy right now,” says Maggie Westgarth, head of the careers service at the University of the West of England.

Traditionally women are scarce in the technology sector, representing just 19 per cent of those in IT, according to a survey this year by specialist site the IT Job Board. Other research puts it even lower. More’s the pity, say many across the sector. “We’re keen to balance the score [of men and women],” says Polly Gowers, CEO of Everyclick, which created fundraising technology company Give As You Live. “The quality of women emerging in the sector is exceptionally high – exhibiting the innovative, fearless and accountable team management qualities we look for.”

As technology evolves towards becoming more people-centric and creative, then softer skills, traditionally associated more with women than men, are just what the industry needs. “One needs to think always in positive terms of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’,” says Professor Yvonne Roberts, who’s currently working on rethinking ageing and technology, with a view to engaging people more proactively, especially those who are retiring. “Girls can be geeky and boys can be girly. The ideal skill set is to be sensitive, analytic and strategic.” She sees increasing opportunities in designing and enhancing the experiences of technology users.

As telecommunications and technology begin to merge, areas hungry for good candidates are mobile computing, games design, cloud computing “all cutting edge stuff,” says Philip Davies, assistant director at Bournemouth and Poole College. But more than half of technology professionals find work outside the sector, and technology graduates are sought after by financial services, manufacturing, retail, gaming and the public sector as well.

Predictably within IT the largest graduate employers are the global corporations: Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Intel and the like. Software and web development and social media are all “hot” at the moment, says Sally Smith, project director of ePlacement Scotland project, which helps find short-term IT placements for students – nearly a third of which lead to full-time employment. “As only 16 per cent of our students are women, they enjoy a high profile,” she adds.

However, for intrepid technology graduates, now is the time to be entrepreneurial, especially as there’s a generous helping of support, enthusiasm and goodwill from the industry, government and educational groups. Witness the likes of 2009 computer science graduate Jenny Griffiths, who’s launching the application Snapfashion – a search engine using images to find clothing. Or first-year business student Amy Hunter, currently developing GoTag, an innovative loyalty scheme. Both were funded by the SETsquared Partnership, a group of five UK universities that are actively promoting student enterprises.

Would-be entrepreneurs should keep track of start-ups via social media and look out for events such as Silicon Milkroundabout, an event dedicated to building London’s technical start-up teams, advises James King of Find Invest Grow (FIG), a venture capital firm focusing on the graduate market. “A lot can be said for just dropping an email or calling – it could fast track your career and provide the type of exposure that just isn’t possible at bigger firms.”

“There is a real buzz around startups, and great opportunities if you can find a niche – there’s a lot of help around,” says the award-winning computer scientist Dr Sue Black. She urges women to ignore any negative connotations around the idea of networking and just get on with it as a means of establishing and consolidating contacts who might offer support and inspiration. “There’re so many technology events at the moment it’s ridiculous. Even if you’re still studying you should aim perhaps to go to a talk a week – at least you’ll find out what interests you. We should all do more networking.” If you can, then find yourself a mentor, she advises. Early in her career, she pestered a colleague to spare her an hour a year for experienced advice.

Realising the power of mentors, she founded the informal mentoring network BCSWomen in 2001. Now technology has made it easier than ever to track down like-minded souls and exchange ideas. “A lot of it happens on social media now. I don’t want to say everyone should go on Twitter – but everyone should go on Twitter.” Networking groups such as Mobile Mondays (for phone technology) or Girl Geek Dinners will welcome you, and sites such as womenintechnology.co.uk offer recruitment, job boards, networking and advice.

Nowadays it may be necessary to switch jobs frequently, drawing on networks to secure more work – so if you’ve honed your soft skills and tended to your contacts, you’ll be at an advantage.

“In the past six years in the technology industry I have seen how only a minor aspect of the business activity is actually ‘doing technology’ and stereotypical geeks are quite hard to spot,” says Rachel Jones, a former head teacher who was among the pioneers of educational technology. She is now the head of education and building schools for the future at Steljes.

During her time as an educator, she watched girls outperform boys across the curriculum, but saw their reluctance to continue mathsand physics-related careers. Like many in the industry, she urges women to compete at the highest levels and spell out why their skills matter. Finding work within technology companies has become easier, even for those who have expertise in another field and don’t have a background in maths and science. You can take your retail know-how for example, and sell it to technology companies targeting that sector. “Be brave, value your current expertise and explain why you can add value in a technology workplace from what you can already do,” says Jones.

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