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When it comes to working in Tech: Are some Women more Equal than others?

“Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I watched two unequal sides play the beautiful game in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil semi-final. The host nation was crushed in a 7-1 defeat. Germany simply outclassed them and once they had the first goal pressed their advantage to drive home another quickly, after which the Brasilian side didn’t have a hope. As a team, they fell apart.

Inequality in what should have been a good match, resulted in tears.

There was a  lot worse than tears in this story of inequality last week, when the team at the heart of tech dating agent Tinder fell apart. “When news broke that a former vice president of partner-matching Tinder filed a sexual harassment suit against the mobile dating app company, the most salacious parts of the complaint quickly spread around the Internet, reported Chloe Angyal.”  See the rest of the story via Reuters. Or the Techcrunch version.

It appears the issues are more about the personal rather than professional relationship gone wrong, but in any event the male-female public exploitation in the media, the story of power and punishment is damaging personally and professionally. Frankly, I’m not that interested in the nasty side of the story. But does it harm the appearance of women working in start-ups and tech?

Are women perceived as equals in tech? Do we perceive ourselves as equal or are we our own worst enemies in how we manage and speak of other women, in leadership roles?

To become leaders, we must first start at entry level. I wonder in part if the langauge we use in tech has put women off entering the world of ‘the geek.’ The recent workforce numbers released by Google and surrounding other tech firms in silicon valley show women are unequally represented. I wonder if the imbalance is a result of concrete skill sets – the numbers of girls studying maths, physics, engineering appear ever dwindling -, fitting into the corporate environment – the unusual set up of game style office for example – or nature of work. And how much is down to expectations. “Nice girls don’t play games, they do something sensible.” In fact, in my experience tech is a nice place to be. Geeks are more accepting based on value-add to the team goal in a flat team structure, than I’ve found working in white-collar management for example, where in-house politics starts to play a role. However, some women find that the working environment in either, can’t meet their needs for the other part of their life, parenthood.

Whilst more women in the UK are working than ever, it’s not always in the jobs or employment type which are equally well paid or sought after. Cashiers, waitressing, care roles. Women are over represented in jobs that offer flexibility and there is great gender inequality in pay.

In the UK, in a broader field,  the HSJ looked specifically yesterday, at employment in the Health Service and just published its findings. There are more female leaders running NHS organisations than there were last year. And they held awards for women last night.

But it was Alistair McLellan’s comment I found more fascinating on the types of criticism female leadership receive, than the stats they found.  Again, like the Tinder slanging match, treatment which women both meet out and receive, may be different from that of their male counterparts.

“It is the nature rather than the level of criticism that is different for female leaders, and it tends to be more pernicious and undermining of a leader’s resilience.”

I do wonder if we women are guilty as charged, of being more critical of fellow leading women than men. Or is it that we find bold and assertive women somehow more threatening, as more out of the ordinary, than the same behaviours in male managers? Am I guilty of thinking that ever myself? Do we criticise women in terms of emotion and men according to performance? Are an angry man and an angry woman on the front bench seen as equals? Would both be told to ‘calm down dear’? Does the politics of white-collar management deter women from leadership?

“Time and again it is suggested to HSJ that a female leader is struggling because she is neurotic, devious, scatter-brained and/or self-centred; or that her troubles have arisen because she is a flirt or a sycophant and has been overpromoted as a result.”

“And before female readers get too angry at their male colleagues, the critics are just as likely to be women – or indeed, those who would normally consider themselves strong supporters of equality.”

I’ve been in the receiving position. My female manager suggested I was overpaid and overpromoted. I had been offered another role  in another company. I stuck to my guns and received the salary rise I hoped for. I was twenty-two.  I went on to various jobs, salary increases and promotions in the same company. And I’ve always worked daft hours, given my all for the team and made sure the company always had their money’s worth. You can look to women leaders and say, it can be done.  There are good role models to show it is possible.

(Though some role models, leave something to be desired such as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook’s response in their transparency approach  and ‘apology’ after recent research revelations.)

But if there are fewer women in tech, it is for reasons I may not understand. It is an area where in my own experience, everyone who works together on a project and sees knowledge and result as a common goal, are pretty uncaring from whom a solution comes. Appreciation and team accolades were fairly distributed in my own experience.

I don’t think it is peculiar to tech to have too few women represented, although it could be fair to say the environment has its own quirks. (Just visit Google’s London office for example.) It’s challenging but a fun place to be in the tech workplace. It’s often project based, demanding a quick learning curve, with weird and wonderful hours supporting parts of the world you’ve never heard of. You need to be prepared to do a lot for each other, often at short notice, pulling out all the stops for a last minute fix and testing. It demands a lot of flexibility, energy, problem solving, teamwork and humour.

Whilst similar human qualities are also necessities as a parent,  the flexibility aspect can be something which managing the other role of parent, can absorb entirely. The cost of childcare is prohibitive for many going back into anything other than a similar type of demanding role and environment with its according payscale which they left, if mothers want anything left to take home after costs.  But for me personally the question then becomes, do I want a lifestyle in which I would see my children neither for breakfast nor read them a bedtime story? Or do I work in a non-tech job and  give up on the past?

So perhaps it’s a question of why women have to leave the workplace in general rather than tech. Perhaps we simply can’t go back into that environment with the flexibilty we need in the other part of our life, as a parent?

Why this matters to tech, and the implications for society are here. Women in tech, like women in politics are necessary to offer balance of opinion, experience and expectations. Just as importantly I believe it should reflect all the different parts of society in ethnicity, able and disabled, religion and other areas. I’ve gained all sorts of valuable experiences working in the voluntary sector, as a mother and having free time for other learning since having children. But it is mainly my professional experience that is still examined in applications.

Whilst past experience in tech is of great value now, to go back and  functionally design the system I once worked with, I would need a tech refresher. But that would be easy. What is much harder, is the expectation of my partner that for our children, I would be the one expected to take time off for sickness, unless I had a full time carer for them. And even if we were to split time off 50/50 we’d find it hard. Business travel is not compatible with home & family. So that kind of role I once had, is impossible. So the choice now to have a high-level tech job and put my children second, if sick or for six weeks of the summer holidays, is not a choice I feel fair to make, which would put my wants first and my children’s needs second. And that’s the reality of my choice. It is perhaps a luxury to have any choice at all.

In effect, in motherhood, we might call for employment equality. We may be entitled to it. But we may not always be able to really choose it in reality. In Japan, this is a real problem on a number of levels. What’s the solution?

In Alistair McClellan’s words,

“The answer to these double standards is simple: we must all be alive to criticism that is skewed by prejudice, however subtle, and hold ourselves and others to account to combat it.”

NHS England has an opportunity to do that in patient  involvement organisation / positions on the tech board right now.

patient org places on Informatics Board

I do hope that some informed tech and non-tech women are considered.

The Japanese women, might have hit the nail on the head when it comes to most people’s beliefs about motherhood and working in leadership positions.

“I think only a small number of women can pursue leadership positions,” she said.

“I think in our society you have to choose whether you want to have a career or be a mother; you can’t do both.”

If you were an employer with two women of similar skill sets and experience, one with young and one without or with older children, would you see her role as a mother as a negative effect on the likelihood of employing her? I believe so.

Not because of the fact she had children, but because of the potential secondary demand on her time. As a ‘working’ mother, a woman always has a second job.

For female employees in tech, I believe that counts against us. I believe I will only be able to go back to full time tech work as an older woman, once my children are out of school. That will bring challenges of its own. So whilst we may seek equality, and we told we are all equal, I do wonder when it comes to the paid, working life:

Are some women more equal than others?


FUN FACT: see The last photograph of Virginia Woolf


The Tinder romance gone horribly wrong:

Google employment figures:

HSJ: NHS Workforce findings

HSJ: Progress on Equality is no reason to stop Challenging Prejudice

Japan: – 3. A mother’s journey: Fears and Facts

MGM 1939 The Wizard of Oz

My final of 3 parts response to The Times article recently which mentioned unfounded fears which ‘evaporate like candyfloss’.

The Wizard of Oz that article touched upon, is a threatening fantasy story for many children. But the threats created by the removal of the confidentiality between patient and GP in are real.

We risk patients who will not go to the family GP for care, knowing that the record may be seen by someone other than our trusted local doctor. Or who hold back facts which will influence their treatment. Teens may not visit a clinic believing it can no longer treat them anonymously. These are threats for Public Health. There are other risks of concern for particular groups such as those with disabilities.

Separately, but it seems ever more often built into the current narrative, is the path towards Electronic Patient Record access, which will need all sorts of privacy issues addressed within families and for the vulnerable. The at-risk woman made to reveal her medical record by a threatening partner checking up on her, or checking that there is nothing about him. Women may not speak up with their GP. Carers may even inadvertently, put pressure on the elderly at home, to know all. I know there will be many who want to access their own record. I would myself if it did not mean a fully identifiable record held at a central level. But we should not march on leaving the vulnerable behind a digital divide. It is not just ‘Internet banking’. My fear is that for those who want no electronic record, it will not just mean getting no front end access. It should not be created at all.

Identifiable extraction and re-identifiable data releases to third parties increase the risks of identity fraud, discrimination in education, insurance, and employment. And risk of provider fraud by the commercial third party providers now used ever more widely in the NHS, since the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

It is between these third parties that NHS England demands identifiable data shared for invoice validation. Did Mr. X get treatment Y from provider A? Has the Health and Social Care Act created a dichotomy for NHS confidentiality? Some common identifier is needed to match data with other data held too.

Whilst identifiable data is ‘a no brainer’ for clinical use, we should not be expected to have it extracted, stored, and available to link on demand for bespoke requests to any customer. The vague ‘health purposes, benefiting health and social care’ as undefined yet a small body, with little public oversight at the arms-length HSCIC decides if they are met.

There are decisions reached, out of committee, which are not detailed in the minutes of approval meetings. With only 4 people on the group, it would be easy no matter how well intentioned, for the decision to be much more swayed by someone approaching the group outside of the process, or for there to be conflict of interest. It’s quite a different set up at the Health Research Authority. I fear that my idea of legitimately approved uses in research differ with those of the MRC. Who champions the patient when I have no voice at the table?

Why should a Cabinet Office get given personal confidential information on teenagers, requesting both physical and mental health data, who are taking part in a non-health project, as was done last summer, and which only got documented in January? Even with consent, that seems excessive and unnecessary. We have no control over what future governments may want our data for. The HSCIC Data Advisory Group is yet to fully publicly document those purposes, alongside each new application in any detail. (Compared with CAG which lists a named individual applicant and precise purpose).

Will my children be labelled with a condition which they might outgrow but their notes share it with others for their lifetime and beyond? Will they be stigmatised and discriminated against by deciding NOT to share records and be seen as hiding something? Some people comment, ‘it doesn’t matter I’m not a celebrity or state figure’, as if that somehow entitles one to a greater degree of privacy. But even if we accept that, what of our children, who knows who they may yet become?

We have no idea to what uses their data may be put in our children’s adulthood. We have no idea where it may be stored. Their NHS number is with them from cradle to grave and will be increasingly used across health and non-health settings. The future of medical research and its applications are unimaginable today.

If we are to give them away, it must be  under the strictest of governance and well documented and workable processing solutions.There is a strong argument for allowing queries to share information, not extracts of actual data. The master copy, nor in-part sections of the database, would not leave the secure environment at HSCIC.

Facts often inform and can chase away fears. But until the needed changes are made in process and governance, these fears cannot ‘evaporate like candyfloss.’ They are founded on facts, and shared by many professional bodies as well as individuals.

The leadership team and others needs to stop trying to scare us into submission too. Patients will die if we don’t carry on with  The end of the NHS is nigh. Tim Kelsey told the Health Select Committee if 90% opt out there will be no NHS. Well, perhaps that is the crux of the question. What is the NHS today? Whom does it serve? It belongs to all of us. If you’re doing something that means the end is nigh, then hurry up and tell us what.

If we see as business intelligence in order to make financial transactions flow between a disparate set of providers, then yes, without it, the payments process may need to change or fail without our data. But for patients, that is not what the NHS is about. We want to make it work, but not at the expense of the age old principle of good care: confidentiality.

What needs to happen? 
Fix the Data Protection for pseudonymous data.
Fix boundaries for scope creep, and vague changing purposes.
Fix the failure of Fair Processing and put in place a continual change communications’ plan.
Facilitate the objection and clarify what it means, as offered by the Secretary of State.
Focus on the reality of now, not Online Patient Access in a down-the-line vision.
And fundamentally, be honest with us patients.
Engage with patients without commercial drivers.

Why are we really funding this massive top-down programme, and leaving local hospitals unable to interact? That is what patients need when they transfer between care settings. Beverley Bryant said in London at a conference this week, that ‘interoperability’ was key. Yet between hospitals the Clinical Informatics Director, NHS England, emphasized at the same event, the need for local systems and that there would be no top down support or directive for enforced  interoperability standards. There is a massive disconnect between two leaders in the same quango. I fear this is the biggest challenge – what is really about? The business case cover, according to the February 2014 Board Performance Pack, was still not in place.

To face up to and fix these issues, will take courage. The question should be, not what are we patients afraid of, but have our future Data Controllers, NHS England and HSCIC, the head and heart for the task ahead?