Gaming sector ‘stuck in dark ages’

– Warm words from Government and industry not enough to tackle the problem

– Women make up nearly half of the most frequent game purchasers but only 6% of ICT industry employees.

The lack of women in ICT is a scandal which shames our country, Chi said today at a European gaming conference in Gateshead. She said that the grave shortage of ICT skills is a consequence of the fact that we are excluding half the population from rewarding careers and also represents a loss to industry in the innovative games that would result from a more diverse workforce.

‘ICT needs to be a full part of our society and culture’

Estimates from PWC suggest that the global market for video games will grow from $52.5 billion in 2009 to $86.8 billion in 2014 and it is an area where the UK does very well.

Calling on the Government to “show leadership in ways more concrete than warm words of support”, Chi said:

“The UK video games industry is the largest in Europe.

“Why then is such a modern and successful sector stuck in the dark ages when it comes to gender balance? Because things are bad – and getting worse!”

New Research

Chi wrote to ten of the top ten technology companies in the UK last year [BAE Systems; Rolls-Royce; Google; Microsoft; IBM, ARM; BP; Shell; Ford; and Jaguar Land Rover], asking how many women the employ and what they are doing to attract more girls into the sector.

– Nearly every firm claimed that it was hiring above the national average in terms of the proportion of female engineers/scientists or IT professionals.  The exception was ARM, which did not make the point and candidly added that the proportion was higher in its divisions outside the UK, especially India.

– The two firms that refused to release any numbers were Google and Microsoft.  Both are in the IT field, and are relatively young when set beside the likes of Shell, BP, Ford and Rolls-Royce.  The latter group was more open in releasing numbers, with Ford giving the most detailed breakdown across different job types.

-Most firms hinted that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in engineering and sciences.  –

-Nevertheless, all the firms indicated that getting more women in these fields was a corporate priority. 
Most firms recognise the importance of female role-models in encouraging female graduates or apprentices to join their firms, and detailed the steps taken to develop networking forums or in pushing high-potential female employees up the hierarchy.

Notes

  1. The full research undertaken on top ICT firms employment of women can be found here: https://chionwurahmp.com/wp-content/uploads/Women-in-tech-careers.docx%20
  2. GameHorizon is an annual conference focused on the future of the games industry. Its goal is to create Europe’s leading games industry conference with speakers from within and outside of the industry: http://www.gamehorizon.net/
  3. The full speech is below.

 

[check against delivery]

Girls, gaming and growth

It’s a great pleasure to be here. And not only because the Sage Gateshead is one of my favourite places on earth, affording, as it does, such a magnificent view of Newcastle…

As MP for Newcastle Central I’m proud that in recent years North East England has seen more new technology company start-ups than any area of the UK outside London.

It is a rapidly growing a hotbed of creative talent, with extensive linkages between innovation centres, business support networks, universities, top quality incubator facilities and an excellent range of high-tech business parks.

I welcome the North East’s  emergence as one of the world’s leading centres for digital games development and start-ups, with a dynamic cluster of firms and university courses acting as a magnet for entrepreneurs and students. 

And I’m also pleased to be here for a more personal reason. Before I entered Parliament in 2010 I had what my constituents tend to call ‘a proper job in the real world’. I was a professional engineer, most recently head of Telecoms Technology for Ofcom, focusing on superfast broadband, fibre, standards and convergence.

As such I spent a lot of time at conferences such as this, testing out potential standards and proposed regulation to ensure a level playing field in emerging applications including gaming.

So in many ways I feel at home in this environment where technology meets mass market applications.

But there is also another reason why I feel at home, which to be frank, is much less welcome.

As a professional engineer for twenty three years I became accustomed to working in predominantly or all male environments.

When I started my degree 12% of my fellow electrical engineering students were women; almost 30 years have passed since – it sounds like a depressingly  long time when but the depressing thing is not how long it has been but that whilst women now make up 43 per cent of GPs, 41 per cent of solicitors and even 22 per cent of MPs the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all.

One might argue that electrical engineering is an old world profession – Cable and Wireless, where I worked for many years, was founded in the 1860s.

It is perhaps understandable that they inherited the gender balance of the Victorian era. The Royal Society did not even admit women for the first three hundred years of its existence.

But the gaming industry is young and just entering maturity. The latest report from the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) shows video games coming of age as a mainstream entertainment medium –  almost a third of all people older than 16 in the UK describe themselves as ‘gamers’). The percentage goes up to 74 per cent for people between the ages of 16 and 19.

Gaming is increasingly seen as an effective means of education, socialisation, information dissemination, intellectual development, innovation and, of course, entertainment. The gamization of our lives is talked of in businesses, universities, seminars, conferences and even by politicians.

Estimates from PWC suggest that the global market for video games will grow from $52.5 billion in 2009 to $86.8 billion in 2014.

And it is an area where the UK does very well. The UK video games industry is the largest in Europe.

Why then is such a modern and successful sector stuck in the dark ages when it comes to gender balance? Because things are bad – and getting worse!

The proportion of computing A levels taken by women went down from 12% to 8% between 2004 and 2011. There is only one girl for every eleven boys in the average UK A level computing class in 2011. Think how that feels if you are that one girl. Perhaps that is one reason why last year, just 241 women took A Level computer science nationwide.

At the same time half of the UK’s co-educational state schools send no girls at all to sit A Physics.

In 2012 2,400 home female students were accepted onto full-time undergraduate computer science courses as opposed to 15,100 men.

Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of tech jobs held by women declined from 22% to 17%.

And when you look from ICT generally to gaming specifically then the situation becomes even more dire. Not in terms of usage.

Of the most frequent game purchasers, 54% are male and 46% are female. Other figures from Interactive Software Federation of Europe also give an almost even breakdown between men and women gamers.

And figures from the US suggest women 18 or older represent almost double the  portion of the game-playing population (30%) than boys age 17 or younger (18%).

But when it comes to games development women are hugely unrepresented. As Dr Jo Twist, CEO of trade body UKIE has said:

“Even accounting for the poor performance of the education system, the games industry itself can work harder together to ensure that women make up a good proportion of our workforce. Creative Skillset figures suggest that just 6% of our employees are women.”

Obviously the fear is that the situation may be even worse than these numbers show – if just 6% of total employees are women, the percentage of those in programming or other ICT-based will be even lower.

I could go on. The figures are both frightening and depressing and I have lots more of them. It is clear that we are doing worse than many of our European and OECD peers.

But I want to focus on what we can do about it, we being the industry, civil society and Government.

There is a lot the industry can do. As I said I worked in tech industries for twenty three years. Often I was lucky enough to have great male bosses who were determined that the almost all male working environment should not be a barrier to a successful career.

But I have also known other managers who were not so supportive and company cultures which worked against attracting girls and women into ICT, and did nothing to help them stay there.

The twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy gives reasons why women would not want to work in the video games industry. The hashtag #1reasontobe responds with reasons women are in games and what they get out of it. It’s creator Rhianna Pratchett, Tombraider scriptwriter, has said that the industry is  in need of a shake-up, but one that benefitted everyone, not just women.

I would certainly agree.

As Shadow Minister for Innovation last year I wrote to ten of the leading tech companies to ask them what they were doing to improve the situation.

The responses are summarised on my website. What was quite amusing was that a number of the companies addressed their response to ‘Mr Onwurah’.  I shan’t name them but it did make me wonder how accustomed they were to engaging with women.

Also striking was the fact that Google and Microsoft refused to release any figures on the proportion of women they had working in ICT citing confidentiality.

Now that suggests that either Google and Microsoft do not know how to aggregate and anonymise such information which, given they are leaders in Big Data management, is very worrying or alternatively they have so few women employees, giving the figure would necessarily identify individuals. That is also very worrying!

Of those companies that did respond, most thought that the main problem was a lack of qualified female candidates in ICT, engineering and science and outlined steps taken to redress this, from overhauling corporate procedures (e.g. making sure women are on interview panels) to intervening early in schools to steer girls towards STEM subjects and careers.

Companies emphasised the importance of female role-models in encouraging female graduates or apprentices to join them, and detailed the steps taken to develop networking forums or in pushing high-potential female employees up the hierarchy.

ARM suggested the most effective means would be role models and TV commentators or presenters who make the subjects sexy and exciting.

I agree in part. A high profile TV series about a complex, flawed but ultimately sympathetic female games developer would probably change perceptions overnight.

But the responses I receive show the wide range of challenges we face. As well as improving the image of ICT, we need to look at  the working environment of women who are in ICT,  and who are or could be role models, recruitment into ICT, higher education, secondary, primary education, and careers advice.

And our culture which socialises girls to think ICT is not for them. Why does Tescos online  label chemistry sets for boys and a pink cooker for girls?

Now there are a large number of initiatives. I recently held a debate  in the House of Commons on attracting women into ICT. I crowdsourced ideas and examples from twitter.

I was impressed by the response. I’ll just give a few examples. Since 2005 Computer Clubs for Girls have reached 135,000 girls in over 3,800 schools.  Primary Engineer puts STEM professionals into primary schools. Little Miss Geek, Girl Geeks and Science_grrl seek to inspire girls into ICT whilst WISE promotes female talent in science, engineering and technology from classroom to boardroom. BCS, AthenaSwan and STEMnet support women in ICT and STEM careers and help them become role models for the next generation.

The challenge is to know how well these initiatives are working and to help them work better in the future.

It is a challenge that I fear this Government failing to take up.  It ended funding for UKRC, the organisation dedicated to supporting girls and women into ICT. It has reduced support for careers advice, absolutely the key way of helping into ICT those girls who have no direct contact with ICT professionals as part of their background.

It has also reduced support for small and medium businesses. SMEs don’t have dedicated human resource departments and recruitment budgets and often rely on employing ‘friends’ of current staff – which can mean that workforce diversity remains limited.

Of course employing your friends can happen in larger organisations, and even in Government.

But the Government should be offering more support for skills in small businesses rather than turning Business Link from face to face support into a website.

So what we need from Government is a plan, targets or framework to help us assess if we are on the right track in attracting more girls into ICT. In response to my debate the Minister had many warm words of support but  said that she did not believe in targeting girls.  I’m afraid that taking a ‘gender blind’ approach can have only limited success. And that’s bad for the country.

The lack of women in ICT is a scandal which shames our country. But it also a huge loss to the country and to the sector.

A loss to the country in a talent pool half the size it could be. The Livingston Hope skills  review of Video games and visual effects reported that UK growth was being held back by a lack of suitable skills –   no wonder if we are excluding half our population.

It represents a loss to women in not having entry to these rewarding careers and also contributes to the gender pay gap as salaries are on average 50% higher in tech than elsewhere.

It represents a loss to industry in the innovative games that would result from a more diverse workforce.

But there is an additional, intangible, but hugely important loss: technology will never have the position it merits at the heart of our society and economy if it remains the preserve of such a narrow section of society.

To drive forward our economy sustainably, ICT needs to be a full part of our society and culture. Given the economic, climatic and social challenges we face as a nation we cannot allow ICT to remain an exclusively male occupation.

To improve the gender balance in ICT, industry and Government needs to show leadership in ways more concrete than warm words of support.

2 thoughts on “Gaming sector ‘stuck in dark ages’

  1. newboilerman

    Working in the digital marketing area and having attended an engineering college to study computing science I can only agree with your comments about the need to encourage more women into engineering and ICT.

    My contacts within the digital marketing industry are still almost exclusively male – very different to the broader marketing profession which are pretty close to 50% women.

    i really can’t figure out why there are so few women in the industry. To change things the focus really has to be on schools and colleges to encourage more female entrants into ICT.

  2. Pingback: In Other News– Weekend Edition, 10 May 2013 | Lazygamer .:: The Worlds Best Video Game News ::.

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