Westminster View: Girls, gaming and growth?

Last month I held a debate in the House on attracting girls into ICT, to mark international Girls into ICT Day. Most of the debate covered evidence already shared with ComputerWorld UK readers in my March column with additional emphasis on the economic importance of releasing the ICT skills of half the population.

Yesterday I followed up with a session at the GameHorizon conference at the Sage in Gateshead. The video gaming industry in the UK is very modern and very successful. The latest report from the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) shows just how the video games industry is coming of age: 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.

Games users are well balanced in terms of gender. Of the most frequent game purchasers, 54% are male and 46% are female. Other figures from ISFE also give an almost even breakdown between men and women gamers.

PWC estimates the global market for video games will grow from $52.5 billion in 2009 to $86.8 billion in 2014. I would think that may well underestimate the likely growth.

Gaming is increasingly seen as an effective means of education, socialisation, information dissemination, intellectual development, innovation, marketing and, of course, entertainment. The gamification of our lives is talked of in businesses, universities, seminars, conferences and even by politicians. So the ‘games market’ in the wider sense is likely to grow as games infiltrate different aspects of our lives.

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 know the gaming industry, like the ICT industry more generally, is focused on addressing these stark figures.

Before the House of Commons debate I ‘crowdsourced’ from twitter examples of initiatives to attract girls into ICT. I was really impressed by the number of organisations which contacted me. Here are just a few examples:

Since 2005 Computer Clubs for Girls have reached 135,000 girls in over 3,800 schools. CASinclude promote diversity in computing whilst Primary Engineer encourages primary school age pupils to engage with STEM education. Sunderland Software City is setting up a Coders Academy.

We know that engaging girls at a young age and before preconceptions have formed is critical, by the time they are taking their GCSEs they may already have ruled themselves out of ICT.

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. Little Miss Geek have even published a book, which combines great graphics with depressing statistics and practical help for parents, teachers and girls interested in technology.

Meanwhile British Computing Society, AthenaSwan and STEMnet support women in ICT and STEM careers and help them become role models for the next generation. And UKIE will be relaunching its Video Games Ambassadors scheme whilst the hashtags #1reasonwhy and #1reasontobe respectively set out reasons why women might avoid the gaming industry and why they should be part of it.

There is a lot going on, driven by women, men, boys and girls all of whom want ICT industry that represents the people who use it.

So I think the challenge is for Government to assess how well these initiatives are working and put in place measures that will help them work better in the future.

This blog already includes ten links, and I haven’t even got started. What we need is a shared resource, so those in need of a local role model or computer class can find them easily.

And then we need a plan, targets and/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 Liz Truss had many warm words of support but, crucially, said she did not believe in targeting girls. I’m afraid that taking a ‘gender blind’ approach will not succeed. The Government has already reduced careers advice in schools, absolutely the key way of engaging those girls who do not have ICT professionals as part of their family network.

The cultural stereotyping that leads to Tescos labelling Chemistry sets for boys and pink cookers for girls needs to be overcome before girls can really make independent informed choices about their careers. Until Government realises that, I’m afraid righting the gender balance in ICT will lack the leadership it so deserves.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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