Thursday, 11 September 2014

Women kicking ass in the tech world

Or to put it another way: Why my female lead characters are all nerds.

There’s still a massive gender divide in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering & maths) and it can only be a cause for celebration that the UK government have made changes to the national curriculum to bring computer science into primary education. Of course we should probably do something about the image while we’re at it. Kids today still seem to think computer programmers are over weight, scruffy men with big glasses and buck teeth.

Nobody wants to grow up to be a nerd!

Hopefully by learning from an early age girls, as much as boys, will be encouraged to learn. Because if we can’t get girls interested in tech, there’s going to be a MASSIVE skills shortage in the future. Imagine a world where 100% of the available jobs require tech skills but only 50% of the population (i.e. the male half) are encouraged to develop those skills.

Looks at toys – from an early age boys are given video games, building bricks, puzzles. Toys that require some development of logic and reasoning. Girls are given pink sparkly things or plastic versions of kitchen appliances. Seriously – I went to  toy shop to buy a birthday present for my friend’s daughter last week and the shelves were full of toy kettles and ironing boards. Even a toy hoover!

First page of results on Google for "Girls Toys" First page of results on Google for “Girls Toys”

I bought her a toy guitar and a toy drum. With not a hint of pink anywhere!

It’s been said that our education system has the challenge of giving children skills for jobs that don’t even exist yet. That’s a pretty tough call, especially now when technology is accelerating at such a rate that even those of us with a vested interest in tech can’t imagine what will come next.

I’m not a computer scientist. I can’t write code. I can make changes to html in my websites and I can even tweak the odd bit of php, but my digital skills are really more in the design side than the programming. Though I desperately wish I could do more.

When I was a teenager my mum said to me: “you should study computers, that’s the big thing.” I wrinkled my nose and said “but that sounds so boring,” and off I went to university, to study music industry management and muscle my way into working for record companies in London for a few years, before I got sick of being skint and returned to Liverpool to embark on a new career that finished up with me running my own digital media company.

My mum, bless her, has never once said “I told you so,” but I always remember. There’s a lesson there: listen to your mum – she knows!

During my London years, I spent two hours every day commuting and I consumed books like they were going out of fashion. I probably wouldn’t have been quite so skint if I hadn’t bought so many books! If only the kindle had been invented back then.

I enjoyed a good light hearted romance, a bit of fantasy or just something that gripped me. But over the years I found myself less convinced by lead characters. Every story started feeling like it was the same thing. There’s probably only so many ways to structure a romantic novel, but I no longer felt like I could relate to the characters.

For instance: I would absolutely steer the hell away from vampires and werewolves, and if my boyfriend started spying on me and banning me from walking to the sandwich shop by myself, I’d take out a restraining order on him. (I have an ex-boyfriend who tried to ban me from stopping off at the kebab shop on the way home from the pub… You’ll have noticed I said ex-boyfriend…) I don’t relate to characters that start off with a backbone that seems to dissolve as soon as a handsome man comes along.

So when I started writing Inspired by Night, I knew I wanted to create a character that I could relate to. I wanted an independent girl who was capable of running her own business, that was connected to digital/tech industries and who cared more about playing video games and eating pizza than going out and partying.

But I also wanted to show that no matter how confident, successful or intelligent someone is, we all have a vulnerable side.

chrisWhen I first wrote the scenes between Olivia and Chris I wondered if it was realistic, whether someone like Olivia would really be gullible enough to fall for Chris’ charm. But then I saw the TV series Catfish and realised that people are embarking on online romances all the time. In fact this is actually a worrying problem: In America a man has been arrested for scamming elderly people to the value of $1 million by pretending to be romantically interested in them.

I certainly hope that no one thinks I’m encouraging women to behave like Olivia did, I want to remind people that it’s easy to get taken in by someone, especially if you really want to believe it’s real. As a woman who has put her personal life on hold for several years Olivia has lost the self confidence to go out there and meet someone, it’s easy to see why she would fall for the compliments of Chris and the easy nature of embarking on a romance without leaving the comfort and safety of her sofa.

But I’m losing track. The important thing for me is that I have female characters that are attractive, funny and likeable, that succeed in a male dominated industry and demonstrate that being a nerd is not an automatic sentence of loneliness. Nerds are cool! I didn’t want yet another down-trodden female, in a boring job, who gets swept off her feet by a rich powerful man. It’s about being a kick ass role model to women everywhere, standing on her own two feet and showing that there is more to life than finding a man… but when that man comes along, he’ll feel right, regardless of his height, weight and income!

I’ve just embarked on my second novel. The only things that are similar to Inspired by Night are the humour and the nerdy lead character. I’m not planning on writing a steamy bonkbuster, it’s a romantic comedy adventure with lashings of nerdy goodness. Another kick-ass female showing girls that it’s cool to be a nerd!

Women kicking ass in the tech world