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Tola: Good afternoon everybody. This is the final session of the day and we have two of our panellists joining us virtually, one from California and one by virtue of illness, and Juliet in the room with us as well.

My name is Tola Sargeant and I am the chief executive of a company called TechMarketView and I am a trustee of Archives of IT. And I’ve really enjoyed listening to all of the presentations and the discussion so far today. And the format for our session is slightly different so we’re going to try and make it more of a conversation and give you lots of opportunities to ask questions.

I think I should let each of our speakers introduce themselves properly in a minute, but in brief, as I said, we have with us in the room today, Juliet Webster, who’s going to speak about gender in IT industries and workplaces. And then joining us via Zoom we have Chris and Jack. Now Chris is an evangelist for digital accessibility. And Jack joins us from California to share his insights into remote working.

I’m really looking forward to hearing from him though as the father of telework and telecommuting.

So. I think, Julia, if we could turn to you first seeing as you are here with us in person. And maybe you can talk a little bit after you’ve introduced yourself about the gender disparity IT industry and how it’s changed over the years if at all and how these gender relationship shaped women’s experiences in IT and diverse work settings.

Juliet Webster: Gender in IT Industries and Workplaces

Juliet Webster: Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. A little bit about me. Got such a complex background and CV I hardly know how to describe myself. But since the early ‘80s I’ve been very interested in and concerned by the gender inequalities in computing professions.

Partly as a result of having observed the rollout of computers in the first workplaces in the early ‘80s and the disparities of skill and opportunity that went alongside that.

The early ‘80s and still it seems to me that nothing very much has changed substantially. I’ll say a bit more about that in a minute.

I have a sort of mixed academic/policy background, so I’ve worked in a selection of universities, including it seems almost everyone else in this room, at Edinburgh University.

And I’ve also worked in the European Commission and in NGOs and my working life wound up in a university in Spain where I ran, under the auspices of Manuel Castells, a research centre on gender and information technology.

Virtual work

While I was in Spain, I got drawn into a you EU cost action on virtual work. And virtual work was described, and we understood it at that time as being, and I quote, labour, whether paid or unpaid that is carried out using a combination of digital and telecommunications technologies and or produces content for digital media.

I give you that definition now because what I want to do in this talk is to broaden our discussions a bit away from simply thinking about what we can conventionally think of as being IT work into a much broader set of content production activities.
And I think once we start to do that the disparities and the various diversity dimensions of these types of work become much clearer.

So that’s what I was working on, up until a few years ago, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

While I was in Barcelona, we were looking at the differences in women’s participation in various broadly defined IT professions across different EU countries and drawing on lessons from elsewhere in the world.

Enduring absence of women in IT

And what was particularly striking to us was the enduring absence of women in IT. So for the preparation of this talk, I went back through my own personal archive, which I don’t know what to do with either. And pulled out few papers that were sitting in a box file somewhere. This was a DTI strategy for women in science engineering and technology dated 2003. This is the Institute for Physics Guide to Best Practices in Career Break Management that designed to attract women into scientific and technical professions.

Then there was the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science Engineering and Technology, which existed mid-2000s to early 2010s. And it quotes the statistics that only 14.4% of computing professionals are female. The latest stats that I’ve laid my hands on the Eurostat statistics which across Europe show a figure of something like 17%.

So the representation of women in these areas of work has crept up. But some of these policy documents are really rather old. As I’m old enough to remember policy initiatives going back to the early ‘80s and really we’re still at less than one in five.

So why? When I was in Spain doing work there, we identified several points in a woman’s life course, at which they left the professions altogether and that seems to me to be still relevant.

Critical factors: maternity and mid-career

The two points that seem to be critical were maternity and mid-career. Maternity because a lot of the work was so hostile to people trying to balance several different demands on them that women left in their droves if they were the key people within families responsible for child rearing.

In mid-career what we were seeing was those women who came back into the profession and into this area of work, leaving again because they were sandwiched between two types of care. And it’s still the case that women form the majority of carers. So caring for elderly and caring for children at the same time.

And so what you had was women coming into the profession, sometimes being encouraged by special public policy measures, by company initiatives and so on coming in, studying and then dropping out at maternity.

A cohort perhaps re-entering or staying in and then dropping out again in mid-career and it seems to me that that dynamic still holds. I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that those two leaking points have changed very much. And I pick up policy documents still that say very much the same kind of thing.

I also did a quick web search just to sort of see whether or not the tech industry has got any more female friendly since the days when I was started looking at this.

And I printed out the results of a web search and it’s quite shocking really. Here are the top results:

And on and on it goes. So what we have is a mixture of hostile working conditions and hostile culture. And that remains the case. So we’ve got this kind of chilly climate. I think that explains what’s happening in conventionally defined tech professions.

I became very interested then in what’s happening within digital work now. And by digital work I mean, that vast variety of professions including media, content production and other things.

And within the cost action that I was involved with we were finding that digital labour had a certain set of features that again were not only disadvantageous to social groups such as women but exhibited a set of characteristics which meant the disadvantage was actually being spread throughout the workforce.

Gender diparities become disadvantages to all

So what started as a sort of set of working conditions that exhibited gender disparities I think became disadvantages to all. And I give you several examples. First of all, a lot of digital labour is done at the distance. By which I mean that it can be outsourced globally and often is or it’s performed locally but online and not in a workplace. And both of those developments are harmful I think to decent pay. Because often outsourcing means workers competing with one another globally in global labour markets where they do not know what they’re competing against in terms of pay.

The growth of online work, I think, atomises and individualises workers. It means that people are working much, much longer hours than they ever used to. Work is approaching into their private time and that has huge implications again for people who are balancing domestic labour unpaid and paid pay.

Newly emerging occupations

So what we find I think is that in a number of digital professions, and I’m thinking, things such as content production, and blogging, moderating, all sorts of newly emerging occupations that you can’t really call computer science in the traditional sense of the word.

Those are marked by precarity, insecurity, often by low pay and significantly by a very poor representation within the trade union movement.

It’s very hard to organise people who are working separately and independently in different homes or dispersed workplaces.

We’re seeing a very great growth in individualisation in the workforce. And I think what that means is there’s a whole set of structural disadvantages that are emerging in digital work. And they’re structural, but they’re being treated as if they’re individual.

We more and more see working people trying to find individualised solutions for what is essentially a structural set of circumstances.

The campaigning group Plan B has said we’re all very stressed now. And I think we can all ourselves identify with that sentiment. The idea of having the phone under the pillow. You’re checking your emails anytime. The idea of working encroaching into your private time and space. It’s true of us all. It’s particularly true when you have to engage online in order to earn the next crust.

We see the growth in a workforce that is scraping together its living on various different sources in order to stay alive and I think that this disadvantage that was once true of women’s work is now increasingly true of all work.

Tola: Thank you, Juliet. That’s a huge topic that we could probably have an entire session on but we’ll save some questions for later.

Jack, welcome. Can I turn to you next? And I’m going to challenge you to give us an introduction to the history of telework and how its evolved over the past 50 plus years in not more than five minutes.

 

Jack Nilles: Evolving Telework

Jack Nilles, bottom left on the screen, joins the Forum from California

Jack: My formal education was as a physicist and engineer. And my initial career began basically managing the design and implementation of a variety of reconnaissance systems for the Air Force.

For much of that career it was space systems that I was designing. Payloads for essentially reconnaissance satellites.

Now this went on for about 17 years or so until the late 1960s. At one point I was talking with an urban planner, who looked at me and said, you know, if you people can put man on the moon, why can’t you do something about traffic?

Oh, well, I said, I’ve helped NASA pick the cameras to map the landscape of the moon and to pick landing spots. Why not traffic? You know, it’s just an engineering problem, right?

Wrong. I thought about this for a while and tried to talk my company into doing a little research on substituting applications a people could work at home, or nearby home instead of hogging the freeways with traffic twice or more times a day.

My company didn’t like this, they said we’re engineers and we don’t deal with stuff like this. So I moved to the University of Southern California and invented a job called Director of Interdisciplinary Program Development and since nobody knew what that meant, I had a fairly free hand-picking people to do the research with me from around the university.

Telecommunication and transportation

We got a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop policy telecommunication and transportation trade off. In 1973 we picked an insurance company to try this on because I wanted it done with an actual operating company because they have clear criteria on what works in the middle.

We ran an experiment for several months, moving their employees to locations near their homes that we call satellite offices. Working there on dumb terminals connected to their local mini-computer, which would upload their information to the company mainframe downtown.

Because having people work at home, the telephone costs at that time would have been out of hand. The internet had not yet arrived. Anyway, the experiment was a success. We figured the company would save four to five million dollars a year in reduced turnover rate. Not having that replace a third of their employees every year by having them stay there.

Great success but no take up

Because the turnover rate went from one third to zero during our experiment. They saved on facility costs and so forth. So it was a great success. But the company said, we’re not going to do it.

I asked why? And they said because we’re afraid we’ll get unionised and we don’t want to have the union come by and pick up these line offices one by one.

A couple weeks later I was at a conference in San Francisco of the AFL CIO labour unions and he said, you know, this telecommuting idea that you’re calling it is a terrible idea.

Why is that, I asked? And they said well, if the company’s employees are scattered all over the countryside how will we ever get them organised?

Attracting Fortune 100 firms

I spent the next decade trying to get more support from this from government agencies and so forth. And finally, in the mid-1980s we were able to attract several Fortune 100 firms to try this out, IBM and AT&T among them.

And again, they had successful projects. But they didn’t want us to say anything about them because If you’ve got a great idea to do something at a low cost and it produces year after years returns in terms of lower costs and improved productivity, why tell you your competitors?

And this is the same tune that made me decide what I want to do is get some public sector companies to do this, so I can talk about it to people.

So we started recruiting public sector organisations and finally the state of California climbed on board. We had a project that ran three years from the 1987 to 1990. Same results. Productivity went up. Turnover rate went down. The state would save money and so forth and so on. And it was a great success.

But the next governor turned it down because he didn’t want people doing strange stuff like working where people can’t see them all the time.

So same problem, management resistance was the big barrier to having all this happen. We did another experiment with the city of Los Angeles. The mayor supported it. We had good results, pretty much the same as the state of California. New mayor came in, stopped the programme.

Same reason. ‘I want people to come in the office, where I can see them. And so forth and so on.’

European Commission

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s I spent a lot of time commuting to Europe talking to various groups around Europe under the auspices of the European Commission about how teleworking/telecommuting was good for business and they should work out.

By the way, you’ll notice I use two words to describe this: telecommuting because that attracts the commuters who are tired of inhaling the exhaust fumes from the car ahead of them when they’re stuck in traffic. While the company they work for couldn’t care less about that. The company is interested in working and so I also call it teleworking.

Anyway, throughout this whole period, all the problems we’ve had were in convincing management that this would work for them.

And I kept looking for a magic elixir that would turn this around and finally out of the blue it appeared as something I hadn’t anticipated at all.

COVID-19

And overnight, hundreds of thousands of companies had to get their employees to work at home. Because working together they would get COVID and they’d be a substantial fraction of them might die of it.

I was in two minds about this one’s, one I was happy to see teleworking had finally picked up, forcefully as it turned out, and on the other hand, some apprehension that the most of these companies had no clue about how to manage it properly.

I was very worried that we’d see a bunch of failures but as it turned out, in the years since 2020 companies have quickly adapted to this working at home. Many managers still wanted them to come back to the office and, over the past year or so, the battle has been on between the employees who really like working at home and are willing to go to the office some of the time but not all of the time, and the managers who want them back full-time, but are now finally relenting.

Currently the average rate of people working from home is roughly about 30% to 50% of them working half and half. Spending half the time at home and half the time in the office. Which corresponds with a survey we did in the year 2000 with teleworkers around the United States.

Tola: Thank you, Jack, we will come back to you with some questions at the end. Chris, hopefully you can hear me too and we’d like to move on to you next. We’ve obviously discussed a few societal implications so far of technology, but we haven’t touched on accessibility yet. And I know it’s something close to your heart, so I wondered if you could introduce yourself and share your views on how the IT industry has helped or not, accessibility to date.

 

Chris Winter: The Internet and Web Have Brought Great Benefits but Who Has been Left Behind?

Chris Winter, top right on the screen, talks about digital poverty

Chris Winter: First, my apologies for not being there. I was struck down with a particularly nasty virus over Christmas, which is actually worse than COVID when I caught that a couple of years ago.

So that’s the bad news. Going back, I think it was Jim mentioned the infamous IBM Christmas card, which was 40 years ago and probably my first introduction to viruses on computers.

I did receive it but I didn’t catch it. It’s hard to believe it was 40 years ago. Just for the record, it was actually written by two Germans students who were on a placement year at IBM. But I don’t think they completed the year.

Looking at benefits, building on the last speaker, I’m now able to join the Forum thanks to the internet. Okay, I miss the physical contact, but I can still participate.

So, a little bit about me. I started in the industry back in the late 1960s. I’ve retired twice and I’ve no redefined retirement as I no longer charge for my time.

People who have been left behind

For the past few years, I’ve been focusing on the people who have been left behind by technology, which is particularly worrying as more and more of our living depends on digital services. Essential services as well as broader services. But there’s a lot of people, probably around 20% that are left behind.

And for two years I’ve been working with the Digital Poverty Alliance. Who have quite a broad definition of digital poverty and I realised that most people were focusing on poverty which I refer to as, affordability.

People who can’t afford devices or cannot afford to pay for broadband connectivity or any other form of connectivity, who are being left behind.

Digital accessibility

However, I thought, well, what can I do that’s a bit different? Because so many people are playing, what I call eight-year-old soccer. They’re all following the poverty ball. And not maintaining position. Digital accessibility is part of our remit and I decided to focus on that.

I’d like to give you three facts, which I hope will worry people. So, just looking at the UK this past year. Every year the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] publish statistics on people who are registered disabled. And in 2023 the number rose to 16 million, be that physical or mental. So that’ll be republished around the March April time.

Focusing on just the web aspects of digital accessibility, there’s an organisation I’ve been working with in the US called WebAIM [Web Accessibility in Mind) and they perform a service to evaluate websites, specifically homepages against the W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] accessibility guidelines.

And they assess a million websites per annum and at least 96% have non-conformance issues on their homepage. These guidelines produced by W3C were produced initially in 1999 and one of the key instigators was Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Now, during the last week, what have we seen all over the media about 1999? It was the year the first issues with Horizon IT came to the surface and now it’s all over the place because of the TV drama.

96% of websites have errors

Not because of all the other correct channels, and similarly issues of accessibility of the web specifically has been known since the 1990s and yet, as I said, 96% of websites have errors, non-conformance issues.

So it’s the same sort of time frame. But unfortunately, it’s not getting the same level of attention. And something else that surprised me, and this is both the UK and the global statement, is that public sector websites are generally in better shape for accessibility than the private sector.

And why? I think it’s down to regulation in the UK and the US. In the UK, the relevant regulation is PSBAR [The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations] and it was introduced in 2018.

Now I’d love to give you a little anecdote at this point. I live just off Exmoor in Devon and our village, as will be similar with most villages, a parish website. The women who look after it is in her seventies, doesn’t have an IT background and yet, while walking Exmoor on a hike about 18 months ago, I was talking to her and what impressed me was she is completely clued up on digital accessibility.

Why? Because the district council that host that provide the facilities for the website, government regulations reached all the way down to them, to her, a volunteer. So when we looked at the parish website we found quite a lot of errors.

Contrast is the most prolific error

And they’re almost all to do with contrast. Contrast being the most prolific of all the error types. Just poor colour. But in our village case it was green and white. Which is a very common one.

Especially with organisations pushing the sustainability agenda. Green is a sustainable colour. Pale green on white is a disaster for many people.

Of the 16 million people disabled in the UK, people who suffer from colour blindness are not included, it’s not a disability. It’s an impairment. There’s 3 million people with colour blindness in the UK, 300 million worldwide. And by the way there are 1.3 billion disabled people in the world. Just to set the size of the problem in context.

I am not trying to solve the technical problem here. I don’t believe this is a technical problem. There are very good technologies available to provide more accessible digital services.

Organisational awareness

Be they on the web or on smart devices. There’s lots of technology, very impressive technology. The biggest problem for me is a lack of organisational awareness.

Organisations I’ve approached are in two camps. One, they just don’t understand. A term I borrowed from elsewhere is that they deal too much in unconscious bias.

Then there’s some organisations, who are I approach directly, and they choose to do nothing. Which I think it’s inexcusable. And I believe it’s a conscious bias. They are taking a decision. And I think it comes down to within their budget within their IT programmes they put a high price on functionality over inclusivity. They choose digital discrimination.

Because they want more and more function. But it’s interesting that when IT projects go wrong, it’s rarely they get publicity for functional failure. And I’ll come back to horizon and my understanding of it is, it’s the non-functional aspects of it, things like being unable to complete a financial transaction due to an internet and network connectivity problem. That’s an unfunctional problem that could have been programmed around.

So, why are we ignoring a quarter of our population with poor digital mobility? Thanks.

Read more about Chris’s work in his seven-part blog for Archives of IT.

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