I was a keynote speaker at the UKRC’s annual conference in October, a network of women working in technology and science. I was absolutely honoured to be there, and the buzz was immense. There was a lot of frustration and concern, but a whole conference hall of women making the future of this sector as programmers, developers, applied scientists and inventors. The opportunity to speak with so many female Makers and Do-ers, when so many of the events I attend are overwhelmingly male, was exciting and inspirational.

I was asked to prepare a speech with the theme, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” Daunting. I decided to tell my personal story about working for ten years on the periphery of the very male-dominated computer games industry. And why I eventually left.

But it’s not all condemnation and frustration (though there is some of that). Embedded in the text is a celebration of some of the women who have kept me sane throughout, and inspired me to stick with games as the cornerstone of my attitude to interactivity and the power of the Web, even as yet another invitation to an event in a strip club landed in my inbox.

I look forward to the feedback.

Hello and thank you for inviting me to speak at Women Mean Business. I’m a researcher, journalist and academic saturated in digital technology. I have been in this position for over a decade now, first experiencing it from the inside as a computer games consumer, reviewer and social psychologist, looking at the trends within the industry from digital technology consumers to creators. And I have, for many years, been passionate about the role women play in this sector.

However, despite seeing it as a rich arena for contribution by talented women, I have been mostly disappointed – to the extent that at one point I made a conscious decision to leave, and moved into broader questions about digital technology as an academic. I’ll tell you why.

Ten years ago, I was the presenter of a television programme about computer games. As a young woman talking about technology, I worked hard to establish my credentials, often above and beyond what they actually were, in order to establish a credible identity in this space.

It, incredibly, worked, but it was bloody hard. This was, I admit, in no small part to my reliance on people – mostly men – who had much greater knowledge in this area than I did.

But in the process, I parried the inevitable questions at parties, the challenges men set at arcades, and, yes, the networking events at strip clubs. I survived the, frankly, horrific comments I received on internet forums. After a while, it got boring. I got tired of stamping my foot, of shaking my fist, of being overlooked at meetings. And I handed in my notice of resignation to my producer. He, thankfully, rejected it.

Somehow, I had become an expert in this area. I realized that with my position and profile, I could enforce my own interests in the direction that I wanted. I began writing analyses of the sector for national newspapers and research reports for industry bodies. My gender, previously a hindrance, became an asset. The insults and the curiosity began to dissipate, replaced instead by occasions when I was stopped on the street by women and girls telling me that they too played computer games, and that, by appearing in public and talking about games, my co-presenters and I were inspiring them to continue to play – despite the playground challenges and behind-the-hand-sniggers at office parties that they also received.

I started paying attention to the positive stories more often, to counteract the negative – because the networking in strip clubs continued.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were a few people in the industry who served as inspiration to me. I met a lifelong game designer, Sheri Graner Ray, who turned her decades of experience making games for everyone into a book about gender-inclusive design, focussing on empirical research to identify how to create products that remained entertaining to both men and women, boys and girls.

I met female programmers who were willing to give their time to me for interviews about men’s attitudes to them in the workplace, and as case studies for industry research reports about inclusion.

I spoke with female game players who took part in my early academic interests in women’s activities in online games, discovering that these virtual communities were environments where they could express their female-ness in new and exciting ways. In fact, it was when I sidestepped the media career for a career in social psychology, I discovered that the reason there were so few women in the loos at technology conferences was because they were in the social sciences and humanities, thinking about the social impacts of technologies on our lives. And yes, I do see the problem with that – if we’re so busy thinking about technology, we aren’t making it. But increasingly, social scientists like myself are involved in the development of technology, and in ways that I believe will transform how it’s consumed.

I was inspired by researchers like TL Taylor from the IT University at Copenhagen, Sherry Turkle and Judith Donath from MIT and Diane Carr from the Institute of Education’s London Knowledge Lab who were asking evocative questions about belonging, about community, about identity. I was inspired by applied researchers like Genevieve Bell at Intel, who works with the technology company as an anthropologist and ethnographer to create better products for all users, Katrina Jungnickel, whose uses of technology are inspirational for social scientists looking at the best ways to capture and disseminate their research. She infuses her technology subjects with fun.

As I took my inspiration from these women who are at the forefront of research and application, my interests in technology widened beyond the computer games industry. I did eventually leave that space – having decided that there were endemic problems with attitudes towards women that I did not have the energy to change, but recognised others did – and turned towards the wider Web. There I discovered an environment that was full of female designers, coders, entrepreneurs and activists. People like Martha Lane Fox from Lastminute.com and the UK’s Digital Champion, like Professor Dame Wendy Hall at the University of Southampton and director of the Web Science Trust. Like Suw Charman-Anderson, who devised the annual Ada Lovelace Day, a worldwide celebration of women in technology. Like Jemima Kiss, the digital media correspondent at The Guardian, who is tireless in her joy of this sector.

Why did I have to leave the games sector to see such a change? I think it’s because women are more familiar with the Web than they are with computer games, and they want to help shape it because they have experience with that technology. That’s my theory, anyway.

I have perhaps been hasty in giving the games industry a bad rap. I know that it has changed in the three years since I stopped writing about it. I know this because female friends of mine have risen through the ranks, as commissioners, publishers, developers and designers. They tell me that there has been a culture change within the industry, in no small part to the number of women who are increasingly holding positions of power in these spaces. And although unfortunately the numbers of women in the UK games industry continues, proportionately, to decline, the number of games consumers who are women increases. And this, I am certain, will translate into a future workforce of people who are familiar with the products and want to help shape them.

I have been extraordinarily lucky in my professional career as a woman involved in technology. But it is in no small part because I have experienced inspiration from watching other women, those who came before me and forged the path. They lit the candle that has led the way. I could not have done it without them.

Thank you very much.