Q&A session with Jane Silber, CEO at Canonical

Jane Silber is CEO of Canonical. Canonical produces Ubuntu, the leading open source platform for client, server and cloud computing. Canonical provides services to the IT industry to bring Ubuntu-based products to market, and to enterprise and consumer users to maximise their Ubuntu experience. Jane has over 20 years of business development, operations and software management experience. Before becoming Chief Executive Officer in 2010, she ran several of Canonical's business units as Chief Operating Officer. Prior to Canonical, she was Vice President of Interactive Television Company and Vice President of General Dynamics C4 Systems. She has also worked in Japan for Teijin Ltd conducting artificial intelligence research and product development, and in the US at General Health, a health risk-assessment firm. She holds an MBA degree from Oxford University, an MSc degree in Management of Technology from Vanderbilt University, and a BSc degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from Haverford College.


Being a female in a senior position, Jane explains why she feels it is important to encourage more women into the technology industry, what needs to be done in order to achieve this and her own experiences of working in a male dominated environment.

Figures show that over the last decade, the number of women in IT has declined. Why do you think this is so?

I think there are many contributing factors, and that the gender gap starts early. There are well documented social pressures on girls and young women which steer them away IT, despite the fact that they generally academically out-perform their male counterparts in IT related fields.  Moving into the workforce, there are negative stereotypes surrounding the profession, combined with a lack of inspirational role models that may make the IT industry a less appealing option for young women when considering career choices. Interestingly, the decline appears to be a global trend, indicating that this lack of interest is not culturally specific. There is no doubt that women are interested in technology – but they seem reluctant to choose IT as a profession. It also appears that women are choosing to leave the IT profession to pursue other careers suggesting something in the culture of the profession is pushing these women out.  I believe that on average women in IT earn 10-15% less than their mail counterparts, which undoubtedly plays a role as well.  Unfortunately, I don't think we will see a dramatic change in these figures unless we put more effort into challenging the issues and perceptions.

Why do you think it's important to get more women into the IT industry?

A balanced workforce is important for a variety of reasons. I believe that a workforce which brings a variety of skills, outlooks, experiences, and problem solving abilities is a more effective one.  Additionally, there are numerous studies which demonstrate better corporate performance amongst companies with women on the board or in the executive suite (usually cited as around 30% better ROI). And finally, in the consumer IT world, women have significant and increasing purchasing power, and so having both male and female viewpoints in terms of product and strategic planning can be important (because, as everyone knows or should know, making it pink isn't a solution).

How do you think we can encourage more women into the IT industry?

In order to get and retain more women in the IT industry, we need to find a way to increase the numbers of women opting to study IT at university or college, which in turn ripples back to earlier schooling.  Although it's tempting to keep pushing the problem to an earlier stage, it actually needs to be addressed at all stages of the funnel.  There are many valuable corporate, social, governmental programmes working on this, but it will take sustained effort to make a difference.

What do you think caused the major shift of women out of technology? For example from the Bletchley Park days?

It's hard to compare the Bletchley Park era with now, as it was such a different time. There have been so many changes for women within society over the past few decades, especially with regard to employment, that it is difficult to attribute a specific cause to any shifts or changes. Perhaps by looking at how women themselves have evolved and changed over the past 50 years, we might see other trends which coincide and can help make sense of this shift

What made you want to get involved in the technology industry?

Enjoyment. My favourite classes from a young age were math and science. When I began learning to program in high school I discovered the joy of designing and creating an elegant solution to a problem - the puzzle-solving nature of software development appealed to me. I understood and could communicate well with other people interested in technology.  As a result, a career in IT was a very natural path for me and I never gave serious thought to another option.

Have you come across any personal barriers in your career?

Of course everyone has challenges and I have had my share. The majority of those challenges are related to my style/strengths/weaknesses and the situation, rather than my gender.  I have always worked in IT, and at times in extremely male dominated environments. And while I have tales of inappropriate comments and behaviour (as does every woman, unfortunately) I don't view my career, now or then, with a lens of discrimination or barriers.

What advice would you give to women who would like to get into the technology industry but are hesitant or not sure how to do this?

Know yourself, your interests, your strengths and play to those strengths.  Don't be embarrassed to seek support, advice or mentoring, and don't run away at the first bump in the road.  In interview situations, women are typically judged on actual experience while men are typically judged  on perceived potential, so gain relevant experience through academic experience or, of course, contributions to an open source project!

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