While society has made huge strides towards gender equality in recent decades, there’s still a lot of work left to do when it comes to women in tech.
- In the US, more women than men are now awarded bachelor’s degrees, yet only 15% of computer science graduates are women.
- Tech giants such as Microsoft and Google consistently report that women make up roughly 30% of their workforce, with fewer still in positions of leadership or in technical roles.
- The same disappointing numbers are also true of startups, with a study from 2014 showing that of 14,341 US-based startups, only 15% had a female founder.
What deters women from entering tech, and why does it matter? In this post we’ll be delving deeper into some of the reasons women are kept out of the industry and exploring why this is ultimately so detrimental to workers, companies, and society as a whole. We will also be highlighting some of the incredible women who are making waves in tech and looking at some powerful initiatives designed to tackle the gender gap.
Why Are There Still So Few Women In Tech?
Are Women ‘Less Rational’ Than Men?
The idea that men are innately more rational than women dates back to Aristotle, and remains deeply embedded in society’s collective consciousness. The long-standing dichotomy of rational vs. emotional is still pervasive today, and lends credence to the suggestion that women are just not as cut out to work in tech as men.
Last year chess grandmaster Nigel Short became the subject of controversy when he claimed that women simply aren’t ‘hardwired’ to play chess. With respected figures like Short still perpetuating such beliefs, it’s easy to see how women’s capacity to think logically continues to be thrown into doubt.
But it’s time for some mythbusting:
- Statistics suggest that girls actually outperform boys in STEM subjects at school. One recent study showed that 15-year-old girls in 70% of countries did better in maths and science literacy than their male counterparts, regardless of national levels of gender equality.
- Furthermore, an analysis of nearly 1.4 million GitHub userssuggests that women’s coding skills actually exceeds men’s.
So what’s preventing this talent and ability from translating accurately into workforce participation?
The Role of Early Socialisation and Pop Culture
When asked about the lack of women in tech, Christina Morillo, co-founder of Women Of Color In Tech Chat, said:
“I think we as a society have done a terrible job of encouraging young girls to engage in STEM at an early age… our actions show that boys grow up to become whatever they want, while girls are encouraged to take “safer” paths”.
It’s true that gender socialisation begins early, with boys being nudged down certain career paths and girls down others. Young boys are persistently encouraged to be enthralled by the robots, spaceships and gadgets on display in huge franchises such as Star Wars and Batman, while girls tend to be offered princesses or animals.
This gendered marketing has proven itself remarkably stubborn: even though recent Star Wars blockbuster Episode VII: The Force Awakens featured for the first time a female protagonist, there was outcry over the character’s near total erasure in merchandise lines – inspiring the popular hashtag #WheresRey.
The first video games were marketed almost exclusively towards men and the male geek archetype quickly became a fixture in TV and film. Geek culture remains a distinctly male sphere, with stereotypes being further fuelled by popular portrayals of male computer geniuses such as in The Big Bang Theory, A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game.
Regina Agyare, founder of Soronko Solutions, believes this is one of the central reasons women are kept out of tech, stating that:
“Most women think technology is more like a boys’ club and they will not fit in. There is also the stereotype that people in technology are geeky and socially awkward”.
Is Tech A Boys’ Club?
With this in mind, it’s not difficult to see how tech becomes interpreted as a male space in which women don’t belong. While some may be skeptical about how many women are actually kept out of tech because of prejudices about the kinds of people who might work there, Lea Lange, co-founder of online art marketplace Juniqe, makes the important point that:
“It is inherent in our nature to choose environments in which we feel like we can identify with other people in the group. Thus, environments which were strongly male-dominated (e.g. tech) have taken longer for women to become accustomed to the idea of becoming a part of and vice versa”.
Boys’ club culture isn’t always as innocuous as comic books and Star Trek posters. A number of high-profile scandals that have emerged at tech companies in recent years have also served to drive women out of the industry.
In 2014, former GitHub employee Julie Ann Horvath accused the company of enabling a sexist culture. Horvath publicly detailed a number of difficult and inappropriate situations she had been put in by male co-workers and by one of the company’s founders during her two years at GitHub. She attributed this largely to the lack of respect that her male colleagues had for her due to her gender.
In 2013, Microsoft faced allegations that a rape joke had been made by a man towards a woman during a demo at their annual video game conference, E3. Dating app Tinder was also sued by a former co-founder for sexual harassment in 2014. To top it all off, one recent survey suggested that a staggering 60% of women in Silicon Valley have experienced unwanted sexual advances.
Discrimination during the hiring process also keeps the number of women being offered positions down. In 2014, social psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin conducted an experiment to measure implicit gender bias against job applicants in STEM. The study found that scientists perceived a job candidate named John to be more competent than a candidate who had an identical resume, but who was named Jennifer. This negative bias towards women may be even more pronounced in face-to-face interviews.
Not only are women’s skills underestimated, but mothers are regularly discriminated against for requiring maternity leave, or because employers don’t want to hire women who might someday leave to assume a carer’s role at home. A lack of parental leave can also drive mothers out of tech, or discourage them from entering the field in the first place. This issue may be particularly prevalent in a competitive and fast-paced industry like tech, because employers expect workers to dedicate so much of their time and energy to making their company successful.
Why Do We need More Women In Tech Anyway?
It’s worth thinking about why fewer women in the industry is such a bad thing in the first place. Some might be tempted to ask why it matters so much – if women aren’t as interested as men in participating in tech, why force a change?
Aside from wider concerns about gender equality, it is in a company’s interest to increase the number of women in its ranks. Emily Rasowsky, founder of the Women In Tech Campaign, says:
“It is critical to have diverse groups working to solve problems in our world today. Harvard Business School produced research showing that teams with women, and diversity in general, produce better results and are more collaborative in nature”.
Given that careers such as web development involve a lot of teamwork, the fact that diverse teams achieve better results should encourage tech companies to increase representation within their ranks.
Women in Leadership
Women are not only less likely to be employed in tech, they are also considerably less likely to fill leadership positions.
- Silicon Valley Bank published a survey in 2014 which estimated that less than 50% of technology companies have women in the highest level of senior management.
- This is despite the fact that a 2015 study of listed companies in the US, the UK and India demonstrated that companies with women present on their executive boards outperformed peers with all-male boards.
An intrinsic part of tech is breaking boundaries and presenting new ideas to the world, so having women lead in this area is particularly important. With more diverse perspectives in the mix, we can understand problems from all angles and are more likely to devise effective solutions to problems. According to Verena Pausder, founder of kid’s app company Fox and Sheep:
“Women are very often the main target audience of tech companies, whether these are e-commerce platforms, social games, or fitness and health apps. Therefore it is so important that the products and services of these companies are not only consumed by women, but that the companies are run or co-founded by women. Women shouldn’t just be consumers, but also creators of the tech industry in the future.”
A lack of female leaders is a society-wide problem. Gender quotas in political systems have been around for some time because it is widely accepted that equal representation across different strands of society is necessary within institutions that hold significant power.
There exists a vicious circle where because many social groups are excluded from the field, technology develops biasedly in favour of those who are already top of the ladder. BBC Technology reporter Zoe Kleinman points out:
“Apple’s Health Kit only started offering fertility trackers in September 2015. Anyone who has ever considered starting a family will tell you this is useful – particularly for women who need to know their most fertile times of their cycle. One could argue that more women in the workforce would have meant this could have been picked up sooner.”
With more women working in tech, issues that affect women or hold them back can be targeted more effectively.
What Can We Do?
Let’s now look at what practical steps can be taken to make the world of tech a better, more inclusive place.
In order for change to happen across all strands of society, mindset shifts are necessary. We must be aware of how internalised sexism can skew our outlook in the workplace. Many work environments have been built with a traditional male breadwinner model in mind and are therefore not very inclusive of women. It is important to bear this in mind when moving forward and implementing structural changes.
For example, traditional notions of good leadership are deeply entwined with society’s historical reverence of the concept of masculinity. Somebody who embodies masculine traits such as strength, competitiveness and rationality is often assumed to be a good leader. But this view overlooks the value of equally important traits such as empathy, sensitivity and being caring. If we want more women to lead in tech, it is important to re-evaluate many of these long-held assumptions. When companies are open to changing their mindset, the workplace becomes a more welcoming space for women, and for other minorities, who may previously have felt that they didn’t belong.
We must also think critically about media portrayals of the people who work in tech and challenge old stereotypes to prevent them from being perpetuated by younger generations. Instead of only buying gifts of robots, science kits and lightsabers for boys, we should offer these toys to girls too. Laura McLeod, Senior Digital Marketing Manager of online graphic design marketplace 99designs, suggests:
“We as an industry should be partnering with educators at schools and universities to demonstrate the kinds of projects that will be exciting to them. These women are the founders of our future and we need to encourage them so that they don’t miss their opportunity to shape the world.”
There are already a number of inspiring initiatives out there helping to fight this battle. One such initiative is Black Girls CODE, an organisation that aims to expose young girls of colour to technology and its exciting possibilities. BGC reaches out to underrepresented communities and provides workshops in programming and game design to girls aged 7 to 17. The organisation aims to have trained 1 million girls by the year 2050 and with eleven branches throughout the US and one in Johannesburg already, they are well on their way. By building communities of young tech enthusiasts and encouraging girls to believe in their abilities, BGC is confronting the gender gap in tech head-on.
Another trailblazing initiative is AkiraChix. Founded in 2010, AkiraChix is a not-for-profit organisation that “aims to inspire and develop a successful force of women in technology who will change Africa’s future”. Their programs target women in all levels of education and seek to empower students to use tech to devise solutions to African problems. The digital divide that exists between high and low-income countries exacerbates the tech gender gap, so it is crucial to have organisations like AkiraChix addressing this. Founder Judith Owigar says that to amend the gender imbalance in tech, we need to:
“…expose young girls to technology early and make the work environment comfortable those women working in STEM.”
Female role models also play their part in showing young women what is actually possible for them in the tech industry. We are now witness to a whole host of high-profile and successful tech women who are paving the way for future innovators, from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer. CareerFoundry’s own Raffaela Rein serves as an excellent example of a female tech hero, having co-founded her own successful startup. Raffaela considers upbringing, social norms and the different social expectations placed on girls as the main culprits when it comes to the lack of women in tech. She believes that getting more women into the field is a priority and argues that:
“Most likely, different perspectives help shape a better and more successful outcome. Diversity creates acceptance and allows for different viewpoints. Also, if there is a lack diversity in any given industry which is not based on a socio-economic lack of diversity, then that shows that something in the system is going wrong.”
A shining example of a tech role model is Tracy Chou, who currently works for popular photo-sharing site Pinterest. In the past Chou has worked at Facebook, Google and Quora. She is not only an accomplished software engineer, but a high-profile advocate for increasing gender equality in tech. In July 2015 she launched a diversity project at Pinterest in which practical goals were set to achieve greater representation of women and minorities within the company. If employees at other tech companies follow in her footsteps and organise similar initiatives, we will undoubtedly make good progress.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki is another great role model for women in tech. Wojcicki was one of Google’s first employees and in 1998 the then small startup actually worked out of her Californian garage in its early days. She is the brains behind Google’s advertising program AdSense and she also spearheaded the company’s purchase of YouTube in 2006.
A long-term advocate for longer paid parental leave, Wojcicki is mom to five kids. At tech conferences in the past she has been asked about her children and the elusive work-life balance – a question rarely put to male peers. Wojcicki has spoken out about this: while she is happy to share her experiences with other women, she is adamant that such discussions be kept to their appropriate setting. Wojcicki says:
“When I’m at a business conference talking about business and all of my peers are talking only about business, I think it’s important that we’re treated in the same way.”
Making The Workplace Family-Friendly
Wojcicki does have some good advice for simultaneously managing a high-power job and a family. Wojcicki insists on being home for dinner each night and devotes the hours between 6pm-9pm to her family.
Wojcicki’s parent company Google offers a generous family benefits package that includes 18 weeks paid maternity leave in addition to other perks, such as one-on-one mentoring with other working parents and child-care assistance.
In addition to making the workplace a fairer environment for working parents, such policies have proven to be good for the company. When paid maternity leave was increased from 12 weeks to 18 weeks, the rate at which new mothers left Google decreased by 50%.
Hopefully these kinds of packages will eventually become the norm as all companies adopt similarly inclusive policies. This will ensure that tech benefits from the perspective of mothers and also contributes to a shift in mindset that will allow women of the future to make minimal compromises when having both a successful career and a family.
Technology determines the direction of the future, and women need equal opportunity to shape that direction. We need to collectively work on overcoming the barriers that prevent female inclusion in tech from being a reality. Juniqe Founder Lea Lange says:
“As a society we can continue to focus on ensuring that girls and boys/women and men are receiving an equal education and make an effort not to limit people’s perspectives with stereotypes.”
Companies must ensure that sexism is avoided in the hiring process and in the workplace, and we need to continue building great initiatives to bridge the gender divide all over the world. And while we’re facing some tough odds, we at CareerFoundry have no doubt that women are up to the challenge.
For more inspiration, check out the story of CareerFoundry graduate Andrea Hurren, a mother of two who quit her job to become a web developer!