Women in tech: the evolving landscape of workplace diversity and equality
Ellie Dyer-Brown on September 9th 2020
When asked to name so-called 'tech giants' - those in the industry whose influence has been profound and enduring - most people would think for a moment, see a whirlwind of male company founders and CEOs appearing in their minds, then produce a name like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Answers mentioning female leaders like Virginia Rometty, the first woman to lead IBM as chairwoman and CEO, or Marissa Mayer, who was Google's first female engineer and now works as the President and CEO of Yahoo!, would likely be few and far between. This imbalance is symptomatic of the tech industry's status as an overwhelmingly male-dominated sector, something that hasn't gone unnoticed over the past decade or so. There certainly has been a trend towards encouraging women into STEM - in fact, encouraging everyone into STEM. But is this approach the right one, and is it enough?
The gender imbalance
In the U.K., only 19% of people working in tech are female. Just 5% of leadership positions are held by women, and they are paid on average £3,000 less than their male counterparts - despite being rated equally in terms of performance. These statistics have their roots in a variety of socially ingrained norms, which seem to be sticking despite recent movements advocating for greater equality in the workplace. There has been a steady increase in the number of women choosing to pursue careers in biology, chemistry, physics and maths over the past few years (though they still remain the minority in those sectors), yet the percentage of women in tech remains startlingly low.
'Women are from Venus, men are from Mars?'
Believe it or not, age-old idioms like this have not been left in the past, though they have taken a new form. Nowadays, the 'insurmountable' differences between men and women are no longer conveyed through metaphor, but through science. In 2017, a software engineer at Google sent an internal memo which echoed this very same rhetoric. He wrote: "The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership."
It's obvious that there are physical differences between men and women, but what about mental differences? Are they really significant enough to justify the vast discrepancies in certain fields? The short answer is no. Psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, of the University of Wisconsin, spent several years analyzing prior research into the impact of gender on psychological traits and abilities. Across the studies, she observed that gender had little to no impact on most of the variables examined (read more here). So, if psychological differences aren't to blame, why are there so few women in tech?
The real problem
I'll admit it: I'm a humanities student. Thinking back to my school days, it's difficult to remember a time when I didn't want to study English; it's equally difficult to recall a time when tech was presented to me as something I could pursue. Information on IT and tech-based careers was noticeably sparse, while science and maths seemed to capture the spotlight. Perhaps my experience is unique or rare in this respect, but it certainly echoes the 'boys and their toys' stereotype which first came about with the launch of home-built computer systems. Tech enthusiasts are often depicted in popular culture as hiding out in their bedrooms for hours on end, coding or building some fantastic, unfathomable machine. In many ways, this image perpetuates the idea that careers in tech are both elusive and unattainable for women.
Fast forward to university, and things are different. Thousands of tech-based companies travel to careers fairs, advertising a range of exciting and fulfilling jobs. But what if it's too late for many women, who never saw this career path as an option before? Unless employers become more open-minded about the type of candidates they are likely to consider, and the amount of prior experience they require, women in this position will continue to lose out.
It's time for the industry to evolve
There's no single, clear-cut solution to the lack of women in tech. The need for greater workplace equality and diversity isn't limited to this sector, or to women (though they are significantly impacted by it); it's a problem that's relevant everywhere, and it should be everyone's concern.
There are a variety of things that individuals and companies can do to improve accessibility for everyone, especially around recruitment. "One of the reasons I accepted Gearset's job offer is that during the interview process it always felt that they were treating me as a person and that my gender wasn't important," recalls Catherine Bacon, who has worked as a software engineer at Gearset for several years. "It was great to be made to feel like a member of the team and to get an impression of what it would be like to have these people as colleagues."
At an interview with a different company, Catherine was asked if she would have a problem with being "the only female developer out of 25". Unsurprisingly, this came across as a red flag, emphasizing the need for radical change. Encouraging women into STEM isn't enough; workplaces must do more to make them feel accepted as equally valuable employees and people.
A step in the right direction
The 'Women in STEM' movement has already made significant headway in opening up new doors for women and reforming misconceptions about what they can and cannot - or should and should not - do. Gearset and many companies like it are eager to champion this movement, attending careers fairs and events such as STEM Women in Technology. The first step towards a fairer and more inclusive industry is creating awareness - a step that must be taken collectively in order to succeed.
Despite this positive movement, with so many men in executive positions, and so few women in the workforce in general, applying for a career in technology can still seem daunting. To combat this, Gearset tries to ensure that all interview panels are made up of both men and women, providing a fair, unbiased experience for candidates. Though they may seem small, improvements like these can make a significant difference when it comes to women's experiences throughout the interview process and beyond.
Moving forward, dismantling the barriers that prevent women from pursuing technology-based careers is essential. However, gender diversity is a double-edged problem, and for that reason it requires a nuanced approach. If promoting STEM comes at the expense of humanities and arts subjects, then we are not broadening women's horizons after all - we as a society are simply redefining which pathways we deem acceptable for them to pursue.
To continue progressing, we must persist in challenging our own beliefs about what makes an ideal candidate, an ideal employee, an ideal teammate. We must learn to accept the value of different skill sets and different outlooks. Most of all, we must continue to open new doors for women without closing others.
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