Finding qualified tech staff is a problem that companies operating in virtually every sector, all over the world cite as one of their leading challenges. The demand for workers is so great, that barriers to entry in IT are much lower compared to other professions. Thus, many companies are willing to forego requirements like a university degree in Computer Science for experienced candidates and sometimes even experience altogether for junior positions. All they want is people who know how to code, regardless of where they learned how to do so. Perhaps because of that, tech companies are more willing to accommodate workers’ personal needs (flexible hours, telecommuting) in order to retain qualified staff, to say nothing of other perks like above-average, free gym memberships, ergonomic office furniture, employer-sponsored wellness days, team retreats and others.
And yet, despite the high demand for tech personnel, the percentage of women occupying such positions remains dismally low. In today’s post, we will explore the factors that contribute to the gender disparity in IT and some solutions and resources that women can utilize to acquire skills and network in this sector.
The current picture
While statistics on different countries and areas of tech differ slightly depending on geographic and social factors, as well as on data collection methodologies and classifications, they all point to a similar— and worrisome — trend. Women are underrepresented in virtually all areas of high-tech, at all levels of seniority and in most countries. The higher up one goes in corporate hierarchies, the fewer women are to be found.
Thus, according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat, women represented a third of the workforce in high-tech sectors in the EU in 2015, though there were some meaningful distinctions between high-tech knowledge-intensive services, where women accounted for 30% of workers as opposed to 54.4% in the general services sectors, and high-tech manufacturing, where women accounted for 38.2% of the workforce compared to 29.4% in manufacturing overall.
A 2017 report by McKinsey&Company and LeanIn.Org looking at the US market found that the technology (hardware and software) and telecommunications and IT services were two of the three sectors with the lowest levels of women’s participation in the workforce at virtually every career level out of the 15 sectors analyzed. Only the automotive sector had a lower rate of women’s employment than IT and technology.
Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) found that American and British startups are worse than their Chinese counterparts at including women in their management teams and in executive positions. Seven in ten American startups and almost as many British ones had no women in leadership positions as of 2018, SVB found; meanwhile, less than four in 10 Chinese startups lacked women in senior positions.
So what’s the catch?
Getting women to participate in IT and science and technology more broadly is somewhat of a conundrum for legislators and women’s rights organizations. That is because, contrary to what one may expect, the most progressive countries in the area of women’s rights are not the countries with the highest percentage of women’s employment in these sectors. For instance, in the EU, developing countries like Bulgaria and Romania have a higher percentage of women in IT as a percentage of the total workforce compared to beacons of women’s rights like Scandinavian and Western European countries (see Eurostat graph below).
As a matter of fact, the former Soviet Union has been the most successful country in modern history at promoting women’s education and employment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), having achieved near parity between women’s and men’s participation in these areas. As researchers like Bipasha Baruah, a Women’s Studies professor at Western University in Canada have discovered, the percentage of women studying and working in these disciplines in many former Soviet countries has actually decreased since 1991, despite the fact that more concerted efforts have been made in these countries to promote women’s rights since the dissolution of the Soviet state. Clearly, the Soviet Union did something right (in addition to many wrong things) when it came to women’s employment, by mandating that all people became skilled in the areas that the communist government needed covered, regardless of their gender.
Understanding the Soviet conundrum has been the centerpiece of efforts to promote women’s employment in STEM professions in the Western world, where their levels of participation remain dismal. Thus far, what has become clear is that such efforts need to focus on the early stages of education, through outreach to primary and secondary school students to promote STEM amongst girls.
In order to create more female role models in technology to inspire more girls to join the field, governments and NGOs around the world have launched initiatives to promote and recognize women in tech. Thus, in Europe, 130 public and non-governmental institutions have come together to create the European Center for Women in Technology (ECWT), an institution whose purpose is to ”measurably and significantly increase the number of girls and women in STEM and computing and integrate a critical mass of women in Europe in the design, research, innovation, production and use of ICT between 2010 and 2020”. Other organizations, such as Europe’s Ada Awards have set up special prizes recognizing female tech professionals, accomplished tech students and young innovators.
Perhaps more famously, NGOs like Girls Who Code and TechGirlz have been set up specifically to teach girls how to code and to promote girls in IT. The impact of such efforts is already beginning to be felt both in the quantity and quality of IT services and products. On a macro level, the percentage of girls studying IT is growing in many parts of the world, as can be gleaned from the Eurostat table below.
On a more qualitative level, having a greater array of female voices is beginning to correct ingrained biases against women in tech, such as the oversexualized representation of female characters in video games, and to create IT services and products that are better suited for women’s needs.
This development brings me to the second possible cause for the gender disparity in IT: the sector’s image problem. For many of us, the stereotypical IT worker is invariably male, nerdy, sometimes bearded and invariably intelligent. And this stereotype is very much rooted in reality, for the overwhelming majority of IT staff, particularly in leadership positions, tends to be male, as can be gleaned from the graph below representing the gender breakdown in the leadership of the largest tech multinationals.
Sure, one could say, but what about the Sheryl Sandbergs, the Marissa Meyers, the Susan Wojcickis and the Meg Whitmans of the world? They are good role models, why don’t little girls look up to them? The reality is that, for every Sandberg and every Wojcicki, there are dozens of scandals involving tech companies, like Uber, Google, Tesla and a plethora of assorted smaller ones, that are in the headlines for instances of harassment of, discrimination against or lower pay for women. Clearly, following the headlines about famous companies and individuals in tech paints a mixed picture of women’s standing in the sector. But if the headlines are not conclusive, the aggregate statistics about women in tech (see above) should paint a clearer picture – and send a strong message: that tech companies have a gender problem that needs fixing.
The way forward
But that’s where the bad news ends. Just because things haven’t changed yet, it doesn’t mean that nothing is being done to fix them. On the contrary, change is coming at the tech sector from multiple directions, but structural problems, like gender imbalances in labor markets, take a long time, sometimes entire generations, to fix.
On the one hand, recent discrimination scandals have prompted companies themselves to self-regulate by establishing mechanisms to eliminate discrimination, to encourage women to report incidents and to punish perpetrators when necessary. Media coverage of long-standing problems faced by female tech entrepreneurs, such as greater difficulties in securing financing compared to men, have attracted attention to these problems and the launch of financing schemes targeting women in particular.
Isabella Hillmer, one of the two co-founders of Ghost, a startup that is participating in the AtomLeap High-Tech Accelerator, believes that the tech industry in Berlin, where she lives, is so eager to incorporate more women, that she and the other female co-founder receive numerous invitations to join events and networks of tech entrepreneurs. “We get a lot of attention because of it. Because we’re in tech, and we’re women, and we’re young, so people are sometimes surprised,” she told AtomLeap during a weekly meeting.
A psychologist by training, Isabella would like to see more women in tech and gender equity promoted in society in general, but she also wants to make an impact because of what she does, not because of her gender. “Even the language that we use to talk about women founders makes them sound as if they are special, an oddity. By emphasizing their gender, we are priming audiences to develop expectations from them,” she opines, adding that she feels the need to give it 100% all the time in order to avoid being perceived as the diversity participant in the events and groups in which she partakes.
On the other hand, NGOs, governments and corporations have been launching initiatives to promote women and girls in tech. Last, but not least, women themselves are coming together to form organizations aimed at networking and helping other women in tech. Such is the case with Angela Sofia Sepulveda, the CEO of Colombia-based 3D printing startup Innovo, who, amongst the various projects she has initiated, has started a women’s entrepreneurship community in her hometown of Cali.
Speaking to AtomLeap, Angela explained that being a female professional in Colombia is a challenge because gender stereotypes are ingrained in people’s mentality. “I have a background in communications. Being the CEO of a tech company as a women who does not have a technical background is a challenge, because you realise how much of a minority you are when you go to events or meetups. But most of the time, my gender and background are an advantage, because the tech industry needs better communicators. Besides, it is such a privilege and a responsibility to be a woman and be present in the tech industry and at tech events. As women, we have a responsibility to support one another and our environments in order to foster gender parity,” she adds.
On this note, we at AtomLeap would like to share a few resources that women can access in order to improve their tech skills or expand their network, with the mention that there are many more such initiatives to be found.
AnitaB.org seeks to promote women in tech by offering career guidance, scholarships and recognition in the form of prizes, as well as through research on the state of women’s participation in tech.
Digital Mums trains women in social media and other digital skills and connects them with companies willing to work with freelance, telecommuting or part-time staff.
freeCodeCamp is an online resource offering coding classes in a variety of languages, as well as in database management. Udemy, Coursera, Khan Academy and other online learning platforms offer free or discounted online coding and computing courses, some of which are targeted particularly at entrepreneurs.
GirlsinTech is a global NGO that promotes women in STEM fields and women’s entrepreneurship through a network of 60 chapters globally.
Girl Geek Dinners is a UK-based organization that brings together women in tech through informal get-togethers.
Girls Who Code is a US-based initiative that promotes tech education for girls through coding camps and immersion programs throughout the country.
Linuxchix is an online community with physical chapters in Canada, the US, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Africa, where women can learn how to code in different languages (Linux, Python, C++). It also has a Spanish-speaking platform, Chicas Linux, targeting Spain and Latin America.
TechGirlz is another US-based initiative offering affordable programming and engineering education for 12-15 year-old.
Women 4 Technology is a forum for women leaders in tech founded by the recruitment firm Bailey Fisher, which organizes conferences on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to effective leadership, as well as dinners and other networking events in the Cambridge, UK area.
Women Who Code promotes women in tech through over 1,700 events annually, through prizes, scholarships, a job board, online educational resources and workshops.
Women in Technology initially started off as a job board for women in tech in the Washington DC area, but has since expanded its scope to include events, job fairs, workshops and awards, among others.
In addition to the sources above, AtomLeap is a promoter of excellence and gender equity in tech, so another valuable resource that you can use, regardless of your gender.
The upside is that, while women in tech are still few, things are looking up for them thanks to all the resources and support they are receiving nowadays. If tech is something that you are passionate about, this is a good time to pursue it, regardless of your gender.