Gender balance in technology has been a prevalent concern for at least the past two decades. Demand for skilled jobs in technology industries is far outstripping supply as technology continues to dominate business investment around the world. It’s no wonder we’re short of specialist knowledge if women are pursuing careers in other industries. The noise from last week’s International Women’s Day has already begun to fade and we have to ask how much progress have we actually made in promoting gender equality within technology? Here are some statistics that try to shed some light on the matter.
This statistic is designed to shock. It shows that as young women are approaching their futures, very few are deciding to develop the skills that would typically be associated with careers in technology. However, as the tech industry continues to evolve and adapt to the increasing rate of development, it’s becoming clear that formal qualifications are not a prerequisite for a career in this field.
Tim Cook has recently pointed out that 50% of employees at Apple don’t have a degree. The skills required for success in a field that is built on innovation and creativity are not necessarily learnt by studying the traditional route of a degree. So all is not lost for our young women who are turning away from a formal education in tech skills at this relatively early stage.
Furthermore, this is not a trend that is representative of STEM as a whole. In 2017, 52.8% of the UK A-level Chemistry cohort were girls this is part of a steady increase in the number of women studying sciences at A-level over the past decade.
The sentiment behind this is to be applauded – Amazon intends to support up to 24 young women as they step into tech. But Doug Gurr’s (Amazon UK Managing Director) commitment to the cause is left somewhat in questions when you compare the size of the bursary to the $11.2 billion of profit that Amazon made last year. Nevertheless, the announcement of this funding comes in the footsteps of other initiatives designed to support women in tech, but also women in leadership positions within the industry.
Such initiatives include: The Sky Women in Tech Scholars, The Teen Tech Awards, The Women in Innovation Awards and many more beside. The scale of Amazon’s financial commitment to the cause may seem anti-climactic, however the reputational backing of household brands such as this will no a great deal to raise the profile of the campaign. These are positive steps to try to balance out the gender difference in this field, but the need for them highlights that we are a long way from having equal opportunity in the industry.
This is not just an issue in tech but is a trend noted in high-level jobs across all sectors around the globe. In the UK, a recent review prompted the Investment Association to write to 69 companies calling on them to increase the proportion of women in their boardrooms to 33%. Of those contacted, 66 companies currently have just one woman on their board of directors. Public reviews into gender equality, the pay gap and the employment practices of businesses are increasingly being brought into the spotlight with positive examples of real change being implemented. For example, the BBC has pledged to close its gender pay gap by 2020.
The rate of growth in the tech industry continued to increase and the skills required to innovate and succeed are being more and more specialist. For the small number of women who are already established in tech, the industry provides a strong opportunity to become thought leaders and to lead in one of the most creative industries we have. The future for young women looks a little brighter, with continued work and commitment from businesses, the future generation, male and female, can expect to encounter greater opportunities to develop their skill set and be remunerated accordingly.
Our efforts to promote gender equality must be consistent
This seems negative, but it is up from 8% in 2017 so it’s a step in the right direction. By 2022 we will need 500,000 workers for high-skill digital jobs which is treble the number of Computer Science graduates from the past decade. So, while gender equality is at the heart of the current drive to increase the number of women in tech, it is driven by a very real and pressing need. One approach may be to increase the pathways to a tech career. As already mentioned, many of those currently working in the tech industry do not hold a degree.
Internships, apprenticeships and other vocational pathways present the opportunity to gain real world experience and develop practical skills while also exploring the opportunities that the industry presents. The problem of access is exacerbated by the way job opportunities in the sector are marketed towards women. Employers have been working to avoid gender bias in their job adverts but even the technology used to then promote these job opportunities is responding to data that favours men. Automations are set to find the most cost effective target for marketing. Based on historic trends, the cheapest people to market jobs to are men which means they receive greater exposure to the range of jobs available in STEM industries.
A great deal of research is being presented on this issue at present which companies, in turn, will respond to. We, the bystanders who pass judgement from our sofas, should trust that businesses recognise the benefits of diversity within their workforce and will take positive action to meet their own need for technical expertise by increasing access and support for women. If not, we should be prepared to be active in creating the change we want to see.
This point supersedes all previous points. We can have all the funding in the world for women to achieve their full potential in STEM industries. We could have hundreds of initiatives to support women in computer science roles. Ultimately it comes down to whether women are attracted to a career in technology. At present, we are not. In order to generate this shift in attitude, women need to feel supported and inspired by the industry.
A good place to start is with the language that we choose when referring to the tech industry – we should make sure that we aren’t perpetuating stereotypes of the type of person interested in technology in our choice of words. For example, men are more likely to show interest in careers for ‘driven’ people, while women are more attracted to roles which require you to ‘care deeply’. This is not to say that women are not driven, but rather that they are typically motivated by different semantics to men.
The need for conscientious workers in technology is growing, irrespective of gender and we should ensure that the language we use attracts the broadest range of interest possible. Another important change would be for this issue to be a hot topic year round, not just when International Women’s Day comes round again next March. Our efforts to promote gender equality must be consistent and extend beyond the confines of just one industry sector. More women will choose tech when women feel they have more choices.