Introduction and dangers of condescension
Why has such a relatively new industry like technology got a big, bad, old school problem like sexism?
The tech industry appears to have women leaving in droves. A report by the Commission for Employment and Skills found that the number of women in tech jobs in the UK has dropped 7% in 10 years.
There are systemic problems in the tech industry that need to be addressed if we are going to see women staying and thriving in STEM fields. So why are women discouraged from pursuing careers in technology?
Lack of awareness
Debra Charles, founder and CEO of Novacroft, says that when some of her female software developers were recently invited to speak to the BBC about the gender imbalance in the technology industry, most put it down to a simple lack of awareness of the wide variety of careers it has to offer.
“By providing young people with one-to-one sessions of education and career advice we can do our bit to overturn preconceived notions of technology being all about coding,” she says. Charles adds that there has to be an opening up of a more realistic – and broader – picture of the job opportunities across the industry.
Regina Moran, CEO of Fujitsu UK & Ireland, says that women may be discouraged from pursuing careers in technology because of prevailing stereotypes about both tech companies and the sort of jobs available.
“Frequently, tech companies are presented in TV shows and films as environments dominated by ‘nerdy’ white men,” she says.
People can also assume that the only tech jobs that you can get with a degree in maths or engineering are highly technical, difficult and even dull. “But this just isn’t the case – and in order to encourage women to enter tech, we need to showcase how exciting jobs in the tech sector can be,” says Moran.
There have been many initiatives to boost the number of women and girls thinking about jobs in technology. But a few of these have been perceived as condescending. Just recently, EDF Energy’s campaign dubbed ‘Pretty Curious’ was ridiculed online. It later held a competition to promote girl’s interests in technology. This was won by a boy.
But at least that competition got off the ground. IBM’s ‘Hack a Hairdryer’ competition was dropped after a barrage of complaints that it was sexist and patronising.
Can women and girls be encouraged to consider a career in technology without stooping to condescension?
Sarah Luxford, co-founder of TLA Women in Tech, says that role models are the key.
“We can’t be what we can’t see. We are fortunate to now see more women profiled for their success with a plethora of events and awards dedicated to this subject, although I’d still like to see more females highlighted in mainstream press,” she says.
Luxford adds that the world of tech can sometimes be misrepresented. “This is not about having to be a coder or a programmer, although many women don’t realise these roles are highly collaborative and dedicated to problem solving,” she adds. “Technology now touches every part of a business and as such there are a variety of skills needed from UX design to customer service, to sales.”
Dr Michal Tsur, president and CMO at video technology company Kaltura, says that careers in tech need to be marketed better to women. “Less focus should be put on the technology, and rather more on the opportunity for women to achieve significant impact, change and disruption in a short time in a fast-changing, exciting environment,” she says.
Is the situation improving?
One issue that always springs up is pregnancy. There is not only a need to make the workplace more appealing for parents, but to ensure women (and men) aren’t penalised when children come along.
“I’ve heard horror stories on this subject and it’s certainly an area we need to address for mothers and for fathers,” says Luxford. “Companies are finally becoming clearer and more up-to-date on their maternity/paternity leave policies.”
She adds that the world of work has changed so 9-till-5 is not necessarily the norm – “by incorporating policies that reflect the new world of work and also their employees can only be a good thing.”
Getting men on board
It’s not just down to schools and the women in technology to make the industry more appealing to girls, according to Jacqueline de Rojas, area vice president of Northern Europe at Citrix and president at techUK. “Corporate leaders – who remain predominantly male in this sector – must be prepared to stand up against practices like ‘showing face’,” she says.
She adds that introducing flexible working programmes is not enough, noting: “It is essential to break down barriers built around the traditional male-orientated work culture to ensure that those working flexibly are as championed as their office counterparts.”
This may involve challenging the traditional outlook of executive committees, to drive commitment and ensure accountability, she adds.
An improving situation?
But with the problem clearly highlighted, could the situation be getting better?
Aisling Keegan, general manager and executive director at Dell UK, says that there is still a huge amount of work to do in this area in all organisations, as it’s only in recent years that there has been a true realisation that creating and nurturing a more inclusive and diverse culture is imperative to business success and ultimately yields better outcomes.
“There has been lots of analysis and research done over the years proving that such cultures and environments yield better results so there is no doubt in my mind that the situation is absolutely bound to improve over the next 12-18 months. It has to!” she adds.
Keegan says it is down to everyone to drive this agenda forward, to raise awareness, recognise our own unconscious bias, call it and encourage everyone to actively participate in evolving and improving the current status quo.
“Aside from all the obvious benefits of attracting a more diverse workforce and building a more inclusive environment, it makes for a much more interesting, educational and fun ride!”