How can more women be encouraged into technology careers? It’s a question that is often put to delegates at tech conferences, but one which continues to be far harder to answer than it is to ask. The problem of gender imbalance in tech is systemic and societal in Western nations. This is not a question of ability or talent, given that countries such as China and India have far higher proportions of female engineers. This is about expectations and aspirations.
The question has topical imperative given the gender discrimination spotlight that’s been shone on Silicon Valley of late — with high profile lawsuits touching various entities, including most recently VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, and tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter. And they are by no means the only tech companies to find themselves dealing with disgruntled former female employees making public claims of hostile corporate cultures.
Last year a raft of major U.S. tech companies also made their diversity reports public, putting concrete data on the scope of the problem into the public domain. Across the board, leadership roles and technology jobs at all these companies skew heavily in favor of men, with at most just over a quarter of tech company leadership roles filled by women. When it comes to pure-play technology jobs, female involvement dwindles even further.
So what can be done to change attitudes and convince more women to pursue a career in technology? A roundtable discussion held today in London organized by startup support group Tech London Advocates and chaired by U.K. shadow minister for the Digital Economy, the Labour Party’s Chi Onwurah (herself a former telecoms engineer turned politician) heard various ideas for fostering change from a group of women already working in the tech space. A full list of the women who attended the event can be found at the bottom of this article.
The group’s ideas boiled down to five priority areas for action:
- improvements to education, to raise awareness about technology and tech careers and counteract negative perceptions
- making the business case for more women in tech, and offering guidance to corporates to help them shift entrenched, male-dominated company cultures
- creating positive narratives and championing rolemodels to combat negative stereotypes, whether in the media or because of a lack of parental awareness about career opportunities for girls in tech
- strengthening female networking and mentoring opportunities
- access to funding to encourage more female entrepreneurs into startups
Discussions were wide-ranging, as you’d expect from a large group tackling a complex, systemic issue, but various interesting threads emerged.
Companies should be better at recognizing when someone is capable of doing a job, rather than relying on women to push themselves forward, suggested Louise Beaumont, head of public affairs and marketing for GLI Finance.
That view resonants with the current gender discrimination lawsuit Twitter is facing, brought by a female engineer and former employee who was passed over for promotion and whose complaint is the tech giant has an opaque promotions process that unfairly favors men.
“I agree about pushing forward. There are many jobs I didn’t apply for, which in retrospect I realize I should have done,” said Onwurah, responding to Beaumont’s point. “But there is also something about changing the corporate culture so you don’t need to be blowing your own trumpet all the time. You don’t necessarily need to be leaning in in order to be recognized for what you’re doing.”
Beaumont also made the point that companies with more gender balanced senior management have been shown to be more financially successful — and that message, that if a company fails to promote women it can be shown to be “failing its shareholders”, could be used more forcefully to drive a business case for female promotion.
“There is quite a lot of data that those companies with more mixed executive teams have better outcomes and better shareprices,” she said. “As much as we might all feel things very strongly, if people actually understood the impact on their bottom line they would have fewer places to hide.”
Quotas were also discussed as one possible tool a future government could use to accelerate the pace of change within companies — perhaps even using skilled immigration as one avenue to further this agenda, by, for instance, requiring that a certain proportion of developers brought into the country on specific visas are female. Or indeed using quotas to increase the proportion of female board members.
“I think it was a French minister who said ‘I don’t believe in quotas, I don’t like them, I don’t want them, we have to have them’,” said Onwurah, discussing the lack of women on boards. “I’m not quite there yet but it’s the last chance saloon. It’s absolutely right that you need more women at just below the executive level [to be in a position to be promoted to boards]. But I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Harvey Nash and other recruitment organizations and they are trying to put more women up for jobs but companies are not taking them on.
“Or companies are still having all male shortlists. So we need to do something about supply but we also need to do something about demand. And I think legislation is a crude measure/way of improving demand but if the industry doesn’t sort itself out then governments often are put in a position where they have to take crude measures.”
A large part of the discussion focused on the challenges of reworking education to engage girls with STEM subjects and technology careers — with a general view of the benefits of encouraging big and small tech companies to work with schools to raise awareness and change perceptions about technology careers.
Jess Tyrrell, associate director of the Centre for London, suggested it can be even more valuable if you’re linking kids with local companies — so developing local educational partnerships, and working within a local context that feels relevant to the children.
“Young people learn when they’re attached to things that happen around them — especially if you want to increase diversity. You’re not going to travel from Newcastle, necessarily, to go to the Wired Next-Gen conference unless someone takes you. But you might go down the road to a club to do a Rewired State or to do a Code Club or whatever.”
“Regardless of the size of the business what we’re saying is what we need is these clusters of education-business partnerships locally that can get some saturation into the schools but also things that happen in informal learning,” she added.
The importance of engaging parents, and mums specifically, was also flagged up — given the close role they play in shaping their daughters’ expectations and aspirations.
Onwurah referenced a recent study that identified a lack of science capital as the biggest factor that stops young girls going into technology. “By science capital — generally it means somebody in your family whose in science or technology already. So if your father or mother was a scientist girls had the same proportion, I think, going into science as boys whose parents were in it,” she said. “So getting science capital into the environment of girls who don’t have it now is one thing education can do. But also mums. Dr Sue Black has an initiative called Tech Mums which is trying to address that.”
Also on the education point, Ghislaine Boddington, CEO of BodyDataSpace, talked up the importance of emphasizing the role that art and design increasingly plays in technology — so pushing STEAM, not just STEM — as a way to encourage more girls to get involved.
“Design particularly will encourage a lot more girls and women to actually see technology from an earlier stage, the opportunities that are out there, the massive growth in design areas in technology,” she said, noting the increasing importance of user interface and UX design in tech.
Another thread of the discussion focused on ways to challenge gender stereotypes and foreground positive and well-rounded female-in-tech rolemodels.
Engineering is a really caring career. What is more caring than giving clean water or the ability of a parent to talk to their offspring?
Jennifer Arcuri, founder of the Innotech Summit, suggested starting a meme to celebrate women who are already working in technology. “I love being a feminine woman and interested in make-up and clothes and also love dinosaurs and space. I don’t think that there needs to be one exclusive [tech female rolemodel]. That’s the beauty of being a woman. All the wonderful things that come along with femininity and being a woman in this space.”
“If we can show how women are already here doing things you don’t need to make a special case for us, we just need to shout from the hilltops a bit better,” she added.
Onwurah also noted the narrow and hackneyed narratives that are told about tech and engineering — suggesting they are ripe for debunking. “One of the clichés about girls when choosing their careers is that they love particularly caring careers. I think engineering is a really caring career. What is more caring than giving clean water or the ability of a parent to talk to their offspring? But it’s never portrayed like that — it’s portrayed as hard-hats or as men arguing with each other over formula,” she said.
Other areas touched on in the discussion included the need to have more women speaking at tech conferences and on panels — and ways to encourage that to happen, such as raising awareness of existing directories of female speakers, such as the Articulate Network. All-female mentoring lists were also suggested as something that might be helpful.
Getting more women involved in startup funding was also touched on — along with promoting the work of organizations that are already advocating for more female investors to come forward.
“There are something like 14% of angels in the U.K. are women. One, four. This is because women choose not to do that with their money,” added Beaumont.
The discussion was clear on the need to change the choices that adults of both genders make in order to positively influence the tech gender balance — given those choices filter down to shape the aspirations of girls and boys alike. So no quick fixes, but plenty of food for thought.