(Wo)Men in Tech: The gender bender

Summary: The stats pointing to women in the field of technology are not too optimistic today. From girls taking keen interest in tech as young kids to turning away from it at an older age, there are several reasons why there is a stark gender gap in the sector. It’s time we all joined hands to fix this and let our women shine.

In 2012, when Yahoo appointed Marissa Mayer as its Chief Executive, her appointment generated huge headlines. Much more than a man's would have! Mayer has parted ways with Yahoo but even then some things haven’t changed.

Mayer’s rise to her position garnered news because she conquered a field that sees very few women actually stepping in, leave alone vying for top posts. Despite improved access to education and work, women still make up a very small part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Electronics, Medicine) sector, occupying less than a quarter of the jobs across the world. Whether it is start-up founders, investors or folks in computing and technical roles, women often find themselves in men dominated rooms.

Even as companies celebrate equality, talent and diversity, the role of women in technology has significantly stalled and, in some cases, even declined. In 2008, women on average held 25% of IT-related jobs in the US, a drop from the 36% occupied in 1991. Now, almost a decade later, the picture isn't too cheerful. As per statistics from Observer.com, in June last year, women held only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies. When Uber released its diversity report in 2017, it showed that 89% technical directors were male. Some media compared it with other tech giants and this is what came out - While Uber had 36.1% women employees, Facebook had 33%, Apple had 32%, Google 31%, Twitter 36%, and Microsoft 25%. Suffices to say, the numbers do not give a great picture on the gender meter.

Closer home in India, at a recent event, President Ramnath Kovind noted that out of all those who joined an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), only about 10% were women. A 2016 Kelly Global Workforce Insights (KGWI) survey on Women in STEM had pointed that 81% of women in STEM fields in India perceived a gender bias in performance evaluation. The survey had added that while women represent 46% of all enrolled undergraduate students in STEM, not many continue to pursue careers.

So, why exactly is the tech field so bereft of women? To understand the real deal, one might have to go back in time when these women were little girls and their male counterparts were little boys – devoting time to studies, friends, toys and the likes. To a great extent, when it comes to studying STEM subjects at school, male and female students both are known to perform equally well. What is dismal is the fact that, unfortunately, this parity doesn’t always carry over into the professional world leading to a significant gender gap in the science and technology workforces.

In 2015, Microsoft released an ad that to some extent pinpoints how things unfold on the ‘women in tech sector’ front. It shows a young girl from Microsoft's DigiGirlz program saying, “When I was little, I used to think technology was great.” She then delivers the punch: “And then I started thinking it was more of a boy’s thing.” The video that talks to several young girls, notes that 7 out of 10 girls are interested in Science. But many of these girls point out that there came a time in their lives when their limitless interest in the field ebbed because of several things they were exposed to. For instance, commercials showing men tinkering with technology lead some girls to even say things like, “I just think that inventing is for boys because they have Albert Einstein - he invented, he was a guy - and Benjamin Franklin also.”

There is a lot here to blame for this. From toys that are targeted at boys to portrayals of STEM professionals in the media, young girls and women are led to believe that there is no place for them in this field. Year after year, Silicon Valley companies have received flak for not employing more women. Their argument: they simply can’t find enough qualified workers to hire.

Why is this so? It is perhaps somewhere between middle school and high-school graduation that the interest that girls have in technology goes through two extremes: it peaks and wanes. According to The Guardian, in 2005, women formed 24% of computer science students. By 2010, that number came down to 19%, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. While academicians and educators have been trying to find out why women prefer to keep tech careers at a distance, some analysts pointed to the fact that young women are hardly exposed to the field, or steered in that direction by parents, peers or career counsellors.

The biggest irony though is despite everything; the technology industry is not without impressive female role models. Some of the most powerful tech companies in the world are headed by women: Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook is the second in command at the company. YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki, who took over YouTube in 2014, has increased the number of female employees there from 24% to 30%. Virginia Rometty is the Chairman, President, And CEO of IBM, and the first woman to head the company. Then there is Angela Ahrendts, Senior VP at Apple, Safra Catz, Co-Chief Executive Officer of Oracle, and Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet, among others.

The big question is: How do we close this niggling gap and have significant women representation in technology?

We could begin by looking at why there is a ‘pipeline’ problem. This has to start with giving our girls the confidence that they need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with their male classmates. Unless we put our boys and girls on equal footing going into college, young women will always be at risk of believing that their efforts (especially in a field like technology) will be a failure, leading them to quit early on. After all, it makes no sense to leave girls behind in an industry that will be at the forefront of almost every economy for years to come.

It’s the responsibility of the society to encourage girls to pursue their dreams, whether that is in technology or some other industries "considered" male-driven. Teachers and school administrators can play a decisive role in closing the gender gap in STEM fields. The media too needs to step up its efforts to highlight the achievements of female STEM professionals. As young women become aware of role models in science and technology, they are bound to feel more comfortable entering these so-called ‘male dominated’ fields. Some also suggest the idea of mentorship as a solution where women who are in permanent technology positions or even in the field have to show how to lead the way. At the same time, in the corporate world, Managers, Directors, VPs, and C-level execs can contribute to accelerate change for a more equal field.

Of course, not everything is disheartening. The 2018 Women in Tech Report by Hackerrank has some positive things to say. The report which surveyed over 14,000 professional software developers, nearly 2,000 of which were women, points out that the gender gap for when developers learn to code is slowly, but surely, shrinking. It also says that young women today are 33% more likely to study Computer Science compared with women born before 1983. Women in programming are working on building software across a variety of industries, from technology (which includes hardware and security) to automotive. Of course, there is a small hitch. Women are by far more likely to be in junior positions than men, regardless of age.

Correcting gender imbalances in Tech won’t be an overnight fix. But this International Women’s Day, we all need to join hands to invest more time, energy and resources to improve the presence of women in this sector because the paybacks are going to be legions. From a boost to the economy to greater scientific and technological advancements, more women in Tech is definitely going to be a boon on several fronts.

Are you doing your bit? I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

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