Women in tech: inequality dissected
The inequality in tech between women and men has been staggering for generations, and continues to be significant even in 2023. While women make up 57% of the overall workforce, they make up just 27% of the tech workforce. And of that 27%, half leave the industry before they reach the age of 35. That means that by the time women in tech reach senior status, they make up just over 13% of the faces you’ll see. Without exact figures for non-binary people, it’s likely that this 13% is diluted among at least 80% men – meaning senior women in tech are rarities, rather than making up the 50% of senior figures any balanced society would expect.
Women in tech: the pipeline problem
We spoke to Amanda Elam, CMO at Bloomreach, about the reasons behind low recruitment levels of women in tech, the retention problem, and new developments that can at least point the way to a fairer distribution of tech talent, so that the industry as a whole can benefit from all the talents and perspectives of which it’s currently starved.
The skewed pipeline.
Amanda, we know that there are a whole range of problems in terms of getting equality for women in the tech industry, because it’s coming from that traditional, stereotypical place of it being “a male profession.” How do we improve the pipeline, so that more than that 27% of women join the industry in the first place?
Yeah, tech is very male-dominated. When you think about how much fun you want to have at work and the camaraderie that you want to have, that definitely makes it more intimidating. And it certainly makes it difficult to attract more women into technology and into STEM roles in particular. I’ve got three sons, aged 20,19 and 18, and they’re interested in coding already, while the girls, even at very, very early stages, are directed into other areas of interest.
So we need to start much earlier, getting a larger collaboration of women. That’s why I love some of the groups that are coming up that particularly support younger girls getting into coding – Girls Who Code is an example – mentoring those girls and really helping them to understand the benefits of their skill set coming in at an early age, and making it more interesting for girls would be a great place to start.
There’s that double-handed tradition to overcome, isn’t there? That X is for boys, and Y is for girls, and never the twain shall meet.
We were talking to somebody else about this and they said there are different ways that could be used to attract girls and young women. For instance, at the moment, if you say, engineering, tech, electrical or whatever, they’re one-word vague concepts. So it appeals to that sort of way of thinking that boys are trained in from an early age. Whereas if you explain the potential impact of these things, it might open it up wider.
Absolutely. And I think even the environments that foster people to move into developing and coding, like the classroom structures, and the lack of socialization and even many of the tech companies that I worked for, you walk into the engineering department, they’re all guys, it’s a very dark room, they all look very similar, and even the way that they communicate with each other is virtual.
So I think it’s very much that this archetype has been developed around what it means to be a developer and to be in technology and engineering. Particularly in engineering, we need to start creating and fostering environments for different types of people to come in.
I know when I would go into the engineering rooms, I would get in trouble because I’m an extrovert and so I like to talk and chitchat and go by people’s office and that typically has not been a welcome way to socialize and communicate. There’s a lot to do with the persona of what it means to be a developer that we can hopefully change. Remote work is going to help a lot because now we’re across a broader set of environments and you can have a work plus home life experience, but it’s going to take a long time to teach girls about the roles that they can have.
The lonely road.
Here’s a question we haven’t asked any of the women in tech we’ve spoken to yet. As well as all the social programming of imposter syndrome, is there a sense that if it’s going be just a bunch of men and one woman, that’s a potentially toxic environment to consider going into?
I think it’s very lonely. I think anytime you’re the only “something” it’s very lonely. I just had the fortune of being on an all-female panel for an event that we have coming up, and we were talking about “What are we going to wear to this conference?” And we spent 20 minutes talking about what shoes we’d wear. Should we do a wedge? Should we do a flat sandal? Would it be super flashy? We’re very professional, successful women, talking about that.
But if it was me and four guys on a panel, I absolutely would be wondering, “What should I wear?” And I’d be concerned, but I would have zero comfort in bringing that topic up and actually discussing something like that, even though it matters to me.
So I think anytime you’re the only one, the freedom with which you can ask questions or navigate your circumstances or feel comfortable to be who you are with those other people is really, really hard.
That’s an important distinction, because it broadens the issue beyond male and female, into “anything other than the archetype of the techie,” which is traditionally a cis, het, white male paradigm. Then for every step of difference away from that paradigm, you go further down that funnel of comfort.
Yeah, exactly. I would imagine if you don’t fit exactly the archetype then that happens. Maybe that’s a good learning point for me, because I don’t have the stats on diversity beyond male and female.
We’ve talked about the pipeline and some of the things that can be done to get more women in the industry to start with. And then there’s that culling of swathes of women who are in the industry. 50% of them leave before age 35. There could be any number of reasons for this, but what do you think is behind it?
The stay-home assumption.
I’ve had a lot of women work for me, and a lot of female counterparts that have not continued with their career and decided to stay home for families. That’s been the pre-eminent reason for it – whether it’s family, children of their own, or they find a partner who has children, or they need to take care of their parents. There’s some kind of thing at home that distracts them from being able to go to work.
And I don’t think employers make it very easy for women to have big responsibilities at home and have big responsibilities at work. And I think a lot of that is down to guys at home not doing a lot to help their women partners. I think they are very comfortable to leave the cleaning and cooking and grocery shopping and caregiving of children to their wives or women partners.
If I have to hear one more guy say “I don’t ever know what’s going on if my wife’s not around”… It just makes me think “Would you ever say that at work? Would you ever tell a colleague, “I have no idea what’s going on unless my female colleague updates me on my agenda”?
I get furious about that. But I think guys just leave household stuff to their female counterparts and it’s such a disservice. If our male colleagues would be more intentional about saying things like “Last time, you stayed home with our daughter who was sick, I’m going to stay home this time,” I think we would also see more women able to do both.
That’s rooted throughout the business community generally, as well as in tech – the automatic assumption is that if there are children or parents or any sort of caregiving role, that “that’s the women’s job.” It needs balancing in terms of that assumption, no?
It’s connected to the issue that men have always been paid more, so if somebody’s going to have to stay home, let’s have the person that makes a little less stay home. And women genuinely are more nurturing much of the time. As much as I did not want to be the one that was worried about my kids when they were sick and just wanted to leave it there, you can’t just switch it off.
So I think it’s as much on the partner to be available as it is on companies to make it easier, to pay women fairly, and make it easier for women to go home and take care of the sick kid and make up the work another day.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll dive into ideas of a tech community remade in the image of flexibility, to facilitate both men, women, and non-binary people having a better work-life balance – and some of the things that can make that a reality.
22 February 2024
22 February 2024
21 February 2024