Women in tech: the pipeline problem
Women in tech are still severely underrepresented, even in 2023. As part of our ongoing investigation into the entry points, progress, and struggles of women in technology for International Women’s Day (NB every day should be International Women’s Day until no day has to be, thanks for coming to our TED Talk), we discovered a UK-based cyber-specific business accelerator program called Cyber Runway – run by a company called Plexal, in conjunction with the UK government as part of its efforts to make the country a cyber-superpower.
Then we spoke to three female cyber-founders who had been on at least one stage of the Cyber Runway program (there are three, to help businesses that are starting out, growing, and aiming to scale), about their experiences of the sexism and patriarchy that still exists in the technology and cyber sector to this day, and how the cyber-specific accelerator program had helped them with evolving their businesses.
Clare Ryan, CEO at ITUS Secure Technology, the software helping determine cyber risk in SMEs, Sarah Knowles, CEO at Shift Key Cyber, the security consultancy developing solutions against cyber threats, and Melissa Chambers, CEO at Sitehop, the SafeVPN provider specializing in ultra-low latency, shared their views of the current world of cyber – and the industry’s attitudes towards women in tech.
Tech has traditionally been a male-dominated sector. Why is that?
It is male-dominated, but it is getting better. Obviously, historically, men went into the sciences and women didn’t. So back when I was a student, it was very atypical for me to gravitate towards the sciences. So I’ve always been the only woman in the group.
But programs that are geared towards promoting STEM to girls at a younger age are critical, because even now trying to hire, we want a diverse team. But right now, my technical team is all men. I mean, I’m an engineer, but I’m not in the technical team right now.
But you have to choose the best candidate, and unfortunately, if you have 100 applicants, and only one is a woman, the probability that she’s the best candidate can only ever be 1 in 100. Unfortunately, the odds are that highly stacked against her. It’s a pipeline problem.
How do we make that situation better?
I try to avoid saying “girl power,” but, you know, there are boys’ clubs, and it’s almost like there need to be girls’ clubs, women supporting each other and providing the role models for younger women to say, “Oh, she did it. I can do it, too.”
I’d echo a lot of that. I’m only a few months younger than Melissa, so our upbringings in terms of the times are very similar. When I was at school, we did start doing computer studies, it was offered as an option. The class was oversubscribed, predominantly with boys rather than girls.
And because there was an oversubscription, we were asked to “really consider” if computers was a topic that we wanted to go into. But the question was really directed at the girls who had applied for the course, and so pretty much the majority of them dropped out. We ended up with two classes run, around 60 pupils all told.
And three of them were girls.
It’s just been that way all the way through. When I started in tech, I started as an IT technical person. The only girl on the team. And that’s been pretty much the same all the way through my career.
More recently, there have been more women in the space, but mostly in the softer skills, the non-technical roles that are still classed as part of tech. So it’s been better from that perspective, but certainly, there’s just a lack of women on the technical side. But now there are programs to correct that, getting girls into coding and women into STEM – and those can only be encouraged.
But as Melissa said, when you’re hiring people and there’s only one female applicant out of 100, she’s got to be bette than 99 men, and that’s a high bar.
Just to note that as women in tech, we were the one in the 100. And we made the cut.
Having said that, I’m not a technical person. My background is wetland science, and I came to tech much later.
Clearing the pipeline.
I do agree, though. The problem is the pipeline. In secondary level education, if you are any way inclined to lean towards STEM, you’re almost steered towards medicine, or pharmacy or dentistry. And you very rarely get the inspiration for females in particular who are good at mathematics or good at the sciences to say, “What about computing? Or what about those stronger engineering roles?” That is really the challenge.
There aren’t enough mentors, inspirations at the 11-15 age group stage that are having a real impact so that we change that, because you can see statistically, in higher education, 10% of employees going into computer courses are females, and then retaining that to the very end of the degree and actually placing it, things decrease again.
We need to change that by going much further down in the education system. That’s where the problem starts. As I say, traditionally, if you were good at science, you went into a “caring” role. And sometimes parents are to blame for that, sometimes, you know, if your child is good at science, then they’re going to be a doctor, and they’re going to earn lots of money.
There’s more money in tech.
People just don’t realize that. And these days, there are so many more opportunities for a better quality of life in tech than there are in medicine.
How do we get more women in tech? Is it something the industry itself and women within the industry need to be leading on? Or do we need more of a systemic, government-backed change?
I would take both! I think I think it’s got to be a multi-pronged attack, for want of a better word.
There was a post on LinkedIn last week for an Expo. And apparently it came under attack when people noticed that all the speakers were men.
So the organizers said, “We acknowledge that, but we asked women to speak and they didn’t, so we can only put up what’s given to us.”
And again, it’s that that law of averages – so as women in tech, we have a responsibility to stand up and put ourselves forward. Which obviously, we did as part of Cyber Runway – which is why we’re here today.
Imposter Syndrome and self-belief.
We spoke to a VP of Engineering at a US firm recently, and she said that Imposter Syndrome was a big thing for her – both internally, and imposed on her externally by men, because we’ve all been subject to the same learning that “girls and women don’t do some things.” So we wonder whether, for instance, that’s a factor in why women don’t come forward to speak when they’re invited.
Yeah, I’d say massively.
Last year, I did some work with a training company, to bring people into cyber. And there was a session that talked about Impostor Syndrome. And to be fair, the majority of the cohort said that at some point, they’ve experienced it, both men and women.
But historically, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt personally, Imposter Syndrome plays a massive part in that sort of reticence. You have to get past that and just put yourself in that situation where you are uncomfortable.
But it’s not easy to do that.
I personally have never had Impostor Syndrome, because I’ve been scrappy since I was young. I grew up in a very toxic environment, where I was told I couldn’t do it. So from a very young age, I was like, “You know what? Watch me!” So I’ve had to be scrappy from the beginning. And I’ve worked really, really hard to get to where I am.
And I’ve been in the environment where it was me and 50 male engineers, and I got shunned. I wasn’t part of the boys’ club. I had to work twice as hard. And of course, I worked twice as hard – which meant I rose through the ranks quicker than the boys did.
So now I’m here, I’m not afraid to say I belong here.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll explore how women in tech are treated by clients and colleagues – and continue to hear prescriptions for change.
1 March 2024
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28 February 2024