It is well accepted within the tech sector that there is a diversity crisis – the Harvard Business Review has acknowledged that 50% of women working in STEM fields will eventually leave due to hostile work environments. The House of Lords has a better gender diversity profile than the entire tech industry and no major tech company has anything close to gender parity. With girls making up less than 10 per cent of students taking A-level computing, it’s hard to envisage radical change happening any time soon.
Despite some great conversations taking place, and a number of initiatives across the sector, there is no settled consensus on what to do to make it easier for women to feel at home working in tech.
Due to this lack of diversity, young people in the industry have a shortage of obvious female role models. The world’s first programmer, Ada Lovelace, was female but nowadays the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk etc. are the face of an all-male industry. Through film, media and popular culture the industry is presented with an almost exclusively male identity, an Alpha Male culture involving burning the midnight oil and beers with the lads. This is off putting to many people and it’s not surprising that women might think this isn’t a career for them. After all, as tech entrepreneur Sherry Coutu, says, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
At a time when tech continues to reel from a crisis of sexism (see recent problems at Google, Uber, and UploadVR, for example), improving gender balance has added urgency. It may not be an easy shift, but having more women within the tech industry will ultimately create role models for aspiring generations of women looking for a challenging career.
It’s not just female aspirations that we can change through more prominent women in tech. Research shows that greater gender diversity in senior executive teams in the UK helped companies on average increase earnings before interest and taxes by 3.5%. It is proven that diversity also improves productivity and creativity, makes better decisions and provides a more accurate representation of the customer base.
There is also plenty of research to demonstrate the transformative power of good role models. The Insights Behavioural Team, for example, has shown how inspirational role models can change young people’s beliefs and behaviours when it comes to their education.
But if we’re going to see more female role models in tech, we cannot just wait for Hollywood to announce a new biopic about a dynamic female tech CEO. Or for the next successful tech woman to appear on the front page of Time magazine without being accompanied by the headline ‘don’t hate her because she’s successful’. We will have to be the change we wish to see in the workplace.
Breaking down a perception that tech is an exclusively male domain will need women working in tech to aspire to leadership positions, not just by emulating masculine traits, but by harnessing their own (often differing) strengths.
It will also require women to think differently about what their position means to those still weighing up whether this is a career for them. If you are a woman in tech now and don’t have a role model, be a role model for others. If you are a leader (male or female), don’t just look for successors in your own image, look for diversity to get the right blend of people that makes a stronger company.
If we start thinking differently and change the way we look at things, we may just begin to see the change our industry desperately needs.