Every day, we see more women taking a seat at the table in the positions and sectors that have previously been dominated by men.
This progress is welcome, but there’s still a long way to go. This is particularly the case in technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries, with studies showing that only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally were women before the pandemic hit.
While this is concerning for the overarching picture of bringing greater inclusivity to the tech sector, arguably the most alarming repercussion is that women, who make up 50% of the workforce, are missing out on high-growth, high paid careers in the growing digital economy. As hiring in the computer and information technology fields has faster projected growth between 2020 and 2030 than all other fields, the implication is that people who would make a valuable contribution to the industry are not joining the sector.
So, why are we seeing fewer women move into, and stay, in the tech sector, and what solutions are available?
Is our education system fit for purpose?
Opportunities and pathways into tech begin with education, and there is a clear imbalance between the university degrees earned by men and women in STEM. According to Pew Research, while women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees overall, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like engineering and computer science and unsurprisingly they are therefore also significantly underrepresented in the engineering and technology workforce.
A core issue is that these inequalities are being entrenched early in the education system. According to research from PwC, the gender gap in technology starts at school and carries on through every stage of girls and women’s lives. This is reinforced by researchers at Cornell University, who found that gender differences in high school students’ occupational plans — where they see themselves at age 30 – have a large effect on gender equality in STEM outcomes in college. Among high school senior boys, 26% planned to enter STEM or biomed occupations, compared with 13% of girls, while 15% of girls planned to enter nursing or similar health occupations, compared with 4% of boys.
Compounding this challenge is that, when moving the dial into the workplace, there is a clear lack of role models women and girls have to look up to. Research shows that women only have a small share of IT leadership jobs, accounting for only 16% of senior level tech jobs and 10% of executive positions. The direct consequence is an absence of prominent female figures, with more research showing that 22% of students can name a famous female working in technology, whereas two-thirds can name a famous man working in technology.
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How do we get more women in tech?
Taking all these factors into account, it is clear that many women and girls are not looking at opportunities to enter high-paying, technology-related jobs, in the same way as men. And the educational system needs recalibrating to ensure they are encouraged equally. So, how do we solve these challenges?
1. Spotlighting earlier on in education
If we are to improve the movement of women moving into a career in tech, we must focus our attention earlier on in the secondary education system. This decision-making period is arguably the most impactful in attracting girls from an earlier age, but it will only be successful if educators also rebrand what it means to work in technology. We need to break the stereotypes around the personality and work of software developers and other tech engineering roles, dialling up the volume on the extensive collaborative problem-solving, teamwork and creativity involved in the process.
In addition, research shows that women strongly prefer to work in areas that help make the world a better place. Companies could attract more women by highlighting how their technology is a driving force for positive change; it is not simply about coding new applications, but a broader, multifaceted discipline with the power to change the world of medicine and education and help address the planet’s greatest challenges, such as climate change.
2. Fixing employment practices
When it comes to the demand side, although much progress has been made in terms of escalating diversity up the corporate agenda, there still needs to be a seismic shift in employment practices. Specifically, there needs to be a sweeping change in mindset amongst hiring managers, who still often hire based on ‘cultural fit’, as well as a new approach to how companies help women to break the glass ceiling, through mentoring, career development support and family friendly policies.
In the case of recruitment, hiring for cultural fit tends to favour the status quo in a company, whether that relates to race, gender, age, socioeconomic level and so on. That makes it harder for anyone who doesn’t ‘fit the mould’ to get into sectors where they are currently under-represented. Instead, hiring managers ought to look towards integrating ‘value fit’ in their hiring process. The values of a business are the things that drive the way they work and can include everything from teamwork and collaboration, to problem-solving and customer focus. Yes, you need to ensure your employees don’t clash with one another, but a value-fit approach will often lead to this outcome too.
Besides hiring practices, as much attention needs to be placed on retention. Research by Harvard Business Review indicated that US women working in STEM fields were 45% more likely than their male colleagues to quit within a year of taking a job. Among the myriad reasons, lack of sponsorship for women candidates from normally male tech leaders is one, but also the proclivity of women not to apply for promotions unless they feel 100% qualified and have exactly the right experience. We must tackle these behaviours, if we are to break the vicious cycle of propagating the image of a male profession with few opportunities for women to be truly successful.
Acknowledging the broader picture
This is by no means an exhaustive list of solutions, but it’s clear that the spotlight needs to be firmly shone on both the education system and employment practices that unintentionally perpetuate the biases, held by both men and women.
It’s also important to remember that gender is just one side of the coin in bringing greater inclusivity to the tech sector. Whether it’s neurodiversity, perennial workers, or workers with disabilities, bringing greater diversity and inclusivity to the workplace more generally is a much wider issue that deserves even greater attention and new solutions.
Written by Mark Lester, Chief Partnerships Officer at FourthRe