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March 8, 2021updated 31 Mar 2023 4:43pm

Opinion: Don’t take progress for women in tech for granted

Improving inclusivity to women in tech has taken protest and activism – and the fight is far from over, writes Cristina Lago.

By Cristina Lago

In his book Factfulness, Professor Hans Rosling debunked widely accepted misconceptions about progress achieved by humanity in the 20th Century. Despite catastrophic news and pessimistic predictions, the world is not as bad as we think, Rosling argued.

Things have certainly improved over time when it comes to extreme poverty or girls’ education. Today, less than 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty and around 60% of young girls in low-income countries go to school. But Rosling’s ideas about how change happens are jarring for those of us who stress the need for activism to address the inequalities in the world and for waving the flag of change.

International Women's Day

2018 Women’s March in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock)

Rosling had no time for activists and journalists, who in his eyes “suffer from a dramatic worldview” and who in “desperately trying to make people care, they forget about progress”. Instead, he sees human progress as a “secret silent miracle”. But if progress is anything, it definitely is not secret, or silent or a miracle; quite the opposite: it is loud and visible and very much human-made. Ask women.

Despite a lack of role models, hostile and abusive work environments and infinite obstacles along their way, women today are present among all industries and jobs and, in theory at least, have equal rights to men in most countries. Black and non-white women who face the intersectional effects of racism and sexism have even greater barriers put against them. But the fight continues and, step by step, in solidarity with each other, women are achieving everything that patriarchal society has denied them.

The politics of women in tech

Progress is certainly not a painless journey. In the UK, for example, the number of women in tech has barely improved over the past ten years, despite an industry-wide push. And it is not a straight line.

Take the case of Poland. Once a leader for female representation among scientists and engineers in Europe, the country has been backsliding since 2008 at a consistent pace, from 54% women in science and engineering roles in 2008 to 48% in 2019, the latest record available.

It is impossible to ignore the role of politics in this statistic. Since 2015, the country has been governed by the right-wing populist Law and Justice party. Far-right groups have been let loose and feminists and women’s rights activists, among others, are being vilified by a conservative elite as “dangerous to families and traditional values”. Just last year, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal – where the majority of judges were nominated by the Law and Justice party – imposed a near-total ban on abortions. The implications of this revival in traditional gender politics for women pursuing careers in tech, among many other dimensions of equality, are self-evident.

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Even countries that are revered as gender equality utopias still have work to do: only 31% of Finnish scientists and engineers are women, for example. But numbers alone do not show the full picture. In Sweden, where the figure is 48%, the country still has an “old boys club”, Stockholm-based executive recruiter Dani Nguyen told the BBC. “The corporate environment has been built by white men and for white men,” she said.

Covid-19: the great catalyst?

Then there is what last year many called, naively at best, the “great leveller”: Covid-19. The truth is that the pandemic is disproportionally impacting women. Despite making up 39% of global employment, women account for 54% of overall job losses, according to an analysis by McKinsey. As has been the case in all major economic crises, the gender-poverty gap is widening again, according to the UN.

But the effects of the pandemic on women do not stop at the workplace. A new survey by UK children’s charity Theirworld shows that Covid-19 is having an unequal impact on girls in Britain, with many taking on additional domestic chores that constrain their time for schoolwork.

Sixty-six per cent of girls and young women are spending more time cooking for their families, compared to just 31% of boys. Most of them are also dedicating themselves to what are perceived as “household chores” such as shopping, cleaning and looking after sick relatives – which in 2021 many still think are “girls’ business”. This reasoning, by extension, prevents young women from signing-up for tech and other STEM courses, which are deemed “boys’ subjects”.

Let us not fool ourselves: the disease itself is not the reason why women are more adversely affected than men. This is patriarchy in action, where rights and progress are compromised in the name of the fight against the virus. Sexist logic dictates that when two different sets of rights are put side by side in times of austerity and crisis, women’s rights can be sacrificed.

If girls and young women are not able to spend as much time as they should studying, and are instead doing what a patriarchal society tells them to do (helping in the kitchen and caring for the elders), we are destroying the very foundations of what is already a delicate pipeline of women in STEM.

Between 2017 and 2018, female students studying engineering and technology degrees in UK higher education made just 19% of a total of 126,660 students. Similarly, the number of IT technicians grew from 19% in 2016 and 2017 to 21% in 2018, and remained static in 2019.

Unsurprisingly, this translates into an abysmal representation of women among IT executives and senior leadership. In Harvey Nash and KPMG’s latest CIO survey, only 11% of respondents were women. Even worse, only 9% of them had the CIO or CTO job title.

Rosling thought that progress is constant and that, given time, we eventually achieve equality. If there is a group in humanity that has taught us otherwise, it is women. Women’s rights and progress have not been granted to us: we have fought for them. Now it is not time to lower one’s guard but to keep fighting.

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