The pandemic has extended the time it will take before women are paid as much as men by a decade, according to the latest ‘Global Gender Gap’ report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), as the economic disadvantages were disproportionately suffered by women. And, based on current trends, the digital revolution is not helping, equality the WEF found, as the tech roles that offer growing employment prospects are still dominated by men.
High unemployment rates, the additional childcare burden, and lost opportunities for progression that resulted from the pandemic have all disproportionately affected women, the WEF report found. As a result, it will now be 268 years before economic gender equality is achieved.
The long-term outlook looks even bleaker. The WEF previously identified various ‘frontier roles’, clusters of occupations with increasing employment prospects in the world’s 20 leading economies. These “jobs of tomorrow” include people-oriented professions, such as sales, marketing, and ‘people and culture’, as well as technology-related careers in the form of engineering, cloud computing and data and AI.
In its new study, the WEF found that women represent less than one in five employees in these technology-focused professions and that progress since 2018 has been minimal. In the case of data and AI, female representation has marginally worsened.
This is in part due to a gender skills gap that emerges from an early age. Women account for only 29% of people skills in disruptive technology, according to the 2020 Gender Gap report, with minimal improvements since then. Initiatives to address this in schools, for example, have been launched but it will be years before their impact is felt in the workforce, the WEF reports says.
But there are other, more immediate obstructions to gender equality in technology roles. “One aspect of this is about the kinds of role models and the biases that women experience when they first start going into a very male-dominated workplace,” says Vesselina Stefanova Ratcheva, insights lead at the WEF. “Right now, the evidence suggests that women going into those roles are not finding that they belong.”
Another dimension is that fewer women make radical job transitions into roles for which they have a low skills match than men – a measure of the influx of talent into technology professions from other fields. More than 22% of men who took a job in cloud computing had low skills similarity in their previous role, compared with just 9% of women.
This gap reflects the perception of tech being a “boys’ club”, says Stefanova Ratcheva. “The indication that women get today about what a job in tech will be is not appealing,” she says. “There are signals coming back from the labour market that there might be more challenges, that promotion might be hard, that inclusion might be difficult, and that is not motivating women to go into those professions.” It also results from “the social expectation of being less bold is being socialised into women from an early age”, she adds.
Introducing formal sponsorship programmes to help women to transition into these emerging sectors is critical, says Laura Stebbing, co-CEO of AccelerateHer, a Founders Forum spin-out addressing the issue of gender equality in tech. “Ultimately, you need the confidence of someone backing you to switch roles a lot of the time,” she says.
“It’s also worth thinking about how you can get into tech and not necessarily be a deep techie or a specialist,” Stebbing explains. “There’s a lot of folks who are deep in the tech space, founding businesses who actually don’t have that as their background.”
Achieving gender parity in technology requires structural change, argues Stebbing, pointing to the importance of systemic issues such as gender-biased job descriptions and unequal parental leave policies.
“We need to change the structure of the system rather than the individuals,” she says. “You might have the best of intentions, but it’s actually very hard to change your habits and practices, but it is possible to change processes and systems, and that’s where often the problem lies within organisations.”
Covid-19: Disruption to women in tech
Despite these negative trends in emerging areas of tech, the sector as a whole has not performed as poorly as many others. Female representation in senior management increased by 0.7 percentage points in the last year, the most of any industry.
This is because the technology sector was not hit as hard by the pandemic, and so efforts to address gender equality have not been as disrupted as they have in other industries, says Stefanova Ratcheva. “The IT industry overall has actually grown a bit more than others, it hasn’t experienced as much hardship, it’s easier to work remotely,” she says. “We’re seeing a lot less disruption to women because the overall level of disruption in the industry has been less.”
Maintaining focus on gender parity in spite of the headwinds from Covid-19 is critical from an economic as well as a moral perspective. Morgan Stanley has called the enduring gender gap a “trillion-dollar blind spot”, finding that women-owned and multicultural businesses could represent $6.8trn in value if they were adequately represented.
As the economy is reshaped by emerging technologies, this lost potential could grow even further. There is a risk that without greater momentum towards gender equality, we will not be able to “build back better” after Covid-19, says the WEF’s Stefanova Ratcheva.
“The risk is worsening wage inequalities, potential drop-outs from the labour market… the destruction of some roles which employed quite a lot of women in the past,” she says. “The other risk is a drag on innovation; having diversity of thought in creating products and creating services is fundamental to having more inclusive, better functioning products and services that actually understand the needs of everybody.”
Home page photo of an office by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.