Why aren’t women making it to the top in the tech world? The mantra is becoming almost tired – but it doesn’t make it less alarming, writes Claudia Harris, Chair, Makers Academy and CEO of The Careers and Enterprise Company.
The industry shaping so many aspects of our lives represents only a small minority of society. Women make up 49 percent of the British workforce but just 19 percent of the digital tech workforce. The proportion of female tech and telecoms professionals is four percent; a figure that has continued to fall since 2007.
The risk this creates for our individual families and our collective future is huge.
What’s going wrong and what should we do about it?
Helping Women Reach the Top Means Inspiring Young Women from the Earliest Ages
Firstly, we need our youngest women to be motivated and excited about these professions.
Take up of computer science and maths A-levels has increased in recent years. Maths is now the most popular A-level. The recent GCSE results showed that we are slowly closing the gender gap in STEM subjects, which is progress worth celebrating.
Young women also need to meet role models and mentors who help them imagine that they too can take technology roles. At the time of the Second World War, women made up a huge proportion of Britain’s coders. So there is no reason why we can’t shift the pendulum back. Real life examples are crucial to shift perceptions and the industry needs to systematically provide these examples to our children through careers interventions in schools.
Help Women Switch Mid Career
Intervening in education will not be quick enough. We need to make it easier for women to switch into technology roles mid career.
Crucially, we need to avoid stereotyping people based on recent experience and qualifications and look at intrinsic capability and interest. Software bootcamps are one way to do this. At Makers, 35 percent of the 1500 software engineers we have trained have been women. When we recruit we do not focus on qualifications but aptitude.
Ensure Women Progress in their Tech Careers
Finally, once women are working in this industry, they must be given a chance to flourish. Psychologist Nadya Fouad analysed 5,300 women with engineering degrees over the last five decades — 38 percent of them were no longer working as engineers. Researcher Kieran Snyder interviewed over 700 women who left the sector and found unconscious bias and workplace experience played a huge role.
Tech is not the only industry to suffer from this challenge: law firms recruit 50 percent men and women and generally have only a tiny proportion of female partners. And of course it’s a challenge across the corporate world.
The problem is generally less overt than some of the more shocking stories emerging from Silicon Valley. When HR processes and culture are shaped by a specific group of people, bias inevitably creeps in.
What does the person look like who gets picked for the tough but career defining gigs? How is ‘high performance’ defined? If the answer is often the same – and it’s not women – then at each level organisations need to think again. HR processes must be reviewed over and over again until the outcomes change.
And if organisations worry that they are reducing alignment between HR and performance, the simple response is that diverse leadership teams make better decisions. Boosting diversity will improve performance.
Real change is essential, because another explanation for the figures is a depressing vicious spiral. Women may well decide it’s not worth the sacrifice to persist. If they can see their chances of making it are, statistically, a fraction of their peers, why would they make the push required? Isn’t it more rational to look for opportunities where the odds are not stacked against them. This logic can filter right down to school. Why aspire to be something that doesn’t seem to exist?
Proving these opportunities are there through actual change, NOW, is crucial, if we are serious about getting more women to the top of the tech world.