Are we breaking through the glass ceiling, or are we banging our heads against a brick wall? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. A new survey shows that, in spite of all our efforts, the number of women in the technology sector has barely moved over the past 10 years. Another International Women’s Day has come and gone, and we are still talking about the paucity of women in the industry.

In the US, women hold just 25% of jobs in computing, and leave the tech and engineering sectors at twice the rate of men. In Britain, Europe’s main tech hub, only 15% of people working in STEM fields are women, with only 5% occupying leadership positions. These numbers shrink even more when looking at women of color – Latinas, black and Asian women hold only 1%, 3% and 5% of computing jobs in the US.

In an increasingly dominant sector of business, home to many of the globe’s most exciting and prosperous new developments, this is not good enough. Women are now on the fringes of an industry they helped build. 

Once we’ve busted a few myths, such as the one claiming that men and women have different mathematical brains (they don’t), we need to turn our critical eye towards workplace culture in the tech industry. 

Male-dominated culture in need of updating

Aside from the subtler systemic issues of implicit bias and institutional barriers to recruitment and retention, there is, perhaps inevitably, a culture problem in male-dominated tech workplaces. Take it from me – women in tech are no strangers to being the only female in the room. Bloomberg journalist Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley describes this in vivid detail – her war stories include female engineers at Uber describing how they were invited to strip clubs by their male colleagues. Since Chang’s book was published, we’ve seen the public fall from grace of WeWork CEO Adam Neumann amid accusations of a toxic “frat boy” culture at the company.  

Oftentimes, the male chauvinism of these unbalanced workplaces can stray into something more sinister, with a huge number of women in IT experiencing sexual harassment. Articles and blogs outlining “survival tips” for women in tech shouldn’t be necessary in this day and age, but they are. At times it can feel necessary to overcompensate; to attend events and relentlessly network towards the most senior person in the room, when in fact a strong professional support network (both male and female) would be more beneficial. 

Does the tech industry need to take after Hollywood?

You can draw a definite parallel between the entertainment and tech industries. Both have been blighted by gender inequality, and both have respective ‘bubbles’ in Hollywood and Silicon Valley extending huge symbolic influence across the globe. 

Hollywood is doing its part: industry heavyweights launched Time’s Up at the start of 2018 to draw attention to gender discrimination in blue-collar workplaces and offer them financial support through legal cases; the initiative has raised well over $20 million and pledged to fund over 50 cases.

Sadly, there is a limit to the parallels between the two industries. While the entertainment industry is aiming for 50/50 gender equality within the year, the harsh reality is that the tech industry has a long way to go to get anywhere near this number.

That being said, collective action has already made its mark on the tech industry: when 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout in 2018, to protest the company’s payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment, as well its policy of forced arbitration, there was a ripple effect throughout the industry. Google scrapped its policy of forced arbitration, and Facebook and Airbnb quickly followed suit. 

It’s these kinds of collective efforts, directed at organisations rather than individuals, that will have the biggest impact. When the debate focuses on individuals rather than organisations, there is a danger that we fall into stereotyping. Research suggests that gender equality initiatives like unconscious bias training can, at best, be ineffective, and at worst, exacerbate bias.

Executives must lead by example

Cultural change emerges from all ranks of an organisation, but the attitude and action of business leaders has an undeniably important trickle-down effect. As Boston Consulting Group’s Grant Freeland put it, culture change comes from concrete and noticeable changes in leadership behavior: “what they do; who they hire; who they ask to move on; who they listen to and emulate; where they spend their time; what they talk about in meetings; what they measure; how they invest the firm’s money.”

And so, when a high-ranking member of a company behaves badly, the organisation’s response is crucial. Since the notorious case in which Intel CEO Brian Krzanich breached company policy for an affair with a subordinate, the company has gone to lengths to usher in a more open and honest corporate culture. New CEO Robert Swan promised in an open letter to honor “truth and transparency.”

These kinds of reactive measures have a familiar ring – PR offensives inevitably follow publicised mishaps – but nonetheless faith is gently being restored. New leadership positions are being created across the industry to focus on Diversity and Inclusion, and there is a steady (if slow) increase of women in leadership roles. Companies have good reason to push this agenda: research suggests that where leadership teams are more diverse, results improve. A recent study by BCG, surveying 1,700 different companies across 8 different countries, suggests that “increasing the diversity of leadership teams leads to more and better innovation and improved financial performance.” 

Technology itself is still discriminating against women

We can continue hand-wringing about good intentions and pledge for cultural change until the cows come home, but it will have little impact if the tech industry continues to roll out products that systematically discriminate against women and minorities. 

Time and again we see high-profile examples of tools reducing females to unfavourable statistics by building algorithms on biased data.

In an infamous recent example, last year’s launch of the Apple card was exposed for offering disproportionately low lending rates to women. We have a serious problem when a company that includes “Accessibility” and “Inclusion & Diversity” under its list of ‘Five Core Values’ is blindly creating tools for gender discrimination. 

While it won’t eradicate these data bias issues, we can at least feel in safer hands with more diverse teams building our technology. As Emily Chang put it in Brotopia: “If robots are going to run the world, or at the very least play a hugely critical role in our future, men shouldn’t be programming them alone.”

What is clear is that collectively we must keep the dialogue alive and kicking if we are to lift female STEM statistics out of the doldrums. If you’re a woman struggling to make headway in this male-dominate environment, remember that you’re not alone. You matter, your voice matters and together we can affect real and lasting change.

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