‘At the moment, being a female manager in the tech world is considered ‘abnormal”

Despite widespread efforts to achieve gender parity in tech-based disciplines and professions, we are still far from achieving that goal – so who better to tell us what the industry must do better than the women who are committed to leading and reshaping it one solid step at a time

The events of the last 12 months have forced us all to slow down, making this International Women’s Day (8 March 2021) the perfect time to reflect on the progress of equality initiatives.

Plenty of businesses have stepped up their game in matters of diversity and inclusion in recent years; from hardware, software and telecoms company Cisco’s creation of the Women’s Action Network, which has since evolved into a global organisation that harbours thousands of members; to Microsoft’s bid to invest in female-focused companies and actively seek suppliers who are women; to incredible efforts from smaller non-profits, such as Code First Girls, a UK social enterprise which reached a milestone goal last year after teaching 20,000 women across the UK and Ireland professional coding skills.

There’s no doubt that such action is both admirable and entirely necessary – but the world needs more.

Imbalance in the boardroom

women in tech
Image source: @tirachardz/Freepik

Regardless of recent strategies to boost gender diversity, women still make up just 24% of the UK STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) workforce, accounting for 19% of workers in the tech sector specifically. And when it comes to sector leaders, the percentage of women appointed to tech boards has remained more or less unchanged for the last two decades, with a Tech Nation report confirming that just 22% of directors are female.

But the issue is not exclusive to the UK.

“Whether in terms of the number of graduates or the number of employees, the proportion of women in high technology is still falling in France,” Delphine Remy-Boutang, CEO of the Bureau and JFD, and president of GEN France, told ET. 

According to recent figures, women represent 33% of employees across France’s digital sector, and despite its goal to become a recognised ‘startup nation’, just 10% of the country’s up-and-coming tech companies are female-founded. It’s a trend that’s echoed across the EU (and, dare I say, the world…) at large, with solo female-founded teams standing at just 21% across the continent, all female-founded teams standing at just 2.5%, and of those with mixed-gender founding members, women only account for one in three representatives overall.

Prevalence of female-founded startups across geographies. Source: Ashlee Kupor/Medium

The absence of representation isn’t for lack of trying, but could rather be down to the fact that funding is declining. Crunchbase data from 2020, for example, found that global venture capital invested in female-founded companies dropped significantly last year, receiving 27% less than they did in 2019.

“For Digital Day in April 2019, EU member states signed three declarations to pool their efforts and resources to accelerate digital developments in key areas that can deliver tangible benefits to our economies and societies,” explained Delphine. “Among the objectives was strengthening the participation of women in the digital world: women represent 52% of the European population but hold only 15% of ICT-related jobs. As such, member states have committed to cooperating more closely to increase the visibility and empowerment of women in the digital economy.”

To achieve this, the European Commission (EC) has implemented a strategy focusing on three fundamental areas: combating stereotypes, promoting digital skills and education, and calling for more entrepreneurs who identify as women.

On paper, this sounds great – but no one could have planned for the impact of the pandemic.

‘The fight for gender equality has fallen by the wayside’

women in tech
A number of global institutions, including the WEF and UN, have warned that the pandemic could set women’s rights back by half a century. Image source: Rad Pozniakov/Unsplash

So far, the fallout of the pandemic has proved far worse for women than men. “The unfortunate reality is,” said Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president EMEA at Skillsoft, “that against the tumultuous backdrop of a pandemic-struck Britain, the fight for gender equality has fallen by the wayside for many.”

The gender pay gap is, unfortunately, yet another woeful victim of COVID-19. This year’s Women in Work Index from PwC examines how the crisis has impacted female employment, revealing that the average gender pay gap across the OECD currently stands at 15%.

“Businesses need to be held accountable for calculating the organisation’s gender pay gap and if necessary, raise female employees’ salaries accordingly” – Agata Nowakowska, Skillsoft

Pre-pandemic, the government had taken steps to address pay inequality, with regulations that made the publication of payment data compulsory for companies with 250 employees or more coming into effect in April 2017, and the first official reports due one year later. But in March 2020, the Government Equalities Office suspended the reporting requirements for the year, and the process isn’t due to recommence until 5 October 2021.

“Female employees need to stand on an equal footing with their male counterparts, so pay inequality needs to be stamped out,” said Agata.

“In normal circumstances, pay gap reporting enables companies to actively recognise and work towards improving the gender pay gap, acting as a benchmark for the entire organisation,” she explained. “But it also goes further, helping employers show their workers they are supported and that the organisation remains conscious of their role in working towards equality. Businesses need to be held accountable for calculating the organisation’s gender pay gap and if necessary, raise female employees’ salaries accordingly.”

Sam Humphries, head of security strategy at Exabeam, says that, when it comes to pay inequality, companies too often hide behind a statement of ‘well, it’s women’s fault for not asking for more money’, while simultaneously enforcing rules that prevent employees from discussing salaries. “This only fuels the problem,” she said. “There needs to be less secrecy and more paying people the right money for the right job!”

To add salt to the pay gap wound, in July 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) stated that, even before the pandemic, full economic parity for women was an astonishing 257 years away.

Anna Litvina, solutions engineer at cloud security company Bitglass, says that, while the past year hasn’t been easy for anyone, the case is especially so for working parents who have had to juggle their profession alongside childcare duties. “The pressure has most certainly piled on for women who have had to shoulder these responsibilities alongside working full-time. There are more interruptions throughout the day and the unspoken expectation to always be available, leaving little separation between office and home life.”

On top of this, statistics show that the industries that have the highest levels of female representation – such as travel and hospitality – have been most impacted by the pandemic. And though tech is an industry that has fared well due to society’s increasing reliance on digital, women must now also contend with mounting fears surrounding job security; in US tech companies, for instance, female employees are more likely to be laid off than their male peers as a result of COVID-19 (8% women vs. 5% men).

Debra Danielson, CTO and SVP of engineering at software company Digital Guardian, says that, while she is concerned about the detrimental effects of the coronavirus crisis for women, the real challenge is that there is “no single fix” for these issues.

“According to current data,” she said, “countries with women in leadership positions have suffered six times fewer confirmed COVID-19 deaths. However, despite female-led governments proving more effective at flattening the epidemic’s curve, women continue to be penalised for leadership success unless they exhibit mitigating ‘communal’ behaviours.”

women in tech
Countries with women in leadership positions have suffered six times fewer confirmed COVID-19 deaths. Pictured: Jacinda Adern, PM, New Zealand. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The problem Debra describes relates to the issue of ‘likability’, in which women who are not perceived as assertive, who fit the societal gender stereotype of being gentle and caring, are generally liked more – but they are also not considered to be suitable ‘leadership material’. On the flip side, she explains, women who display traditionally ‘masculine’ qualities – such as assertiveness, forcefulness and ambition – are labelled as ‘bitchy’, unfeminine and aggressive, and are, hence, generally disliked.

“Men do not face the same problem because the traits that are considered ‘bossy’ in a woman are considered leadership qualities in a man” – Debra Danielson, Digital Guardian

“Men do not face the same problem because the traits that are considered ‘bossy’ in a woman are considered leadership qualities in a man,” said Debra. “We all have biases, and these societal gender roles are deeply ingrained in us all. It’s not just men who discriminate (consciously or unconsciously) against women. Women do it too.”

Unconscious bias in edtech

It’s sad to think that such prejudices could exist within education technology – a sector that serves a fundamental purpose to educate, support and inspire the future workforce. But in June 2019, when the 28 members of the Department for Education’s (DfE) Edtech Leadership Advisory Group (ELAG) were announced, just a quarter of the positions were held by women in the field. In fact, it was revealed that the number of female representatives on the board were equalled by the number of men named ‘Chris’.

“The lack of female representation in the DfE’s ELAG was extremely disappointing, but unfortunately, outdated biases about women not being strategic enough for leadership still permeate today. This is a pattern we see time and time again,” commented Agata.

This is a systemic issue, and it’s insidious. Its roots lie in the heart of the education system, forcing these principles and perceptions into the mainstream, and ultimately – knowingly or not – instilled within us all. It’s no wonder these ideas remain so deeply entrenched within the professional realm.

Cybersecurity: a case study

In an increasingly digital world, the future-proof and transferable nature of cybersecurity makes it a desirable career to pursue. As a discipline, cybersecurity is frequently listed among those with the fastest-growing opportunities, with specific fields such as app development security and cloud security projecting five-year growth of 164% and 115% respectively, according to Forbes.

“While we’ve made progress over the past few years when it comes to increasing diversity in the industry, it’s still largely male and white,” said Debra, adding that, “There are serious pipeline problems in getting girls and young women to be interested in tech, engineering and STEM.” And she’s right, since, according to the recent Women in Cybersecurity report by (ISC)², women currently account for just under a quarter (24%) of the current workforce.

Women make up just 15–20% of the cybersecurity workforce. Image source: cottonbro/Pexels

But cybersecurity firms are missing a trick, failing to reach out to and capitalise on an entire demographic. In June 2020, security SaaS company Exabeam published their State of the SOC report, which analysed the effectiveness of modern security operations centres (SOCs) through comparison. Almost 40% of the organisations surveyed claimed their SOC was understaffed, 23% of whom believed the department was short by more than 10 employees. Cybersecurity Ventures has published similar findings, stating that some 3.5 million positions will go unfilled this year.

“This is the disparity that, to me, makes looking for skills in an all-but untapped female talent pool an obvious solution,” said Sam.

Svenja de Vos, CTO at IaaS provider Leaseweb Global, believes that to change these damaging statistics, a concerted effort must be made “on the part of both the business world and education institutions, to improve STEM education and training while also seizing the opportunity to address gender imbalances”.

“I am not advocating for special treatment or the adoption of a women’s quota,” Svenja explained. “Instead, I am pleading for skilled labour in every industry, but particularly tech. To keep the economy growing, we can’t just come to the table with only the male half of the population.”

Business benefits

It’s staggering that companies aren’t jumping at any and every opportunity to diversify their teams when the advantages of doing so are so vast and significant. Let’s start with the obvious financial perks: in 2018, the EC estimated that recruiting more women in the digital would increase European GDP by €16bnSixteen billion euros. Furthermore, achieving gender parity by 2025 would generate an additional €2tn in GDP, while research by McKinsey & Co. found that organisations with diverse employees are 15% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

“This is because diversity is a proven asset in relation to brand image, as well as customer, shareholder and employee satisfaction,” said Agata. “Ultimately, having more women in the boardroom is good for a company’s bottom line. By creating a strategy that builds a female talent pipeline, organisations will put themselves in better stead for the future and reap the rewards of a more diverse workforce.”

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Increasing female participation in digital would increase the EU’s GDP by €16bn. Image source: @tabrez_syed/Unsplash

But there are also far less tangible – though no less valid – perks to prioritising diversity and inclusion in business. According to First Round Capital, who compared the performance data in their portfolio over a 10-year period, founding teams that include just one woman outperform their all-male equivalents by 63%. 

Diversity in the workforce empowers a wider range of viewpoints and ideas, which ultimately leads to faster and more creative problem-solving capabilities – a notable feat in itself.

“If you want to see new ideas and innovation and spark positive change, then you need different individuals who think, speak and act in different ways, otherwise you’ll fundamentally end up with more of the same,” emphasised Sam.

It’s also worth noting that among today’s prospective job candidates, it’s fast becoming an expectation that businesses embody diverse principles and ideals. A PwC report on the Female Millennial found that 85% of young women seeking employment cite employer diversity and inclusion policies as important when deciding whether or not to work for a particular company.

“Organisations that fail to live and breathe the values that deliver diversity will increasingly impair their own ability to recruit top talent,” said Nicole Sahin, founder CEO of Globalization Partners. “Additionally, diversity plays a major role in how employees feel about their workplace – most notably in relation to feelings of inclusion, happiness and trust in leadership.”

“If you want to see new ideas and innovation and spark positive change, then you need different individuals who think, speak and act in different ways, otherwise you’ll fundamentally end up with more of the same”  – Sam Humphries, Exabeam

Kasia Kulma, senior data scientist and team lead at software company Mango Solutions, shared similar insights, stating that the promotion of inclusion regardless of background or gender can help break down existing restrictive barriers and reduce the fear of rejection. “This is a great way to empower your employees and harness their thoughts and ideas – and, in addition – almost as a side benefit – attract more great talent.”

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

Of course, the skills gap in tech and digital industries is also a matter of supply and demand. Making tech-focused job roles attractive to female applicants is just one part of the puzzle, and these efforts are redundant if young girls are neither confident nor inspired enough to pursue the educational disciplines that will prepare them for these types of career.

PwC’s Women in Tech research provides detailed insight into the issue, surveying more than 2,000 A-level and university students and concluding that the tech gender gap begins at school and generally becomes inherent to the female life experience. Just 27% of young women surveyed said they would consider a career in technology (compared to 61% of young men), with a meagre 3% citing tech as their first choice profession. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had similar findings, showing that, despite achieving similar scores in the OECD’s science test, boys were still far more likely to see STEM as a potential route to employment.

Plenty of studies point to the impact of societal bias and ‘pinkification’ (a term used to describe the widely accepted societal ‘rule’ that ‘pink is for girls’, to simplify the definition) and how it continues to influence decisions made by girls and their longer-term career choices.

“From an early age, the gender stereotype of ‘boys being better at science and maths’ can discourage girls from studying STEM subjects,” said Agata. “What’s more, a lack of positive role models is contributing to the likelihood that girls dismiss STEM subjects as being relevant to them or their career futures.”

It’s hard to dispute Agata’s comments as fact when you consider that, in the very same PwC report listed above, a staggering 78% of students were unable to name a single famous woman in the field.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” said Delphine. “Better visibility of women is key and I often alert the media of that fact. JFD started the ‘White Shirts’ movement that became a symbol of female entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship in France.”

“Girls should feel inspired to choose STEM subjects knowing that there’s a place for them in the industry” – Nicole Sahin, Globalization Partners

Delphine explained that the initiative was motivated by an article in a well-known French magazine, which chose to use 11 men in white shirts and jeans to portray the nation’s start-up culture. “JFD organised the response by bringing together 13 female start-up founders, also in white shirts and jeans, to denounce the underrepresentation of women in the media.”

Nicole also emphasised the importance of female role models: “Visibility is paramount in encouraging girls to consider a future in STEM, and for inspiring women already in a STEM career to be ambitious in their progression,” she told ET. “Girls should feel inspired to choose STEM subjects knowing that there’s a place for them in the industry.”

“In addition to making young people more enthusiastic about tech,” added Svenja, “it is important we teach them that women are successful in the scientific realm. At the moment, being a female manager in the tech world is considered ‘abnormal’.”

According to Agata, the onus is on parents, teachers and business leaders to show that there is place for girls in STEM fields. “They need role models and sponsors to encourage them to take the path,” she explained.

“With a 40,000 annual shortfall of skilled STEM workers in the UK, organisations need to be working closely with local schools and colleges to open girls’ eyes to the future career possibilities.”

Corporate responsibilities

It’s clear that a concerted effort is required to address the STEM gender gap. So, other than working alongside the education sector to boost female visibility and empower young women, what can business leaders and their companies do to help close the gender divide?

“But we know that achieving balance doesn’t just happen – it needs to be a focus of the management team, right from the recruitment process through to professional development, and, crucially, management training” – Nicole Sahin, Globalization Partners

According to Debra, it’s a process that should begin at the very start of the recruitment process itself: “Rewriting job descriptions to be more inclusive and using technology to promote opportunities to much broader audiences can really help here.”

Nicole holds similar beliefs, claiming that from recruitment, to development, to establishing female-friendly policies, businesses must strive to prioritise equality across every aspect of the organisation to further accelerate progression. “It’s important to be conscious of what a balanced team looks like, to include people from all walks of life and be cognisant of what it takes to achieve this,” she told ET.

“But we know that achieving balance doesn’t just happen – it needs to be a focus of the management team, right from the recruitment process through to professional development, and, crucially, management training.”

There’s also plenty of room for improvement in employee learning and development – especially since the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of brand-new working models that are reshaping the working world before our eyes. “For many business leaders,” said Agata, “the experience [of the COVID-19 crisis] has highlighted the importance of adopting a holistic approach to managing the workforce that’s not just focused on the practical tools they need to do their jobs.

“Keeping people happy, productive and engaged will depend on nurturing every aspect of their professional and personal lives. Paramount to this will be nurturing their mental health and wellbeing. Building a community where isolated workers feel engaged and included will become increasingly important as digital working becomes embedded into company and national culture.”

Change brings opportunity, opportunity brings hope

There are rays of hope – even amid the fog of the pandemic. The crisis has rapidly accelerated the pace of change; educators have embraced digital tools they have been reluctant to adopt for decades, with research by AdEPT Technology Group showing that edtech take-up soared by 131% in 2020, fast-tracking adoption by five to 10 years; also speeding up digital transformation in business by three to four years.

“What was once considered unthinkable in the professional environment is now accepted as human” – Sam Humphries, Exabeam

“Lockdown and social distancing have driven most of the workforce into the home office,” said Sam. “What was once considered unthinkable in the professional environment is now accepted as human: a delivery arriving during a meeting, children demanding attention and cats finding their way in front of the camera.

“We can expect this shift to remote work to continue even after we overcome the crisis,” she added. “Through the change in dynamic, many hope that this will improve work-life balance and help eliminate two important problems in IT: the lack of skilled workers and the number of women in the industry.”

Government support of ‘return to work’ schemes and flexible initiatives can also drive drive positive change. The last 12 months have seen companies of all shapes and sizes adopt more comprehensive and supportive employment offerings, advertising roles with part-time and flexible working options to attract more highly skilled female applicants. “Organisations that act now to build and maintain equality in the wider IT industry will be much better placed to insulate themselves from the skills gaps that may well grow further in a recovering post-pandemic economy,” said Sam.

‘Be prepared, be fearless and learn how to interrupt’

women in tech
Image source: @brookelark/Unsplash

We have a responsibility – not just as an industry, but as a connected, global society – to educate, support and empower women with a passion for STEM. While the premise of International Women’s Day is commendable, it’s not a means to an end – and it does not give us an excuse to ignore the extraordinary contributions of women all over the world the other 364 days of the year. We can’t afford to wait another two-and-a-half centuries to finally achieve gender equality, and, speaking of tech and digital industries specifically, it’s going to take a collective, but indisputably worthwhile, effort between educators, governments and businesses to bridge the gender divide.

And, of course, for girls and young women who wish to carve out a successful career in STEM, please, keep faith in your potential. “Remember,” said Svenja, “jobs are person-specific, not gender specific, and now is the time to change perceptions while narrowing the skills gap.”

So, on International Women’s Day 2021, I’ll leave you with Debra’s stirring advice for aspiring female technologists: “Ignore the voice that says ‘you can’t do it’ and that you’re an ‘imposter’. But, that said, learn your stuff. Be prepared. Be fearless. Learn how to interrupt.

“I heard [former US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright speak once about interrupting, and the essence was captured well in this famous quote of hers: ‘There will be those who perceive you’re [a bitch]. But you have to interrupt. At a certain stage, you realise it doesn’t matter what they call you. You have to overcome your personal qualms.'”

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